“President Joe Biden’s administration said this week that it would not send US government officials to the Beijing Games in protest of China’s human rights violations, including its abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong. The United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada also said this week that they will keep their delegations home.
This diplomatic boycott isn’t a full-on protest of the games, and won’t prevent athletes from participating in the 2022 Olympics. It won’t affect the spectacle of the event all that much, although lots of skiers will probably be asked about it. And despite some pressure from activists and human rights advocates, corporate sponsors — a.k.a. the money behind it all — have been largely silent.
All of this makes the US diplomatic boycott “more symbolic than substantial,” Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University, wrote in an email.
That symbolism can still needle the Chinese government, especially now that countries beyond the US have joined, and even more so if others follow suit. The Olympics matter to Beijing — maybe not as much as its coming-out party in the 2008 Summer Games, but President Xi Jinping still wants to signal international prestige to the world and to his domestic audience, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Chinese government has pushed back pretty hard against the boycotts. Before they became real, China warned of “resolute countermeasures,” without specifying what those might be. Since the boycott announcements, Chinese officials basically said that’s cool, but you actually weren’t even invited anyway.”
“In The War on the Uyghurs, Sean Roberts begins the arduous task of probing these and other mysteries of the first two decades of the global war on terror. In doing so, he shows how the United States’ efforts to build an international consensus for its counterterrorism projects had far-reaching consequences on the other side of the world, changing the relationship between the Chinese state and its long-oppressed Uyghur minority. He also shows how, during that same period—apart from any Western influence—the Chinese government became increasingly brazen in its oppression of Muslim and Turkic minorities, steadily curtailing freedoms of movement, assembly, and speech in Xinjiang long before the moment in 2016 when it began secretly interning hundreds of thousands of people in extrajudicial “Transformation Through Education” centers.”
“It is tempting to think of Xinjiang as a vast and arid Guantanamo Bay, one roughly as large as Alaska and as populous as Texas. Like Donald Rumsfeld’s own “world-class operation,” on a much grander (albeit largely domestic) scale, it is a hypertrophied state-within-a-state where minority residents are guilty before judgment and where the rule of law is reengineered in the name of fighting a pervasive, unbounded, and infinitely flexible terrorist threat. According to Darren Byler, another scholar of the region, China’s counterterrorism campaign in Xinjiang “rests on the assumption that most Uyghurs and significant numbers of Kazakhs are terrorists, separatists, and extremists-in-waiting.” But while Guantanamo Bay’s purpose is containment, Xin-jiang’s state of exception is intended to cure a diseased population. This philosophy is made explicit in government statements dating to the 2014 start of China’s “People’s War on Terror.” In the words of one 2015 report from Hotan City, anyone whose thinking has been “deeply affected” by “religious extremism” must be transformed through “military-style management.”
Roberts argues that this state of exception is facilitating cultural genocide. In addition to the system of extrajudicial detention that has incarcerated hundreds of thousands of people—possibly more than a million—in camps, more than 300,000 residents have also received formal prison sentences in the last three years, an order of magnitude more than in previous periods. An entire generation of Uyghur academics, artists, and businesspeople has disappeared, probably into prisons; they include internationally respected anthropologists, poets, comedians, novelists, and economists. There have been many credible reports of torture, sexual violence, and forced sterilization among Xinjiang’s minority population. Children are routinely taken from detained parents and placed in state orphanages where minority language and culture are demonized. And more than a million Communist Party cadres have been sent to live temporarily with Uyghur and Kazakh families, where they perform searches of homes, lecture their hosts on the dangers of Islam, and even sleep in the same beds as their “brothers” and “sisters.” Meanwhile, birth rates have plummeted in minority areas. The end result, scholars and activists fear, will be the eradication of Uyghurs as a distinct people.”
“It’s true that small numbers of Uyghurs have sometimes pushed for political independence in their homeland, even founding two short-lived Republics of East Turkestan in the years before China’s Communist revolution. But in case after case, Roberts shows, the Chinese government has used deceptive framing, official secrecy, and the framework of the war on terror to artificially inflate the danger of Uyghur separatism in order to justify increasingly ruthless policies in Xinjiang. “Often,” he writes, “what was framed as a ‘terrorist attack’ by authorities at this time was really armed self-defense against police and security forces, which were seeking to aggressively apprehend Uyghurs they viewed as ‘disloyal’ to the state, often merely determined by their religiosity.””
“As the war on terror escalated outside of China, state-conjured threats of separatism led to harsher policies in Xin-jiang. Roberts argues that this environment created a “self-fulfilling prophecy” where state tactics made spontaneous acts of rage and violence—eventually including genuine acts of terrorism, such as a coordinated knife attack in Kunming in 2014—all but inevitable, retroactively justifying the policies that caused the violence in the first place.”
“Berdimuhamedov’s Turkmenistan is one of the most secretive and repressive dictatorships on the planet.
Berdimuhamedov isn’t so shy himself. The Turkmen president balances out his harsh governance with flamboyant public displays. In one popular video clip, he “plays” a white guitar clad in a pastel green sweater—though the fog creeping up from below, obscuring his hands, casts doubt on his musical chops. The crowd doesn’t seem to mind. In a different video, Berdimuhamedov shoots at targets while his ministers look on with adoration. In another, he triumphantly lifts a thin golden rod above his head, which looks as if it weighs about as much as a fishing pole. He does donuts in his car, writes poetry, and races on golden Akhal-Teke horses, of which he owns nearly 10 percent of the world’s population.
Berdimuhamedov has used spectacles like these to curate a bizarre cult of personality around himself. Core to his image is a quest to nab as many Guinness World Records as possible. Since he ascended to Turkmenistan’s top office in 2007, the country has clinched quite a few superlatives, including “largest single line bike parade,” “largest roof in the shape of a star,” and “largest gerbil species.”
It’s so much lighthearted fun that you might almost forget the country has earned another distinction not recognized by Guinness: the most oppressive of the former Soviet countries, scoring a 2 out of 100 on Freedom House’s index. In Turkmenistan, there are essentially no recognized human rights and the economy has no meaningful private sector, with dysfunctional state-run monopolies dominating a country plagued by insufficient access to food, water, and natural gas.
What life is like inside the country is somewhat of a mystery. For those living there, the outside world is even murkier: Internet access is prohibited, foreign travel is restricted, and there is not even a semblance of a free press.
Turkmens are to believe one thing: Berdimuhamedov is their Arkadag (“protector”). That might become a tougher sell if the country’s economy continues to implode. Yet Berdimuhamedov’s public persona is a reminder of how such cults are cultivated in the first place: If you can’t give your country the basics, you have to give them a show.”
“In April 2019, a military coup ended Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule, which was marked by press censorship, the jailing of political dissidents, and the imposition of harsh sharia law, all enforced by regime security forces. Following al-Bashir’s arrest, the military worked with civilian parties to establish a transition to democracy and civilian rule”
“That included a transitional power-sharing agreement between the military and civilian leadership, which was then amended with the Juba Peace Agreement in 2020, a deal between the transitional government and several armed groups which sets out the constitutional process and power-sharing arrangements, among other stipulations for the future democratic government. Crucially for the current crisis, civilian leaders insisted on an eventual governmental structure free from military influence; the memory of al-Bashir’s regime and its brutality were still fresh, and a government run under the auspices of the military couldn’t be trusted.”
“But that progress appeared fleeting when al-Burhan moved to seize power on October 25, forcing Hamdok into house arrest, detaining other members of the civilian government, and using deadly force to crack down on the massive, widespread protests against the coup that occurred over the past month.”
“Since the coup, according to Siegle, the junta, led by al-Burhan, has been searching for a civilian leader to serve as a figurehead prime minister while the military maintained actual control, and even appointed some politicians from the al-Bashir government, like Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who led brutal campaigns against opposition fighters in Darfur, into leadership positions — essentially trying to continue the regime that civilian groups had sacrificed so much to overthrow just two short years ago.
When the junta was unable to find a suitably legitimate figurehead, Siegle theorizes, it was decided that Hamdok would be able to return to his position and preside over a “technocratic” cabinet. What that means is unclear, however: While protesters are calling for absolutely no military influence in the selection of the cabinet, there have not been assurances that Hamdok will be free to select his own ministers.”
“Already, as civilian protest leaders have made clear, there’s little confidence in Hamdok’s return to office, and demonstrations will likely continue”
“In the late 1920s, Soviet leader Josef Stalin sent Communist Party officials and activists out into the countryside with orders to convert private, family-owned farms into collective enterprises.
Ukrainian farmers resisted, and party leaders resorted to torture, threats, and graphic public shaming. In one Ukrainian province, according to Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine (Doubleday), a gang of Communist apparatchiks marched farmers into a room one by one and demanded they submit. Those who refused were shown a revolver. If they still did not comply, they were marched into jail, with the words malicious hoarder of state grain inscribed on their backs.
Stalin’s radical economic program was rooted in the idea that virtually all food supplies, land, and farming equipment were the property of the government. Collectivization was a state-sponsored program of mass theft perpetrated under the premise that Ukraine wasn’t even a real country.
Without private property, personal profit, or local pride there were few incentives to work. The new state-run farms were far less productive than expected, leading to -shortages. At the same time, Stalin increased grain procurement requirements from Soviet localities—Ukraine in particular—so that most of what was produced was seized by the state. By the spring of 1932, Ukraine had begun to starve.”
“Of all the countries to emerge from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan has arguably fared the worst. It ranks 149th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, worse than every other former Soviet republic except Turkmenistan. It has the highest poverty rate of the former Soviet republics; a full 27 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) is the result of remittances sent home by Tajik migrants working mostly in Russia; and its GDP per capita for 2021 ($810) ranks 179th out of the 195 countries for which the International Monetary Fund has data.
Why is Tajikistan so poor? It is landlocked, which means importing and exporting are more expensive and the country is more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions. And the violent civil war that followed the USSR’s fall, which pitted the incumbent Soviet power holders and their militias against a coalition of liberal reformers, anti-Soviet Islamists, and ethnic minorities, killed tens of thousands of people and displaced over 1 million Tajiks.
But geography and past conflict only explain so much. Tajikistan is rich with largely untapped mineral resources, and its mountain ranges are ideal for the kind of ecotourism that has made Nepal one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
Tajikistan is the sick man of Central Asia because it is ruled by a despot who has enriched himself and his relatives at the expense of millions of his malnourished countrymen. Emomali Rahmon has been Tajikistan’s official president since 1994 and “Leader of the Nation”—a lifetime appointment that provides him with immunity from prosecution—since 2015. In all but name, he is a king.”
“When Great Britain returned Hong Kong to China’s control in 1997, it was with the understanding that the territory would be governed under the principle of “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong would maintain a separate economic and political structure from mainland China until 2047. That includes Hong Kong’s tradition of common law, an independent judiciary, and protections for certain freedoms like speech.
The Chinese Communist Party has sought to erode the separation between the two systems. In the aftermath of the 2019 protests, it intensified its efforts to dismantle it entirely. Covid-19 restrictions quelled Hong Kong’s mass demonstrations, and in the summer of 2020, Beijing imposed a national security law targeting crimes, such as secession, subversion, colluding with foreign powers, and terrorism. It portended a dragnet on dissent in Hong Kong. This week, a 30-year-old man was sentenced to more than five years in prison for “inciting secession.” He yelled pro-Hong Kong independence slogans in public.”
“Belarus has sent thousands of desperate migrants to its border with Poland in a bid to antagonize the European Union over sanctions imposed last year, in the wake of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on political opponents and protesters.
The influx of migrants, which EU officials say Lukashenko has deliberately provoked as a “hybrid attack” on the EU, comes at a difficult moment for the EU as the bloc struggles with internal tensions of its own, but has so far resulted in an increasingly unified EU response.”
“People trying to leave places like Sulaimaniya, in Iraqi Kurdistan, have received Belarusian visas, bought a ticket on one of the many flights run by the state-operated airline, and headed to Minsk, Belarus’s capital, where some have been housed in government-run hotels, according to the New York Times.
But far from providing humanitarian aid and a safe haven for migrants, the Lukashenko regime is pushing them toward the borders of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania in an attempt to put pressure on the EU to lift sanctions on the nation.
Belarus has also taken direct action to make things harder for its EU neighbors: The New York Times reports that Belarusian security forces have provided migrants with instructions on crossing the borders and tools like wire cutters and axes to break down border fences.
On Saturday, Belarusian journalist Tadeusz Giczan tweeted that Belarusian forces were attempting to destroy fencing at the Polish border and using lasers and flashing lights to temporarily blind and confuse Polish soldiers stationed there in an attempt to help migrants get across the border.
Despite Belarusian efforts to force migrants into neighboring EU countries, however, the vast majority of those currently at the border are stuck there, with little protection from the elements. As winter sets in, migrants are sleeping in tents, often with inadequate clothing and supplies, and EU countries are thus far refusing them entry. Already, at least nine people have died; some estimates are even higher, and conditions could still worsen as winter sets in.”
“Despite the severity of the humanitarian crisis unfolding at Belarus’s borders, Lukashenko’s aims appear to be primarily political. The strongman president desperately wants to bring the EU to the negotiating table over sanctions imposed after he was fraudulently reelected last year and force the bloc to again recognize him as the country’s legitimate leader.”