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China and the rule of fear

By Robert Peckham

14 Sep 2023 · 6 min read

informed Summary

  1. Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has used fear to control its citizens, employing surveillance technology and creating a cult of personality reminiscent of Mao's era. This has been particularly evident in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protestors have been met with police violence and arbitrary detention.

“If they can induce fear in you, that’s the cheapest way to control you and the most effective way,” the newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai told the BBC in 2020, just before he was jailed in Hong Kong for participating in “unlawful assembly”. In 2014, Xi Jinping had reassured the world that it had nothing to fear when “the sleeping lion” finally woke. But, in truth, Xi and his Communist Party henchmen have always governed through fear, drawing on autocratic precedents and mobilising new technology to build a vast surveillance apparatus that monitors citizens’ behaviour for “trustworthiness”. A cult of personality has arisen reminiscent of Mao’s, replete with “little red books” that promote “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Special Characteristics for a New Era”—and that, in 2017, were written into the constitution.

I saw how fear worked first-hand in Hong Kong. In 2019, pro-democracy protestors, many of them students, were terrorised by the police who had no compunction about using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons indiscriminately, along with arbitrary detention. It was an atmosphere encapsulated by a “Freedom from Fear” graffiti that appeared overnight on one of the city’s bus shelters. When he’d declaimed his freedom-from-fear credo in 1941, President Roosevelt can’t have imagined that this is where it would land.

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