This op-ed originally appeared in the Sept. 21 edition of The Wall Street Journal.
By Jeffrey Herbst
As the new president and CEO of the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, I believe Americans must make their concerns known as Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Washington later this week—at a time when he has engineered a comprehensive campaign against what we view as core freedoms.
The facade of our building is famous for having a 75-foot rendering of the First Amendment. This week, during Mr. Xi’s visit, something else will hang from our building: traditional “large character” Chinese language posters demanding freedom in China. We see Mr. Xi’s trip as an opportunity to focus on the ways the world’s most-populous country treats its citizens and the ominous implications for the rest of the world.
China has succeeded in lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty in a few decades. But China has also intensified its habits of repressing those who show any opposition to the regime’s dictates, and of imprisoning journalists, religious leaders and others who speak out in ways not approved by those in power. Legions of government censors often succeed in what was previously assumed to be impossible—blocking access to forbidden websites and news reports on the Internet.
Many have hoped that the introduction of market-based economics in China would lead to a freer press. That hasn’t happened. China’s reaction to the recent bursting of its stock-market bubble, and the appearance of central government bungling, was to arrest the messenger. For instance, Wang Xiaolu, a writer for the business publication Caijing, was forced to go through the 21st-century version of the Mao-era “struggle sessions” and confess on television that his reporting has been “sensational.”
Under President Xi, censorship has increased. Of the 221 journalists imprisoned world-wide that the Committee to Protect Journalists identified in 2014, 44 were in Chinese prisons. This is a jump of 37.5% in one year.
What is happening to journalists parallels what is happening on the Internet. Freedom House, in its annual “Freedom on the Net” survey, reports that as of 2014 China had the third-worst Internet-freedom record in the world, ahead of only Syria and Iran.
Having invested vast sums and effort to monitor the Web, China also imprisons activists who make online posts that deviate from official statements. President Xi reportedly has stated that “the Internet has become the main battlefield in the struggle for public opinion,” and he clearly intends for the state to win that battle.
The assault on religious leaders and other people of faith has increased under Mr. Xi and may be, at least for Christians, the worst since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. The sheer scope of religious repression is striking.
Rep. Chris Smith, chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which Congress created in 2000 to monitor human rights in China, noted some of the commission’s stark findings in July: 1,200 crosses and 35 church buildings demolished; the religious sites of Uighur Muslims shut down and raided, and study of the Quran banned; the detention of 273 Tibetan Buddhist monks; reports of torture and deaths of members of the Falun Gong; and human-rights lawyers who defend people of faith charged with “creating chaos.”
A January 2014 report by the Pew Research Center showed that China recently moved to “high” on its “social hostilities regarding religion” index for the first time.
The increase in Chinese violations of core freedoms matters immensely. China is home to some 1.36 billion people, roughly 19% of humanity. If the Chinese are not free then, in a very real sense the world cannot be free. China’s worsening climate for freedom also matters because its approach to suppressing dissent serves as a model for leaders elsewhere.
Democracy has not had an intellectual competitor since the Berlin Wall fell. Yet China’s brand of authoritarian capitalism is taking root in many parts of the world, most notably in Vladimir Putin’s Russia as well as Africa and Central and South America. If American leaders do not voice their concerns, China’s New Great Wall may, by word and deed, give authoritarians across the world the cover to repress those who refuse to toe the official line.
Mr. Herbst is president and CEO of the Newseum.