South Africa has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons again. Under African National Congress leader Cyril Ramaphosa’s diktats, unruly mobs have been stirred up to confiscate white-owned land and even kill white property owners.
Of course, the problem of racial tension in South Africa is hardly new. Dutch colonizers, known as Boers, fought two wars with British imperialists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The usual racist mercantilism ensued. After World War II, a policy of separating black Africans from white colonists—apartheid—was formally adopted by the South African government. Blacks were second-class citizens and the entire regime was enforced at the end of the barrel of a gun.
Eventually, Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)—a former Communist insurgent who languished in prison for 27 years for violent acts of insurrection against the segregationist government—met in F.W. de Klerk (1936-1994) a counterpart ready to listen to the better angels of his nature. The peace the two men hammered out was not perfect, but it helped South Africa move from systematized oppression to shared responsibility for a common homeland without an intervening revolution and the usual accompanying bloodshed.
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That South Africans under de Klerk chose brotherliness over continued dehumanization was due in no small part to pressure from outside the country. Western democracies, in particular, recoiled in horror at the scenes broadcast on the evening news from Capetown. Jackbooted policemen with sawed-off shotguns and nightsticks dragging lassoed blacks through the dirt did very little to win South Africa admirers among the transnational elite. Such gratuitous violence shocked the conscience of people around the world, and there were efforts from the individual to the international level aimed at isolating South Africa from polite society. Academics (who rather incongruously were wont to approve of murderous dictatorships from Hanoi to Havana) yelped loudly for freedom, naturally. Pensioners demanded that their fund managers divest from South African firms. Sports teams refused to play against or in South Africa. Banks refused to lend to South African enterprises. And Hollywood began to cast South Africans as the dastards of action films—most notably in 1989’s Lethal Weapon II, which forever linked in the public’s mind snarling racism with the word “Krugerrand.” Even engagement rings were tainted with charges of “blood money” and associated with what were essentially slaves (many of them Indian coolies, we should remember) drilling deep under the South African earth in gold and diamond mines.
Much of the Western governments’ disdain for South African racism was theatrical, of course. The United States federal government under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, for example, hewed to the “Tar Baby Option” in its support for white governments in Rhodesia and South Africa in the 1960s, and an official apology for the 1944 Korematsu ruling, which attempted to square the legal corners on the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in Rooseveltian concentration camps in World War II, did not come until 1988, long after it had become fashionable for American politicians to rake apartheid over the rhetorical coals.
But at the level of the common man, South Africa had truly become a pariah state throughout the West. “I’m from South Africa” eventually had the same ring to it as “I used to man the guard tower at Buchenwald.” It became unthinkable and untenable for any corporation wanting to do business in the free world to have anything at all to do with South Africa. And so it was not long before the apartheid government under de Klerk decided to make a virtue out of a necessity and recognize that there was no future in racial oppression.
Some Oppressive Regimes More Acceptable than Others
I have been thinking a lot about South Africa lately, not so much because of the present troubles, as heartbreaking as they are, but because, in surreal contrast to the time when one “socially conscious” corporation after the next fell all over themselves to denounce South African apartheid, that same mashup of Silicon Valley self-righteousness and Madison Avenue self-glorification has chosen, this time around, to toe the Orwellian party line coming out of Beijing. How did we get from mass rallies in support of Mandela to murky silence over sixty years of Communist Chinese atrocities?
For those who have not noticed, the People’s Republic of China is orders of magnitude worse than South Africa ever was during even the darkest days of apartheid. The only difference is that, unlike woke boardrooms of the past—remember the United Colors of Benetton?—shareholders today and the corporate officers who lance under their banners have shown a remarkably strong stomach for hardline dictatorial goose-stepping over basic human freedoms in the Middle Kingdom.
Let us get down to brass tacks: China is a grand emporium of anti-human horrors. MS13 and Boko Haram appear almost quaint by comparison. The Islamic State, for its part, has terrorized Muslims in the Middle East at a level of grotesque barbarity that even Nero would have found objectionable, but can anyone compete with the more than one million Muslims in concentration camps, such as China has accomplished in East Turkmenistan (a region which the Chinese imperialists call Xinjiang, or “new borderland”)?
As for Christians, the PRC has unleashed a kind of slow-rolling dragon dance Kristallnacht against followers of Christ. Much of this is even more ham-fisted and thuggish than anything the dimwitted National Socialist goon squads dreamed up in the early days of the Third Reich’s slaughter of the Jews. Christians are jailed and churches are confiscated and demolished, bishops and priests are disappeared (often a euphemism for “killed”), posters of Jesus are ripped down and replaced with posters of Chinese president Xi Jinping (who is on a quest to out-Mao Mao Zedong in terms of personality cult and degree of centralized power), and the Chinese state has effected a full-blown schism in the Catholic Church in China by forcing Church leaders either to seek the permission of the state to worship (à la the infamous Constitution civile du clergé of 1790) or else go underground and face arrest, torture, or worse if caught saying or attending Mass.
When it comes to persecutorial free-for-all, China’s distinct advantage is that there are so many religions under its vast territorial sway that the militantly atheistic Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has the ability to crack down on virtually every faith group in existence. (The only religion China has never pogromed in earnest is Judaism, which explains why Chinese ambassadors to Israel are so keen on discussing the Holocaust. It is the only safe topic for the PRC.) For example, China has been on a decades-long systematized extermination campaign against Tibetan Buddhism. Lamaseries, monasteries, and entire religious villages have been razed to the ground, and monks and nuns have been rounded up, imprisoned, killed, or else forced into secular occupations. Prostitution, virtually unheard of in Tibet in the past, has become common with the destruction of Tibetan culture and religion. Over the past decade some 150 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in horrifying suicidal protest against the Chinese crushing of the Tibetan homeland. The Chinese state has forcibly emigrated hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese to Tibet in order to complete the genocide. Beijing did the same thing to the Mongolians—Yang Haiying’s Genocide on the Mongolian Steppe is required reading for anyone interested in how governments go about exterminating ethnic groups.
To this twisted litany must be added the stupefying practice of organ harvesting, a practice which received the imprimatur of no less a personage than President Xi’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Canadian human rights activists, including most notably former MP David Kilgour, have documented at least 65,000 cases in which practitioners of Falun Gong—a peaceful religion of meditation, compassion, and moral cultivation—have been arrested and killed by the Chinese authorities, who then literally eviscerate them and sell their organs on the black market.
And this is to say nothing about China’s human trafficking in Southeast Asian “brides” for Chinese men, who cannot find spouses because, under China’s One Child Policy, half a generation of females was aborted in favor of trying again for a son—a practice so common that it has its own name: “gendercide.” While American corporations were pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Democratic Party coffers during the so-called “War on Women” in 2012, the Chinese government was wrapping up a decades-long war on women all its own.
In June of 2012, for example, a woman named Feng Jianmei had her child forcibly aborted by the Chinese Communist authorities. Not content with just killing her preborn baby, the CCP posed the murdered infant with his mother and took photographs of them, posting the pictures online to let others know the consequences for violating the One Child Policy. Just one month before this hideous crime, blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who had been under house arrest in China for filing a class-action lawsuit against the Chinese authorities over the One Child Policy, was granted a visa to the United States.
Chen was one of the lucky ones, though. Others who have spoken out against the Chinese government have fared much worse. Liu Xiaobo, for instance, died last year of cancer. In refusing to allow him treatment for his disease—just as Mao Zedong refused cancer treatment to Zhou Enlai—the Chinese authorities essentially issued him a death sentence. Liu’s crime, incidentally, was writing essays calling for political reform in China. His wife, Liu Xia, was also kept under house arrest until this year. The Chinese government prevented both Mr. and Mrs. Liu from traveling to Oslo when Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
This puts the Chinese government in some very rarified and dubious company. Only two other people besides Liu have been unable to collect their Nobel Peace Prizes due to imprisonment: Aung San Suu Kyi, a political prisoner in Burma in 1991 when she became a Nobel laureate, and Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist who was in a Nazi concentration camp when he won the prize in 1935. Aung San Suu Kyi is still alive; Ossietzky, like Liu, died in political prison.
The list of others who have been imprisoned or killed by the Chinese government for thoughtcrime is virtually endless: history professor Wang Dan, artist Ai Weiwei, political cartoonist Jiang Yefei, and writer Wei Jingsheng are just a few of the more prominent. Unfortunately, not everyone who dares to defy the censors has a publicly recognizable name. One young woman in a “New York” t-shirt took a video of herself throwing ink on a CCP propaganda poster earlier this year and has not been heard from since. Sun Wenguang, a retired professor from Shandong University, was in the middle of an interview with Voice of America in early August of this year when the Chinese police showed up at his house and arrested him while he was live on the air. How many bloggers, students, and average citizens have been hauled off for offhand remarks, online comments, or even satire or political jokes? We may never know the true extent of China’s bulldozing of even the most basic human rights of assembly and expression.
Technology Empowers the Surveillance State
For many years, pundits, Svengalis, and for-hire prognosticators in the West have soothsaid China’s peaceful rise. Give the Chinese Communists a little more time, they repeated ad nauseam, and eventually we’ll see a flourishing of liberal democracy in the Forbidden City, too. Even after the Tiananmen Square massacre in June of 1989—and especially after it—the neo-Hegelians and neocons in Washington, academia, and the Fourth Estate spoke of a Brandenburg Tor moment just over the horizon for Beijing. The Chinese people will rise up and throw off the Communist yoke, they insisted. Liberalism will triumph and a hundred flowers will bloom. Those were the heady days of Francis Fukuyama and Gulf One, when it seemed that every tyrant in the world was on the cusp of turning over a new leaf as another Konrad Adenauer.
What happened? In a word, technology. After September 11, the United States charged ahead—in the name of “patriotism,” of course—with converting the country into a Benthamian panopticon. Just as Jacques Ellul predicted, technology countersigned every check that the surveillance state wrote. The Magna Carta gave way to Big Data, and before we knew what was happening the Constitution had become a useless appendage to a Deep State with license to spy on anyone, anywhere, and at any time.
China needed no persuasion to follow suit. Today, the Chinese government is arguably the second most egregious eavesdropper on its own citizens after the tech panjandrums at NSA. Indeed, there is an eerie symmetry between the PRC and the Washington technocracy: there is no law, there is no justice, there is no civil society—there is only surveillance and compliance, or else. With the emergence of facial recognition software and ubiquitous “security” cameras, China is set to surpass even the American federal espionage syndicate in what we now see will be a global, tech-led “ethic cleansing.” Everyone who deviates from the party line in China, for instance, now loses what the Chinese call “social credit,” becoming ineligible for jobs or promotions or passports or other inducements to conform. (The United States government, still hewing to the hypocrisy that it must at least pretend to follow the Constitution, has outsourced the purge to American social media companies, which, once they have finished honing their snooping skills on American citizens, sell their services to the highest bidder in China.) This is the grim future, and the Silicon Valley tech giants who tout “community” and “free expression” stand to make a killing in Big Brothering every square inch of territory from Hong Kong to Urumqi to Shenyang to Lhasa.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In its 2004 IPO prospectus, for example, Google wrote:
Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served—as shareholders and in all other ways—by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains.
By all accounts, this motto was turned on its head long ago. The Guardian, the Intercept, and the New York Times are now reporting that Google is actively working with the Chinese government to create a search engine which prevents users from accessing content banned by the Chinese authorities. Other tech firms such as Facebook are elbowing into the Chinese market, too, even though their content is still censored there. Apple has bent over backwards to placate the Chinese Communist Party, and iPhones continue to be bestsellers in the PRC.
Imagine for a moment, though, what might have happened if, say, Nike had announced it was opening a new corporate office in Johannesburg in 1990. Has anything changed about corporate culture since the shunning of South Africa over apartheid? Did the United Colors of Benetton have a conscience where Google, Apple, and the rest do not? Where are the professors speaking out against gross abuses of human rights—abuses with which American deans and deanlets are now fully complicit, having been bought out with generous funding funneled via Confucius Institutes from the PRC’s espionage center? Why does the Hollywood which heaped ridicule on South Africa in Lethal Weapon II pander to Chinese sensibilities by tailoring moves to match PRC propaganda today? Why do American airlines stoop to relabeling the sovereign country of Taiwan in in-flight magazines in order to please the mandarins in Beijing?
To answer these questions, let us remember a few numbers: the population of South Africa in 1980 was around thirty million people, and the GDP was about 80 billion US dollars. By contrast, the population of the People’s Republic of China today is more than 1.4 billion, and its nominal GDP is a shade over fourteen trillion.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a Chinese flag flying under the company logo outside the Google China headquarters in Beijing on January 14, 2010. (Photo credit: LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)