How China’s limited human rights have collapsed under Xi Jinping
As Xi Jinping likely starts an unprecedented third term in power next week, Jemimah Steinfeld reflects on the China he took over 10 years ago and what his tenure has meant for the nation’s freedoms
06 Oct 22

Xi Jinping, president of the People's Republic of China, speaks at a United Nations Office at Geneva. 18 january 2017. Credit; UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I had my first taste of Chinese censorship in 2007. I was living in Shanghai and working at a lifestyle magazine. In the journalistic world the gig was about as uncontroversial as it gets – a calendar of spa treatments and interviews with restaurateurs. But there was a features section and – keen to work on something meatier – I pitched an article on the rise of obesity in line with the rise of US fast-food outlets. The editor gave me the thumbs-up and I spent the next month working on it. Only it never got printed. Because the magazine was published from within China, all material had to go through a censor and this censor was not happy. He told the editor that while the article might blame US chains for the problem, ultimate responsibility lay at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. How will it reflect on them if they can’t control their nation’s waistlines?

Little did I know then that this uncommon experience, which felt like dealing with the world’s most pernickety censor, would be fairly typical by 2022. We have, after all, just seen children’s book publishers in Hong Kong sent to jail merely for publishing a series about a flock of sheep resisting a pack of wolves (the series could spread separatist ideas, apparently).

But this was the China of Hu Jintao. Everything felt freer then. Facebook was in its nascence and adopted with enthusiasm, foreign visas were easy to get, VPNs were rarely needed. There were taboo topics to be sure, “the Ts” for example – Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan. I read a copy of Wild Swans in a café, its front cover wrapped in a scarf, because the book was officially banned in China. Superficially, though, it felt open.

But superficiality is the enemy of nuance. Beneath the surface CCP China was always controlling, even under the more “benevolent” leadership of Hu. Shanghai was exhilarating – what I’d imagine New York must have felt like in the 1970s. All promise and enterprise. And yet injustice was everywhere: in the rickshaw drivers hauling goods in 30-degree heat next to those driving their air-conditioned Mercedes; the construction workers who slept in makeshift villages on the outskirts of the ever-expanding city. My friend wanted to send a parcel to someone in Xinjiang Province. She wrote the address in the Roman alphabet and at the post office was ordered to rewrite it in Chinese characters. She pushed back arguing that the language of the Uyghurs was a Turkic one, so numerals made more sense than characters. It got heated, she backed down. We met for lunch after and she was reeling, about the incident as well as the general ill-treatment of Uyghurs. Days later I read about a baby girl who had been left on a doorstep a few miles away from where I was living, a victim of the One-Child Policy. Not the first victim, nor the last. I started to write about these injustices, only by this stage I had wised up – it would have to be with foreign press.

A few years later, in 2011, I was living in Beijing. China’s capital was and is, by many measures, a harder city to live in than Shanghai and I knew that. Brutally cold winters, an urban sprawl that’s unsuited to walking. But the real challenge about Beijing then was how quickly the country’s politics had moved on in just a matter of years. If Facebook was my early barometer of openness, then its blocking in 2009 was a sign that China’s doors were closing. Gmail ran at a sluggish pace, if at all. Communicating with those outside China was seamless one day, impossible the next.

As for the attitude towards foreigners, which was once warm, this too was starting to change. One night I was locked inside a bar – police officers were outside demanding papers of foreigners. In a dispatch I wrote following the event long-time expats told me they’d never been treated with such hostility.

Most memorable of all was the Bo Xilai scandal in the spring of 2012. With the mysterious death of a UK national, a “love nest” traced to Bournemouth, a security officer seeking refuge in Chengdu’s US consulate, and a Chinese power couple and their Harvard-educated son at the centre, it was little wonder the news gripped people outside China. Inside China it was a different matter. Details were tightly controlled and spun. Bo was charged with corruption in a resoundingly clear message – a new era was starting and favouritism would no longer be tolerated. The charismatic figure’s dramatic fall from grace was, if anything, the first real taste of how Xi would treat his opponents – ruthlessly. Today Bo remains in prison, serving a life sentence.

I left China, this time for good, just after Xi Jinping took office. Despite some early warning signs, the mood was still somewhat hopeful as I departed. Maybe the creeping authoritarianism that had come to define the end of the Hu era would recede under Xi? Such hopes were quickly dashed. From the get-go Xi has put in a level of energy to crush dissent that is dizzying to say the least. Ten years on, the ways in which he has attacked civil society is substantial. Here are some headlines:

–       In the treatment of Uyhgurs, of which over one million are currently in concentration camps, he has presided over arguably the largest genocide the world has seen since the 1940s. In fact, oppression of minorities is so intense under his leadership that people struggle to keep up. Tibet, once a hot topic for the rights-minded, has dropped off the list – people are too overwhelmed and distracted by the other things the CCP are doing.

–       Scores of activists, lawyers, writers, publishers, scholars and employees of NGOs have been rounded up and imprisoned. Many of those detained have also appeared on state-run TV confessing to “crimes” ahead of their trial. The treatment of the “Feminist Five”, a group of women who were arrested in 2015 for simply speaking out against the country’s sexual harassment problem, is just one example in an exhaustive list.

–       The number of independent journalists in China has been significantly wheedled down. Foreign reporters have been driven out, either because their visas weren’t renewed or because they couldn’t operate anymore in an environment in which access to information is tightly controlled. Foreign news sites have been blocked, while Chinese sites have been closed. In 2016, for example, news services run by some of China’s biggest online portals, such as Sina’s News Geek, Sohu’s Click Today, and NetEase’s Signpost, were all shut for publishing independent reports instead of official statements.

–       Indeed, getting information out of the country has become much harder, almost impossible. I used to report for Index from China. Then I worked at Index with reporters from China. Today I struggle to get anyone to write for us on the ground, let alone talk to us on the record.

–       Under Xi’s term, one of the most vibrant and liberal cities in the world – Hong Kong – has been gutted of freedoms. Hundreds are in jail, including high-profile figures like Jimmy Lai and Joshua Wong. Thousands more have fled.

–       The tools of repression have spilled beyond China and Hong Kong’s borders. Across the globe, CCP spies harass and threaten dissidents, as highlighted in our Banned By Beijing reports. It’s not just dissidents in Beijing’s firing line. Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, found himself in hot water in 2019 when he tweeted in support of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters. Several Chinese businesses suspended ties with the basketball team, including China’s major sports networks who stopped broadcasting their matches. Basketball is big business in China, with hundreds of millions of fans watching NBA matches. Morey quickly deleted his original tweet and apologised.

As said, these are just the headlines.

In 2018 Xi took the unprecedented move of overturning the two-term limit for the presidency, in place since 1982. On 16 October the 20th Party Congress will be hosted in Beijing in which the leadership will be decided for the next five years. After rounds of purges to sweep up his political rivals, the assumption is Xi will retain the top job. Embarking on his third term in power will make him the longest serving leader in the CCP since Mao Zedong. Ever an optimist I hope that when I reflect on Xi Jinping’s next five years in power I can point to more positive things. Being realistic, the trend of the last 15 years under Hu and Xi would suggest that’s unlikely.

At this moment in time it’s not safe for me to return to China. I hope that changes. I’d love to visit the country again and I’d love my kids to go too. More than my own small hopes of returning are my hopes for those 1.4 billion people from there, alongside the seven million residents in Hong Kong. Living in a pluralistic society that tolerates dissent, that is free and transparent, should be a basic right not a geographical privilege.

It’s poignant thinking back to the fast-food article anecdote from the viewpoint of 2022. The city of Shanghai, which pulsated with life 15 years ago, has been brought to its knees over the last few years. Lockdown after lockdown after lockdown has shown that not only can the CCP control the nation’s waistlines if they want to, they can control just about anything. People have literally been locked in their homes and starved by their government – that is how much control the CCP has amassed under Xi Jinping. I wish we were ushering in a new leader and a better era this weekend. That day will come and until then myself, alongside my colleagues at Index, will continue fighting.

By Jemimah Steinfeld

Jemimah Steinfeld has lived and worked in both Shanghai and Beijing where she has written on a wide range of topics, with a particular focus on youth culture, gender and censorship. She is the author of the book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China, which was described by the FT as "meticulously researched and highly readable". Jemimah has freelanced for a variety of publications, including The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Vice, CNN, Time Out and the Huffington Post. She has a degree in history from Bristol University and went on to study an MA in Chinese Studies at SOAS.