A deal between Beijing and the increasingly despotic Erdogan regime in Turkey is raising fears of a new phase of Chinese political influence, in which Chinese soft power is used to persuade foreign governments to allow the same type of pro-Beijing censorship that constricts the Chinese internet in their own countries. After a meeting last week between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, it was reported that Turkey plans to block anti-China reports from its media and Turkish language websites. This has worried many activists from China’s persecuted Uighur minority, for whom Turkey has functioned as something of a safe haven after other Asian countries closer to Beijing crumbled in the face of political pressure to crackdown on Uighur refugees within their borders.
Within China, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is steadfast on three sacred rights over which it perceives there is very little room for negotiations. These are continued unchallenged rule by the CCP at home; uncompromising defence of Chinese claims to sovereignty and territorial integrity within and without China’s present borders; and continued economic expansion at home and abroad. Beijing has often sparred diplomatically with other countries and turned the screws on the private sector at home in pursuit of these three rights. It has also long threatened foreign governments and companies if it sees them as somehow challenging any of these core interests; what is new is that China now wishes to export the censorship methods it has perfected at home to foreign audiences whose interest and familiarity with China is very limited.
Of course, Beijing has long wielded control over what its own citizens can see or speak of both online and through media outlets whose output it can control domestically. But in a globalised world China is also the source of much concern from international observers, from the international status of Taiwan and the South China Sea to repression in Tibet and Xinjiang. It has been a source of great irritation to Beijing that media outlets online who are based overseas can contradict the official narrative without penalty. As China has grown stronger it has begun to try and impose a pro-Chinese narrative on media coverage overseas whose target audiences are not Chinese consumers. This overt effort especially targets Chinese dissidents searching for space to hide or places to broadcast from, but it also seeks to undermine foreign resistance to increasingly assertive Chinese territorial demands in places like the South China Sea.
In Turkey, media freedom has all but vanished following the failed coup last year and Erdogan’s victory in the April referendum. The Turkish media blackout there is only part of an offensive which China is carrying out with the help of autocratic states in the Middle East against Uighurs who have fled overseas. In Egypt, the military authorities have copied the example of Thailand’s junta and rounded up dozens of Uighurs for deportation back to China. But Uighurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims whose fate has traditionally been championed by Ankara. By muzzling the Turkish press, Beijing has both struck a blow against the international media coverage that Uighur activists have traditionally relied upon to publicise their cause, and made it easier to forcibly return such critics to Chinese soil without arousing much negative publicity.
Some may see the agreement between China and Turkey as constituting a special case; Uighur activists are vulnerable to accusations propagated from Beijing that their organisations are tied to terrorist groups. Some Uighurs have indeed joined international terrorist networks like the Islamic State and carried out attacks overseas which targeted foreigners and not Chinese state facilities (though these have been attacked too). This has made Middle Eastern governments, most whom are not particularly concerned with human rights, happy to be persuaded to fight Beijing’s battles for it. The terrorism connection has also muted Western and East Asian criticism of China, conditions which cannot be said to applied to issues such as Taiwan, Tibet or historical controversies that Beijing censors such as the Tiananmen Square massacre.
But success in controlling the narrative over its treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang is liable to encourage China to try this method of media manipulation in other regions, over other issues. Semi-democratic Malaysia for example, despite a border dispute with China, has cooperated with Beijing in the past, sending Taiwanese and Uighur detainees back to China despite international outcry. It is not hard to imagine Beijing demanding Kuala Lumpur extend its cooperation into the area of media censorship when Malaysia already has some of the toughest media controls in the modern world. This future blackout could be over the fate of Uighurs migrants as in Turkey, or it could be over a different issue entirely, such as corruption within the ruling CCP. Chinese dissidents are already vanishing overseas with the help of foreign governments; it is hard to image they will be keen to publicise the dirty work they carry out on Beijing’s behalf.
As democracy falters in the West and the rest, international human rights groups and large media conglomerates must remain wary of any emerging pact of censorship between China and the gaggle of autocrats and demagogues currently in vogue. Dictatorships can cooperate internationally to conceal the truth of their actions, as Latin American military regimes did when they joined together to hunt down dissidents in each others’ countries during Operation Condor. When one country inside such a pact is as powerful as China, such an arrangement would give the CCP almost unprecedented abilities to persecute its own people abroad, engage in bad faith negotiations over territorial disputes and manipulate foreign audiences’ sentiments in favour of CCP priorities. That is not a future which is good for China or the peoples with whom it is now coming into closer contact with in the 21st century.