Student Luo Daiqing was detained for tweets mocking Chinese President Xi Jinping. Liam Glen writes how this fits into the Chinese government’s totalitarian ambitions, but also risks backlash from the rest of the world.
Censorship in China is hardly anything new. There are few possible incidents left that would be surprising. But the case of Luo Daiqing, via by documents uncovered by Axios, managed to be particularly eyebrow-raising.
Luo is a Chinese citizen who operated a Twitter account while studying at the University of Minnesota. Some of his posts mocked Chinese President Xi Jinping by comparing him to cartoon characters Lawrence Limburger and Winnie the Pooh. In July 2019, after he had returned home, he was detained and eventually sentenced to six months in prison.
The Star Tribune, a Minnesota-based newspaper, has since received an email from Luo confirming the veracity of the reports and claiming that he has since been released.
This incident reveals the lengths that the Chinese government will go to punish dissent. However, it also raises significant questions about the sustainability of this model, especially as it alienates more democratic countries.
New Frontiers of Censorship
Observers have been surprised by Lou’s case. Punishment for social media posts on an anonymous account operated outside the country goes beyond the typical reach of Chinese censorship.
Donald Clarke, a scholar of Chinese law at George Washington University, analyzed the situation in a blog post and a follow-up. Most notably, the court documents are ambiguous as to which specific statute Lou supposedly broke. The authorities show a shocking indifference to the rule of law. Instead, they may decide on a whim what counts as a criminal act.
Even as an attempt to silence dissent, the sentence was gratuitous. As pointed out by, among others, a press release on the issue by US Senator Ben Sasse, Twitter is banned in China, so hardly anyone in the country would have even seen the posts. And, of course, only a highly insecure regime would be threatened by a few humorous images.
The purpose of this sentence could not be clearer. The Chinese Communist Party’s goals go beyond simply preventing public discord. It will take any opportunity it can to punish any expression of free thought, so that the citizenry will be terrified at the mere idea of disobedience.
Internal Control vs International Respect
The degree to which these totalitarian ambitions have been successful within China’s borders is debatable, but it has certainly harmed the government’s reputation in the rest of the world.
News of Luo’s arrest drew widespread ire in the US, ranging from figures like the Republican Sasse to progressive Democrat Ilhan Omar, whose district includes the University of Minnesota.
This can be seen in any incident of repression in the country. The Chinese government seeks to create fear and compliance among its citizenry, but also encourages condemnation and mockery from outside. Given the costs and benefits, this is not surprising. The government values control over its own citizens far more than it does the approval of foreigners. But that does not mean that it will forever evade consequences.
Public discourse in the US and other Western countries is more preoccupied by the Chinese government’s actions than any other time since the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Some abuses, such as internment camps in Xinjiang, are particularly heinous. Others, like pro-democracy protests in the international city of Hong Kong, efforts by Beijing censors to pressure Western corporations, or the arbitrary arrest of a student who studied at an American university, hit particularly close to home.
Incidents of US business leaders and politicians bowing down to pressure from the Chinese government make the news more than ever, but the flip side of this is that such capitulation faces more backlash than ever. Where human rights violations in China were once seen as unfortunate but inevitable, there is now an increasing drive to do something about them.
Efforts in democratic countries to promote human rights abroad are often mocked as ineffective. But they may still influence the situation.
Soft power – the influence and respect that comes from being seen positively by the rest of the world – is key to any superpower’s strategy, but the Chinese government’s aggressive policies both at home and abroad undermine this. Few people abroad, particularly in the developed world, interpret benevolent intent in Beijing’s actions.
This is especially problematic as the widening gap between the US and China threatens to evolve into a cold war that would harm all parties involved. While tensions are primarily fueled by military and trade disputes, the Chinese government’s poor reputation gives elected officials an extra incentive to take a hawkish stance. By tightening its authoritarian grip, Beijing may find consequences in unexpected places.