Authoritarianism is catching: How China’s creeping influence is changing Asia
It wasn’t until she had spent many years as a human rights advocate that Elaine Pearson discovered her own grandmother’s story.
Aged 10, her ‘Amah’ was sold to an opera troupe for 300 taels of silver to save the family from starvation. Soon, she was whisked from her home in an impoverished village in southern China to Singapore.
“She was sold onto another troupe, then taken on to China, then had to escape to Hong Kong,” said Ms Pearson. “She had an experience that really mirrored many of the victims I had interviewed, who also described being deceived or coerced or sold as a child due to conditions of poverty.”
Ms Pearson’s own family’s history – which has influenced her professional calling – is a central pillar of her new book, Chasing Wrongs and Rights. The human rights travelogue was published in early September, as she was appointed Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Ms Pearson is taking up the role at a time when tensions in Asia are high, and as authoritarianism is spreading across the region, spilling over from China. October will also be a defining moment, when Chinese President Xi Jinping is re-elected for an unprecedented third term at a Communist Party Congress.
“Based on the last decade, which has been a disaster for human rights, we are worried about what that means for human rights, not just inside China but also outside,” she told the Telegraph in an interview.
“We are concerned about rising authoritarianism and the weakening of democracies across the region,” she said, flagging India, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.
“A number of democratic countries that have elections have been weakening various democratic structures, outlawing political parties they don’t like or opposition candidates that win elections or weakening the structures that are a check on power.”
The West must not ‘turn a blind eye’
Once hailed as a democratising region, rights and freedoms in Southeast Asia have retreated over the past few years.
In Myanmar, a junta that seized power in a February 2021 coup, overturning a democratic election result, has continued to brutally repress any opposition to its rule. Activists have been executed and tortured, and thousands more jailed – including Aung San Suu Kyi and Vicky Bowman, the former UK ambassador.
Since 2016, the Philippines has also been reeling under a vicious war against drugs, where the authorities have acted with impunity and former President Rodrigo Duterte has overseen a crackdown on the media and civil society. His successor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, swept to power this year amid accusations his campaign whitewashed the history of his late dictator father.
In Thailand, the pro-military parliamentary coalition has banned opposition parties and jailed rights activists – a frequent occurrence in Vietnam and Cambodia, where the uptick of digital surveillance technology supplied by China has rung warning bells.
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, has recently announced plans to reinstitute “loa Phuong” – a city-wide public address system that has historically been used to blast state messages and propaganda.
But it is over India, the world’s largest democracy, that Ms Pearson expressed particular alarm – a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year highlighted the hounding of activists, journalists, actors and businesses who were critical of the government.
“Governments should not make the same mistake they made previously with China where they become blinded by trade and business opportunities and then are willing to turn a bit of a blind eye to human rights violations,” she said.
Strongmen are ‘rewriting history’
Economic insecurity and inequality has fuelled the regional decline in democracy, Ms Pearson added, as “there has been a willingness sometimes to look for the strongman who is proposing simplistic solutions”.
“Social media has allowed the spread of disinformation in a way that we really haven’t seen before. That is allowing certain leaders to effectively rewrite history and present the facts in a very different way,” she said.
China’s open support for Myanmar’s coup leaders and its own impunity in committing domestic human rights abuses is also stoking authoritarian rule abroad.
“When a lot of countries across our region see the Chinese government getting away with its human rights violations, it emboldens governments in other countries to take similar measures,” Ms Pearson said.
Authoritarian leaders, including President Xi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Myanmar coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing, and Kim Jong Un, are also deepening their alliances, she warned.
“There is a widening divide between that club of dictators and all the democratic countries on the other side,” she said.
Those shifting geopolitical allegiances have implications for United Nations bodies and the UN Security Council that were created to be buffers against human rights violations.
Historically, China and Russia have banded together to block meaningful action against North Korea – a strategy which is set to strengthen and continue.
“The thing that is also really concerning about the UN is that we are seeing an attempt by the Chinese government to undermine UN institutions like the Human Rights Council,” said Ms Pearson.
Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security