Shining Light on the Threats to Democracy and Human Rights in Asia

Relatives of alleged extrajudicial killings protest against the drug war in Manila; workers pass propaganda posters in North Korea; pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong; ethnic Uyghur and Han shopkeepers are trained in security measures next to Kashgar.
Clockwise from upper left: Relatives of alleged extrajudicial killings wear veils as they take part in a protest versus the drug war killings outside the military and police headquarters on July 17, 2019 in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Ezra Acayan/Getty Image); Workers pass propaganda posters as they cycle through Hungnam Fertilizer Complex on February 4, 2019 in Hamhung, North Korea (Photo credit: Carl Court/Getty Images); Pro-democracy protesters react as police fire tear gas during a demonstration on October 20, 2019 in Hong Kong (photo credit: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images); A mix of ethnic Uyghur and Han shopkeepers hold large wooden sticks as they are trained in security measures on June 27, 2017 next to the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China (photo credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images).

Around the world, democracy is in retreat. In its Freedom in the World 2019 report, the independent watchdog organization Freedom House records the 13th consecutive year of global declines in political rights and civil liberties. “More authoritarian powers are now banning opposition groups or jailing their leaders, dispensing with term limits, and tightening the screws on any independent media that remain,” and “even long-standing democracies have been shaken by populist political forces,” shows the annual study. Internet freedom, too, continues to decline globally amid the crisis of social media, unveils Freedom House’s newly released Freedom on the Net 2019 report. Social media platforms – once considered liberation technologies – have become a conduit for surveillance, disinformation, and electoral manipulation, and “are now tilting dangerously toward illiberalism, exposing citizens to an unprecedented crackdown on their fundamental freedoms.”

These troubling developments are also manifested throughout the Asia-Pacific, where continuous scaling back in U.S. engagement and leadership is raising doubts about American power and purpose in the region, thus empowering forces that undermine democratic norms and processes.

At Shorenstein APARC, we are committed to building a solid foundation of education, knowledge, and dialogue about the critical challenges facing Asian nations and U.S.-Asia relations. That’s why we are dedicating a major portion of our programming this fall quarter and throughout the entire year to elucidating the threats to rights and liberties in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Battle for Truth and Press Freedom in the Philippines

“This is an existential moment for global power structures, turned upside down by technology. When journalists globally are under attack, democracy is under attack.” With these words, the internationally-esteemed investigative journalist and press freedom champion Maria Ressa opened her keynote address upon receiving the 2019 Shorenstein Journalism Award.

As CEO and executive editor of Rappler, she has led the Philippine independent news platform in shining critical light on the Duterte administration's drug war and unprecedented number of killings in the country. President Duterte in turn has made no secret of his dislike for Ressa and Rappler, accusing the platform for carrying "fake news." Ressa has been arrested twice this year, accused of corporate tax evasion and of violating security laws, and slapped with charges of cyber libel for a report that was published before the libel law came into effect. Since Duterte’s election in summer 2016, the Philippine government has filed at least 11 cases and investigations against Ressa and Rappler. “And all because I’m a journalist,” she says.

Ressa detailed the devastating effects that disinformation has had on press freedom, democracy, and civic discourse in the Philippines. “Our dystopian present is your dystopian future if nothing significant is done,” she cautioned. She was joined on the 18th annual Journalism Award panel by Stanford’s Larry Diamond, senior fellow at FSI and the Hoover Institution, and Raju Narisetti, director of the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economics and Business Journalism and professor of professional practice at Columbia Journalism School.

Watch Ressa’s keynote and the entire panel proceedings:

You can also listen to Ressa’s keynote on our SoundCloud channel and read our complete event recap.

The North Korean Human Rights Problem

North Korea continues to be one of the world’s worst human rights violators, ranking at the bottom of Freedom House’s list of countries designated as Not Free with the worst aggregate scores for political rights and civil liberties. Although North Korea has experienced some degree of social and economic change in recent years, the Kim Jong Un regime continues to tightly control access to information, suppress all dissent, heavily surveil residents, and subject political prisoners to torture, forced labor, and other atrocities.

As momentum for U.S.-DPRK diplomatic negotiations has ebbed and flowed since summer 2018, all eyes have been on the questions surrounding the North Korean nuclear problem, while the human rights problem has received little attention. However, argues APARC’s Koret Fellow in Korean Studies Robert R. King, addressing the North Korean human rights problem is essential to moving the country on denuclearization and security issues.

Ambassador King, former special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the Department of State, recently spoke at a seminar hosted by APARC’s Korea Program. Creating pressure on the North Korean government from within by its own people is the only way we’re going to make progress on the security front, he claimed. “If we can help generate greater interest on the part of the people in what is happening with their own government, we can create the kind of constraints that democracy imposes on its leadership […] and that is why we need to focus attention, as well as on negotiating with North Korea, on access to information and human rights.”

Listen to highlights from Ambassador King’s talk:

Hong Kong: City in Turmoil

In Hong Kong, millions of people have been protesting for months against rights violations and increasing interference by the Chinese government in local affairs. On October 1, while the People’s Republic of China celebrated its 70th anniversary with a massive National Day parade in Beijing, on the other side of the border, Hong Kong experienced one of its most violent and chaotic days.

With those contrasting images still fresh on everyone’s minds, APARC and the China Program, along with FSI And the Center for East Asian Studies, co-hosted an expert panel that explained the root causes of Hong Kong’s unremitting protests, examined the future of “one country, two systems,” and considered how the United States and the international community should best respond.

Former Chief Secretary for Administration of the Hong Kong Government (1993-2001), the Honorable Anson Chan, delivered a piercing keynote address, followed by a discussion featuring Harry Harding, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Virginia, David M. Lampton, APARC/FSI Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow, and Professor Ming Sing of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Since 1997, Chan asserted, Hong Kong SAR’s successive chief executives have progressively failed to reassure the Hong Kong people that they would do their utmost to uphold “one country, two systems” and to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy. Instead, she argued, they have increasingly come across as “mouthpieces of the central government, towing the Beijing line.” Chan also suggested that “some years back, Beijing began to both lose confidence in the judgment and competence of the Hong Kong administration and to fear that growing sense of people’s identity as ‘Hong Kongers’ rather than Chinese citizens could pose a threat to the long-term, successful integration of Hong Kong into the motherland.” She closed her speech urging the Beijing leadership “to act with greater confidence and to trust us more completely with stewardship of our own future by allowing us to elect our own leaders.”

Watch the proceedings from this special panel:

You can also listen to Chan’s keynote and panelists’ remarks on our SoundCloud channel and read our complete event recap.

The Assault on Non-Chinese Culture in Xinjiang

China’s mass internment of Uighurs and other Muslims in “reeducation” camps and detention facilities and its deployment of high-tech surveillance and police tactics in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have been interpreted as a superpower’s attempt to annihilate the distinct identities of minority groups. Approximately ten million Muslim minorities in the region are under tight control, and over one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have allegedly disappeared into internment camps. While Beijing characterizes the camps as vocational training centers and has claimed that most of the detainees have been released, evidence for these claims is difficult to verify, as information dissemination regarding the region to the outside world is closely guarded.

To shed light into the crisis in Xinjiang, APARC convened a multidisciplinary panel of experts who provided historical context and critical social scientific analysis of the events unfolding in the region.

From top left, clockwise: Lauren Hansen Restrepo, James Millward, Darren Byler and Gardner Bovingdon speaking at a panel at APARC.

From top left, clockwise: Lauren Hansen Restrepo, James Millward,, Darren Byler and Gardner Bovingdon.

James Millward, professor of Inter-societal history at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, reviewed the historical background for the PRC assault on non-Han or non-Chinese culture in Xinjiang. Beginning in the early 2000s, the assault has included the razing of old Kashgar; the discouraging and then illegalizing of Muslim symbols such as head gear, prayer, and fasting in Ramadan; the disappearance of Uyghur script; and the securitization of the province by using police patrol, surveillance technologies, facial recognition, and biodata monitoring. The PRC hasn’t applied a single, top-down ethnic policy in Xinjiang, said Millward, but rather has rolled out different tactics it experimented with on local levels in different areas.

Lauren Hansen Restrepo, assistant professor in growth and structure of cities at Bryn Mawr College and an expert on Chinese development planning and urbanization in Xinjiang, explained how we got to the current crisis in the region by connecting seemingly disparate phenomena. She described the shifts in state power in Xinjiang and how, since 2014, “regional planning has broken every logic of urban planning in China,” resulting in the isolation and subordination of Uyghur-dominated urban centers and in the ossification of cities, as control has been seized from local governments and given to socialist land masters.

Anthropologist Darren Byler, whose research focuses on Uyghur dispossession and "terror capitalism" in the city of Ürümchi, the capital of Xinjiang, explained how, amid mass migration of Han people into the resource-rich region, Uyghurs had mostly been excluded from the new economy and how their identity as contemporary Muslims supported a vibrant public sphere not controlled by the state. The Chinese state, in turn, has merged Islamism with radicalism extremism. From the Chinese state and industry perspective, Byler said, the repression of Xinjiang’s Muslims promises stability and the detention camps are used as carriers of economy and new sources of cheap labor.

Indiana University’s Gardner Bovingdon, whose research focuses on politics in contemporary Xinjiang and the region’s modern history, reverted to the question of how we got to the current crisis, which he characterized as “one of the great state-engineered human rights disasters of our time.” He argued that, in the case of Xinjiang, the Chinese party transported and exacerbated a set of policies that had previously been applied to dealing with the Tibet problem. These policies, Bovingdon suggested, “are signs of a flailing, terrified party that doesn’t know what to do with Uighurs, but also feels no constraints from the international community on its behavior. And so the biggest problem now is to find a way to put constraints on a system that has operated untrammeled with devastating consequences.”

The panel "Xinjiang’s Muslims and the PRC" was cosponsored with the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.