World on edge as China flexes its muscles

All hail: Xi Jinping looms over a rally for the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China © AP Photo

Is Xi Jinping echoing Hitler? China is ramping up the aggression towards its neighbours, prompting some to liken it to Nazi Germany. Others say the West is deliberately stoking tensions.

The city of Kashgar, in the province of Xinjiang in western China, was once home to a well-established, vibrant community: the Uighurs, a Chinese Muslim culture with its own language and customs.

Only four years ago, the streets, shops and windows of the city’s old Gaotai quarter were full of men, women and children in their distinctive Islamic clothes, chatting, shouting, living their lives.

But today, houses that they occupied for six centuries stand silent. Entire neighbourhoods are deserted. Tourists who try to visit Gaotai are given a curt response by police escorts: “No one is there.” The Uighurs are gone, transported in their hundreds of thousands to vast “re-education camps”.

This repression, which some are calling a genocide, has led sociologist Salvatore Babones and human rights activist Zhou Fengsuo to claim that there are similarities between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Adolf Hitler, leader of Nazi Germany.

Zhou argues that, like the Nazis, China is persecuting ethnic minorities that it regards as “subversive”. In addition to the Uighurs, another religious group, the Falun Gong, have been subjected to state repression for two decades.

This is not the only parallel. After coming to power in 1933, Hitler invaded nearby countries to expand Germany’s territory. Babones insists that Xi Jinping is doing the same thing, threatening China’s much smaller neighbour, Taiwan.

Before 1949, Taiwan was part of China. It now claims to be an independent state, but China refuses to recognise its independence. Some think that it is waiting for an opportunity to seize Taiwan by force.

China is also sparking conflicts on its other borders. In recent months, several people have been killed in clashes between Chinese and Indian patrols on the Himalayan border between the two countries.

Babones sees similarities on the global stage as well. Hitler forged alliances with other dictators in Italy, Greece and Japan. International observers have warned that China is doing the same, creating ties with authoritarian regimes in Russia, Iran and Venezuela.

But some argue that the similarities between Xi and Hitler are exaggerated. They point out that all of China’s new allies, along with China itself, have been targeted by US sanctions in recent years. They believe that the alliance is defensive, not aggressive.

They also suggest that Xi’s expansionist policies are really aimed at shoring up his support among the Chinese people. China’s educated middle class is increasingly unhappy with the country’s oppressive restrictions on everyday life. There is discontent over the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and declining economic growth.

Bullying China’s neighbours and repressing its minorities allows Xi to stir up nationalist sentiment and distract people from the failures of his government.

In this sense, they argue, he is less like Hitler, and more like another modern leader who has faced the same comparison: US President Donald Trump.

So, is Xi Jinping echoing Hitler?

War and peace

Yes, say some. Just like Hitler, Xi sits at the head of a police state that persecutes ethnic minorities and keeps the population living in fear. He is using his military might to threaten smaller nations. Western powers were slow to act when Hitler threatened to take over Europe, they argue; democratic leaders cannot afford to make the same mistake again with China.

Not at all, say others. They argue that comparing anyone with Hitler, whose racist ideology murdered six million people, is wrong. Furthermore, comparisons between Hitler and leaders like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein have been used to justify disastrous military interventions. They fear that the same will happen with China. The comparison encourages a military response – instead of a diplomatic solution.

You Decide

  1. Is war ever the answer, or should we always try to resolve things peacefully?
  2. Is it useful to look to history for answers to modern political questions, or is this risk oversimplifying our own politics, and ignoring what is new about it?

Activities

  1. Form a group of three or four. Each try to guess how many people there are in China, India, and the USA. Write down each person’s guess, then look up the answer and see who was closest.
  2. Imagine that your country is about to be invaded by a much bigger power. Write a short story describing how you prepare for the attack.

Some People Say...

“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

Mao Zedong (1893–1976), former Chinese leader.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that the world is becoming a more dangerous place. Wars are flaring up around the globe, and popular unrest is rife. More worryingly still, tensions are rising between the great superpowers. As recently as 2016, the USA believed that co-operation with China was both viable and necessary. Now, however, the countries are on a collision course, having fallen out over China’s military expansionism and the USA’s refusal to collaborate on climate change policy.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over the future shape of global politics. The USA previously dominated the world, partly by keeping other countries economically dependent on it. The US dollar still guarantees the value of every other currency in the world. However, China’s economic might makes it a competitor. Many of the USA’s traditional allies in Europe, Africa and the Middle East are now dependent on Chinese exports, and they may prove unwilling to side with America in future conflicts with China.

Word Watch

Kashgar
A city on China’s western border, near Afghanistan. Historically, it acted as the link between China and the Middle East.
Genocide
The annihilation of a people, either through killing of its members, or through the suppression of its culture.
Falun Gong
A religious movement that draws on Buddhism and Taoism. The Chinese state claims that it is a threat to society and has brutally clamped down on it.
Taiwan
An island nation just to the east of China. It was set up in 1949 as a military dictatorship but gradually evolved into a democracy. It is involved in a long-running dispute with the Chinese state as to which is the legitimate government of Taiwan
Himalayan border
The border between India and China sits mostly in the Himalayas mountain range. Various sections of the border are contested between the two countries, and they fought a war over it in 1962.
Authoritarian regimes
Forms of government characterised by the centralisation of power. Authoritarian governments tend to restrict people’s rights and freedoms.
Sanctions
Measures used by one country to punish another. They can also be directed against an individual, preventing them from accessing bank accounts or restricting their travel; or against an entire economy, in the form of tariffs on goods or trade blockades.
Middle class
People of middling incomes and advanced education, whose consent is generally essential to propping up any state.
Saddam Hussein
The president of Iraq from 1979 until 2003, when he was toppled by the USA. He was compared with Hitler because of his persecution of Kurds, an ethnic minority in northern Iraq, and his 1990 invasion of neighbouring Kuwait.

Subjects

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