Commuters walk past 'Chinese Dream' promotion billboards in Beijing's Central Business District last year (AFP Photo/Mark Ralston)
It’s difficult for China’s more than 1.35 billion people to forget “the Chinese Dream”. In Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and Guangzhou, rows of posters show rosy-cheeked children playing and grandfathers smiling sweetly. One reads: “Da ai Zhongguo”, or “big love for China.”
Coined by President Xi Jinping, “the Chinese Dream” is the latest Communist Party chairman’s mantra -- every one of his predecessors dating back to Mao has rehashed something similarly patriotic and packaged it for his period in office. In Xi’s case it means to rejuvenate the nation and achieve prosperity; country comes first and with its success the people will be happy, according to the state-run news agency Xinhua.
But just over 18 months into Xi’s presidency,” the Chinese Dream” looks increasingly like a failed project of near-Orwellian proportions.
During his short reign, China has experienced a return to mass trials not seen for 20 years, a reported surge in executions (although no exact figures are made public), dissidents locked up with greater frequency -- and given longer sentences -- and the worst religious persecution since the Cultural Revolution ending in the mid-1970s.
Yesterday’s life sentence handed down on Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti marked another new low for Xi’s administration. A moderate Uyghur professor who ran a website in his ethnic language that was designed to improve understanding between his race and majority Hans, Tohti was the closest thing to an interlocutor Beijing has had with Xinjiang’s increasingly violent ethnic minority.
The official report of his case in today’s state-run China Daily was classic Doublethink: “The court heard that the former teacher spread lessons containing separatist thoughts via the website, Uyghur Online. He coerced students to work for the website and built a criminal syndicate, according to the ruling.”
It remains to be seen whether he will ever be heard of again or, more likely, will be erased from Chinese history.
Tohti’s sentence comes amid a series of mass trials in Xinjiang since May which have seen dozens executed for “violent terrorism” and many more given life sentences.
Even by Chinese standards, these mass trials have represented a travesty of justice in which the verdict is never in doubt, only the sentence, and defense lawyers are nowhere in sight.
It’s almost as if Xi’s administration is deliberately attacking China’s justice system, rather a misnomer itself.
Last month, when Chinese authorities released Christian lawyer Gao Zhisheng after five years of dragging him in and out of prison, labor camps and house arrest, he could not even string together a sentence, according to his international lawyer and friends.
“While China is a great power in the 21st century, the inhumanity and brutality that it has demonstrated by the torture of Gao Zhisheng shows its profound insecurity and fear of anyone in its population who stands up to its repression,” said attorney Jared Genser, whose previous clients include Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.
Xi talks up the aspirations of the Chinese people and the great leaps his country has made, but in forgetting to match that with political progress he has started to tear at China’s social fabric.
As the Chinese economy marches on, more people are going online, learning English, studying abroad and realizing the embarrassing gaps between China and other world powers. US-based Freedom House ranks China on a par with tiny, impoverished Laos when it comes to social and political freedoms, and last year it was overtaken by Myanmar. Only North Korea is ranked lower in East Asia.
Compared to other nations across the globe, the world’s second-largest economy is on par with or worse than Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe when it comes to basic freedoms, and there is every indication things are worsening in China.
When foreigners and foreign governments begin to point out these facts -- which they do increasingly reluctantly as China throws its globalized economic weight around -- the response is typically the same: the complainant is accused of interfering in the countries internal affairs and acting like a Western imperialist.
It’s a convenient excuse echoed by an endless queue of Chinese scholars, officials, business people and anyone else unwilling to put themselves in harm’s way in China’s shackled media.
The reality is, of course, much more sinister. The fear is that with China’s rise comes the very real possibility that the next most powerful nation on the planet will be one in which basic forms of justice and freedom are obliterated and fiction becomes truth.
Let us be clear, China is not yet 1984. Although people can’t organize against the party or publicly say things against it, they can still criticize in private and think their own thoughts without fear of being tortured and thrown behind bars.
But the problem is that when you mix a rapidly advancing rich country with the latest technology and some of the worst forms of repression -- and you consider that it could be the world’s next superpower -- then things start to get frightening.
Xi still has eight and a half years left as China’s leader, unless something extraordinary happens. Can he prevent his “Chinese Dream” from turning into a made-in-China Orwellian nightmare -- not only for the country itself, but for everyone?
Dan Long is the pseudonym of a journalist based in Beijing who has reported on the region for more than a decade.