The Worst Totalitarian Since Mao

Authored by Nick Taber via The American Conservative,

Xi Jinping is ushering in an era of Chinese illiberalism, and with it a chilling clampdown on freedoms…

This summer, a UN panel received reports of a human rights crisis unfolding in China’s far western Xinjiang province. The information showed that as many as two million people had been subjected to an intense political indoctrination and reeducation program. The backlash has largely focused on the ethno-religious nature of this crisis. Pakistan, China’s closest and most economically dependent ally, has asked China to ease restrictions on Muslims, and Uighurs (the ethnic minority group targeted) living in America are beginning to condemn China’s human rights abuses.

But over-interpreting the religious aspect of the crackdown distracts from the true nature of repression in China. The crisis in Xinjiang should be interpreted more as an assault on basic freedoms and the expansion of a totalitarian tyranny than an expression of ethnic superiority. To be sure, this is nothing less than a cultural genocide. But as far as we know, the Chinese government is not Sinicizing this group simply because they are Muslim or ethnically Turkic. It is doing so because they are a perceived threat to the power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Intense repression has been rapidly growing throughout the country, cementing the power of the CCP in all corners of society. Indeed, the human rights abuses in Xinjiang are strikingly similar to what’s been happening elsewhere in China since Xi assumed office. Human rights reports of Xinjiang describe mass political indoctrination, the creation of a digital police state, arbitrary detention, and pervasive controls over daily life. Let’s look at each of those components individually.

Indoctrination: Mass political indoctrination is the central purpose of the reeducation camps established in Xinjiang. Elsewhere in the country, however, the Chinese government has instituted a wide variety of indoctrination programs, with the explicit goal of expanding the CCP’s control over people’s minds. This includes overhauling all of China’s major educational institutions, increasing the ideological content of all media, and controlling the spread of foreign ideas and influences within the country.

During a speech given at a Beijing kindergarten in 2015, President Xi Jinping outlined his vision of party control over education, saying, “Children should memorize the core socialist values by heart, have them melt in their hearts, and carve them into their brains.” The CCP plans to overhaul the nation’s university system to turn it into an ideological education machine. Students will undergo a hefty political indoctrination program all the way through university. Chinese professors will be forced to teach CCP propaganda. According to recent government plans, university faculty will be judged foremost by their “ideological and political performance.”

And while indoctrination and reeducation programs outside of Xinjiang do not have the same force and severity as those within the province, they are nonetheless very invasive, and are a core component of the country’s move towards totalitarianism.

Digital police state: Human rights groups have reported that there’s a digital police state at work in Xinjiang. A hyper-intelligent digital surveillance system is used to control citizens, tracking what they say, read, and do. Such a system, however, is hardly unique to Xinjiang. The government’s digital surveillance network is being implemented throughout the country. It has leveraged the ubiquitous smartphone as an ultra-powerful surveillance device, developing programs to organize phone data and providing granular, real-time intelligence on every citizen, which can be used to guide the actions of the populace and enhance the power of the state. China has also debuted a vast network of video cameras that use artificial intelligence to gather information on everyone’s actions.

Under the Chinese government, there has been a crackdown even on thought crime. Before Xi came into office, citizens had a moderate degree of freedom to have discussions privately about a variety of social and political topics, so long as they did not organize any movements or events. Those days are long gone. There are increasingly frequent reports of Chinese citizens writing seemingly innocuous messages to friends and family only to be promptly arrested.

Arbitrary detention: Reports of the Xinjiang crisis show that nearly all of China’s Uighurs are at risk of being forcibly and arbitrarily detained. Yet while more than one fifth of all arrests in China in 2017 occurred in Xinjiang (a region accounting for only 2 percent of the population), arbitrary detention is a major problem throughout China and appears to be on the rise. One of the reasons for this is the vague drafting of Chinese laws, giving authorities leeway to arrest anyone suspected of subversive behavior. Though they previously occupied a gray area where they enjoyed relative freedom, hundreds of journalists and human rights lawyers have been arrested, too.

Over the last year, there have been many accounts of arbitrary arrests for seemingly harmless behavior, raising concerns that the authorities seek to intimidate the population and encourage self-restraint. In 2017, a man referred to Xi as a coward over Wechat and was jailed for 22 months. Earlier this year, a retired professor from Shandong province was arrested while giving an interview for Voice of America.

Pervasive controls over daily life: Foreign media and Human Rights Watch allege that the Chinese government is instituting a range of controls over daily lifefor Xinjiang residents, including restrictions on religious practices. Outside of Xinjiang, a similar trend is taking place. Religion throughout the country is under assault: recently there was a crackdown on Christian churches. Christians in Henan province were reportedly forced to take down posters of Christ and replace them with portraits of Xi.

As another example, the government has increased the list of banned topics and words that can’t appear on internet content. Recently, the viewing or sharing of foreign news media was almost entirely banned. Homosexuals were once given a fair amount of room to quietly enjoy their lifestyle; now the government is becoming less tolerant in a push to reinforce “family values.” At a Dua Lipa concertin Shanghai, police dragged away audience members who held gay pride flags or even stood up to cheer.

The Chinese government’s assault on basic freedom is not a regional issue but a nationwide phenomenon. Indeed, China has lately moved closer to totalitarianism than at any time since the Mao era.

The abuses in Xinjiang are a harrowing example of this pattern.

Repression in Xinjiang is more intense because the threat of regional instability is greatest there since its people have separatist sentiments, and have different ethnicities, religions, and identities. Eliminating these differences would, in their calculus, ensure greater stability. However, there is little reason to believe that if a province that was dominated by Han Chinese experienced a widespread separatist movement, it wouldn’t suffer a similar fate to Xinjiang. Sure, detainees wouldn’t be required to denounce a particular religion. But there would very likely be a system of reeducation camps set up just the same.

China, then, is not only eager to eclipse the U.S. in global influence; it is increasingly diverging from what Americans recognize as core values. America’s policymaking establishment has long assumed that, as China grows, it will become more like the West in the ways that matter most: respect for individual rights, rule of law, and, perhaps eventually, democracy. That fundamental assumption was wrong. Since 2012, China has in many ways become more like North Korea than America, creating a highly sophisticated system of neo-totalitarianism, with the crisis in Xinjiang a demonstration of that dystopia.

Congress is justified in seeking to impose sanctions on the officials responsible for the Xinjiang crisis, as it’s currently doing. However, over the long run, it needs more: it needs a strategy to counter the rapid development of Chinese illiberalism.

Pompeo And North Korea’s Kim To Meet Sunday

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sunday in Pyongyang as part of his upcoming trip to Asia, the State Department announced on Tueasday. 

The details of Pompeo and Kim’s discussions have not been revealed, however State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the meeting will focus on North Korea’s nuclear program. 

The two will also likely discuss a second summit between Kim and President Trump, which the White House said was being negotiated in a statement last month. 

Developing…

Insider Attacks: Retired Army Major Laments US Middle East Policy Blowback

Authored by Major Danny Sjursen via TomDispatch.com,

He was shot in the back, the ultimate act of treachery.

On September 3rd, a U.S Army sergeant major was killed by two Afghan police officers – the very people his unit, the new Security Force Assistance Brigade, was there to train. It was the second fatal “insider attack,” as such incidents are regularly called, this year and the 102nd since the start of the Afghan War 17 long years ago. Such attacks are sometimes termed “green-on-blue” incidents (in Army lingo, “green” forces are U.S. allies and “blue” forces Americans). For obvious reasons, they are highly destructive to the military mission of training and advising local military and security forces in Afghanistan. Such attacks, not surprisingly, sow distrust and fear, creating distance between Western troops and their supposed Afghan partners.

Reading about this latest tragic victim of Washington’s war in Afghanistan, the seventh American death this year and 2,416th since 2001, I got to thinking about those insider attacks and the bigger story that they embodied.

Considered a certain way, U.S. policy across the Greater Middle East has, in fact, produced one insider attack after another.

Short-term thinking, expedience, and a lack of strategic caution (or direction) has led Washington to train, fund, and support group after group that, soon enough, turned its guns on American soldiers and civilians. It’s a long, sordid tale that stretches back decades — and one that, unlike the individual instances of treachery that kill or maim American servicemen, receives next to no attention. It’s worth thinking about, though, because if U.S. policies had been radically different, such green-on-blue incidents might never have occurred. So let’s consider the last decades of American war-making in the context of insider attacks.

The Ground Zero of Insider Attacks: Afghanistan (1979-present)

In 1979, the Washington foreign policy elite saw everything through the prism of a possible existential Cold War clash between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Such a focus tended to erase local context, nuance, and complexity, leading the U.S. to back a range of nefarious actors as long as they were allies in the struggle against communism.

So in December 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan, Washington knew just what to do. With the help of the Saudis and the Pakistanis, the CIA financed, trained, and armed — eventually with sophisticated anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, among other weapons — a range of anti-Soviet militias. And it worked! Eight years later, having suffered more than 10,000 combat deaths in its own version of Vietnam, the Red Army left Afghanistan in defeat (and, soon after, the Soviet Union itself imploded).

The problem was that many of those anti-Communist Afghans were also fiercely Islamist, often extreme in their views, and ultimately anti-Western as well as anti-Soviet — and among them, as you undoubtedly remember, was a youthful Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden.

It was, then, an easy-to-overlook reality. After all, the Islamist mujahideen (as they were generally called) were astute enough to fight one enemy at a time and knew where their proverbial bread was being buttered. As long as the money and arms kept flowing in and the more immediate Soviet threat loomed, even the most extreme of them were willing to play nice with Americans. It was a marriage of convenience. Few in Washington bothered to ask what they would do with all those guns once the Soviets left town.

Recent scholarship and newly opened Russian archives suggest that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was driven as much by defensiveness and insecurity as by any notion of triumphal regional conquest. Despite the fears of officials in the administrations of presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the Soviets never had the capacity or the intent to march through Afghanistan and seize the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. Like so much Cold War-era thinking, this was pure fantasy and the meddling that went with it anything but necessary.

After the Soviet exit, Afghanistan fell into a long period of chaos, as various mujahideen leaders became local warlords, fought with one another, and terrorized average Afghans. Frustrated by their venality, former mujahideen, aided by students radicalized in madrassas in Pakistani refugee camps (schools that had often been financed by America’s stalwart partner, Saudi Arabia), formed the Taliban movement. Many of its leaders and soldiers had once been funded and armed by the CIA. By 1996, it had swept to power in most of the country, implementing a reign of Islamist terror. Still, that movement was broadly popular in its early years for bringing order to chaos and misery.

And let’s not forget one other small but influential mujahideen group that the U.S. had backed: the “Afghan Arabs,” as they were called — fiercely Islamist foreigners who flocked to that country to fight the godless Soviets. The most notable among them was, of course, Osama bin Laden — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Bin Laden and other Afghan War veterans would form al-Qaeda, bomb American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, blow up the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and take down the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. These, though, were only the most well known acts of those anti-Soviet war vets. Thousands of Afghan Arabs left that war zone and returned to their own countries with plenty of zeal and fight still in them. Those veterans would then form local terror organizations that would challenge or help destabilize secular governments in the Middle East and North Africa.

After 9/11, the question on many American minds was simple enough: “Why do they hate us?” Too few had the knowledge or the sense of history that might have led to far more relevant questions: How did the U.S. contribute to what happened and to what extent was it blowbackfrom previous American operations? Unfortunately, few such questions were raised as the Bush administration headed into what would become a 17-year, still-spreading regional war not on a nation or even a set of nations, but on a tactic, “terror.”

Still, it’s worth reflecting on America’s complicity in its own 9/11 devastation. In a strange fashion, given Washington’s history in Afghanistan, 9/11 could be seen as the most devastating insider attack of all.

The Many Iraq Wars (1980-present)

The 2003 invasion of Iraq — Operation Iraqi Freedom as it was optimistically named — may go down as one of the more foolish wars in American history — and many of the attacks on U.S. troops that followed from it over the years might be considered green-on-blue ones. After all, Washington would, in the end, train and back so many diffuse groups that a number of the members of various terror and insurgent outfits were once on the U.S. payroll.

It began, of course, with Saddam Hussein, the brutal Iraqi dictator whom the American people would be assured (in 1990 and again in 2003) was the “next Hitler.” In the 1980s, however, the U.S. government had backed him in his invasion of Iran (then as now considered a mortal enemy) and the eight-year stalemated war that followed. The U.S. even gave his forces crucial targeting intelligence for the use of his chemical weapons against Iranian troop formations, embittering the Iranians for years to come.

The Reagan administration also took Iraq off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror and even allowed the sale of components vital to Saddam’s production of those chemical weapons. Nearly a million people died in that grim war and then, just two years after it ended, the U.S. found that, for its efforts, Saddam would send his troops into neighboring Kuwait and threaten to roll over America’s key ally in the region (then as now), Saudi Arabia. That, of course, kicked off another major Iraqi conflagration, again involving Washington: the First Persian Gulf War.

At the end of that “victory,” President George H.W. Bush encouraged Iraq’s oppressed Shia and Kurdish populations to rise up and overthrow Saddam’s largely Sunni regime. And rebel they did until, bereft of the slightest meaningful support from Washington, they were defeated and massacred. More than a decade later, in 2003, when the U.S. again invaded Iraq — this time under the false pretense that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — Americans were assured that most civilians (especially the embattled Shia majority) would cheer the arrival of Uncle Sam’s military machine.

In reality, it took less then a year for Shia militias to form and begin openly attacking U.S. troops (with a helping hand later from the Iranians, who had their own bitter American legacy to recall). You see, those Shia — unlike most Americans — still remembered how Washington had betrayed them in 1991 and so launched their own versions of insider attacks on U.S. soldiers.

However, from 2003 to 2007 (including the period when I served as part of the U.S. occupation force in Baghdad), the main threat came from Sunni insurgents. They were a diverse lot, including former Saddam loyalists and military officers (whom the U.S. had thrown out onto the street when it disbanded his army), Islamist jihadis, and Iraqi nationalists who simply opposed a foreign occupation of their country. As Iraq fell into chaos — I was there to see it happen — Washington turned to a savior general, David Petraeus, armed with a plan to “surge” U.S. troops into key Sunni regions and lower the violence there before Democrats in Congress lost patience and started calling for an end to the American role in that country.

In the years that followed, the statistics seemed to vindicate the Petraeus “miracle.” Using divide-and-conquer tactics, he paid off the tribal leaders, who became known as the “Sunni Awakening” movement, to turn their guns on more Islamist-focused Sunni groups. Many of his new allies had only recently been insurgents with American blood on their hands.

Still, the gamble seemed to work — until it didn’t. In 2011, after the Obama administration withdrew most American troops from the country, the Shia-dominated (and U.S.-backed) government in Baghdad failed to continue to pay the “awakened” Sunnis or integrate them into the official security forces. I’m sure you can guess what happened next. Sunni grievances led to mass protests, which led to a Shia crackdown, which led to the explosion of a new insurgent terror group: the Islamic State, or ISIS, whose origins — talk about “insider” — can be traced back to the inspiration of al-Qaeda and to a group initially known as al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In fact, it was a dirty secret that many of the Awakening veterans either joined or tacitly supported ISIS in 2013 or thereafter, seeing that brutal group as the best bet for protecting Sunni power from Shia chauvinism and American deceit. Soon enough, the U.S. military was back in action (as it still is today) in response to ISIS conquests that included some of Iraq’s major cities. And if all of that doesn’t qualify as a tale of blowback, what does?

Yemen, Syria, and Beyond (2011-forever)

Syria is a humanitarian disaster area and no U.S. administration has demonstrated anything resembling a coherent or consistent strategy when it comes to that country. Torn between Iraq War fatigue and military overstretch, the Obama team waffled on what its policy there should even be and ultimately failed to achieve anything of substance — except to potentially sow the seeds for future insider attacks. Indeed, a paltry (yet startlingly expensive) CIA attempt to arm “moderate” rebels opposed to the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad turned out to be wholly counterproductive. Some of those arms were ultimately reported to have made their way into the hands of extremist groups like the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda franchise in Syria. In a situation where truth proved more farcical than fiction, the $500 million effort to train anti-ISIS rebels managed to train “four or five” of them, according to the top U.S. military commander overseeing the Syrian effort.

In Yemen, in a Saudi-led war in which the U.S. has been shamelessly complicit, a brutal bombing campaign waged largely against civilians and a blockade of rebel ports have undoubtedly sown the seeds for future insider attacks. Beyond the staggering humanitarian toll — a minimum of 10,000 civilian deaths, mass starvation, and the outbreak of the world’s worst cholera epidemic in modern memory — there is already strategic blowback that could harm future American security. As the U.S. military provides in-flight refueling of Saudi planes, smart bombs for them to drop, and vital intelligence, it is also undoubtedly helping its future enemies. The chaos, violence, and ungoverned spaces that war has created are, for instance, empowering the al-Qaeda franchise there, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the most active and dangerous jihadist crews around. When, however, AQAP inevitably succeeds in some future strike aimed at Americans or their property, precious few pundits and policymakers will call it by its proper name: an insider attack.

So, as we lament the death of yet another soldier in a green-on-blue strike in Afghanistan, it’s worth thinking about the broader contours of U.S. policy across the Greater Middle East and Africa in these years. Is anything the U.S. doing, anyone it is empowering or arming, likely to make the Middle East or America any safer? If not, wouldn’t a different, less interventionist approach be the essence of sober strategy?

It may, of course, be too late. Washington’s military policies since 9/11 have alienated tens of millions of Muslims across the Greater Middle East and elsewhere. Grievances are gestating, plots unfolding, and new terror outfits gaining recruits due to the very presence of the U.S. military, its air power, and the CIA’s drone force in a “war” that is about to enter its 18th year. Seen in this light, it’s hard not to believe that more anti-U.S. “insider” attacks aren’t on the way.

The question is only where and when, not if.

*  *  *

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Italy Folds To Europe, Pledges To Shrink Budget Deficit To 2.0%; Euro Surges

After two days of brutal punishment by the markets which sent Italian bond yields to 4 years highs and slammed the euro, the Italian government appears to have folded to pressure from Brussels (and the one place in the world where the bond vigilantes still operate, just ask Sylvio Berlusconi), and according to Corriere della Sera, Italy’s draft budget plan will pledge to cut the deficit to 2% in 2021, after Rome reversed a proposal to maintain a 2.4% shortfall in the face of pressure from the EU. As a result, while the 2019 deficit will still rise to 2.4% of GDP in 2019, it will decline by 0.2% to 2.2% in 2020, and another 0.2% the year after.

In kneejerk reaction, futures lept to fresh session highs, Treasury yields jumped by 2bps to 3.07% and the EURUSD spiked 50 pips higher to 1.1590.

Italy is not out of the woods yet though: according to Mizuho, the sustainability of the euro’s rebound will depend on whether the EU sees Italy’s latest budget plan as appropriate. It could be that Italy has already made compromise with the EU, but hard to predict whether the euro’s rebound has more legs until we see a reaction from the EU: “It all boils down to the EU’s response”, and if the ongoing war of words is any indication, merely promising to trim the deficit in the next three years will hardly be smiled upon.

Others were even more skeptical. According to bond fund manager Daintree Capital, “The euro’s definitely reacting to the headlines on Italian budget plans, and it will continue to do so for future headlines.” However, “anyone who believes a populist government is all of a sudden going to be particularly responsible in a fiscal sense, has a misguided view.”

As a result, Daintree’s Justin Tyler said that “I do see the euro as potentially being a bit of a weak point in G-10. There’s lots of political risks coming out of Italy.”

Finally, there is Bloomberg’s Mark Cudmore who writes that the “euro reaction is excessive and won’t sustain” because the proposed budget deficit target is still too late “and it’s two years too late anyways. There’s justification for some positivity in that the Italian government are trying to address market concerns. But that’s largely eroded by the fact that this is little more than a token gesture and insufficient to ease Italy’s debt burden. And that suggests that the government still don’t register the severity of the situation.”

Finally, even if the deficit were to shrink modestly, that only impacts one of the three triggers listed by Goldman earlier today why volatility in Italian bonds won’t sustain. The other two – the phasing out of the ECB’s QE and the collapse in Italian bond volatility – are here to stay, and merely await the next catalyst out of Italy’s populist government to send yields soaring even higher.

Finally, don’t be surprised if a member of government comes out in the next few hours and denies the whole thing.