China has been in the news a lot this summer. From the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre to the recent protests in Hong Kong, which are aimed at resisting Beijing’s creeping and oppressive influence over the island nation, China keeps cropping up. For centuries, it has been a fascinating country for people in the West, alluring for its long history and yet rather frightening for the rumours regarding its present situation: social credit systems, human rights violations, and complete censorship of the media.

I lived in China for a total of about seven years, and I can say for certain that it is a terrifying place, and it gets more terrifying each year. In the West, we talk about “freedom” so much that it sort of loses its meaning, but if you want to really know what it means, take a look at China and you will see by its absence just what it is. This is a country where you not only lack the right to say what you wish, but you are subject to the most extraordinary brainwashing from the youngest age. You have no right to an opinion that does not jibe with the party line, and even if you did have that right, a lifetime of education that involves only rote memorization of invented facts based on party dogma would surely have robbed you of the critical faculties required to do that.

In China, you are watched at all times. The country is covered by a network of surveillance cameras that track your every movement. Last year, I was taken to get a new visa and shown pictures of myself from all over the country, captured on CCTV cameras in the streets or in train stations. Immigration officers had vast dossiers of information on me that could only have been obtained through close monitoring of my activities, and they knew where I was at all times because I needed my passport just to get on a bus or train. I am no one to them, yet they made it their business to watch me constantly, and compile significant documents on my political beliefs, personal relationships, and religious affiliations.

The society there is set up to encourage grassroots spying among the citizens. As a foreigner, I was watched by everyone around me. If I went to the pharmacy, my bosses would know that I had had stomach troubles. When I took a trip to a nearby mountain, the office staff at my university soon saw videos of me there online. In my case, it was pretty innocuous: Just casual racism, really. But knowing that you are being watched nearly every minute, and that they are monitoring your online activities, is frightening. Even in the middle of sunflower fields in countryside miles from any city, there are CCTV cameras that monitor the faces of passersby and inform the government of their movements.

China famously censors its internet. The people living there need to use a VPN to find out anything even vaguely true because the Chinese internet is awash with propaganda, and any reputable websites are blocked. In the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, almost every news source and factual resource in any language was blocked to avoid the people finding out what their government had done in 1989. Even on most typical days, the majority of foreign news outlets are blocked just in case they report on Taiwan or Hong Kong. The government cannot afford to be undermined.

A few weeks ago, dozens of Chinese celebrities took to the internet (or someone took to the internet on their behalf) at roughly the same time to share government propaganda over the Hong Kong protests. Even a number of overseas Chinese joined in, stating their support for the Hong Kong police, who have reacted violently to the peaceful protests, and Beijing, which has sponsored gangs to beat and stab people associated with the pro-democracy movement. Most Chinese only see these messages, and have no idea that there is little to no violence perpetrated by the protestors. They are fed a steady stream of nationalist propaganda, and view Beijing’s dominance over Hong Kong as a matter of national pride.

Most of us look at this sort of censorship and propaganda with perplexity. “How can they tolerate that?!” we ask. Some smug folks suggest that we in the West are no different. “Most Americans think that Christopher Columbus was a hero who discovered America!” Yet while some people do think this, and some people do believe idiotic fake news stories, at least we also have truth. You can still report facts, you can still read things that are true in an encyclopedia (or Wikipedia), and you can still go to a university and learn how to think for yourself. It may seem that we are living in dark days, but we are a long way from living in a Chinese dystopia.

Or are we?

Recently, China has begun to expand its insidious influence out upon the world. Taiwan was a founder of the United Nations, yet China had it expelled in 1971 after its economy and political power eclipsed that of its smaller neighbor. This is a behavior that has repeated itself with disturbing frequency. Nowadays, no country can have diplomatic relations with Taiwan without turning its back on China, and China is simply too rich to ignore. If you choose to do the right thing and side with a small, bullied, democratic country, you will be shut off from all trade with China. Few nations or companies are willing to make that sacrifice.

Whenever a company acknowledges the independence of Taiwan or Hong Kong, or asserts any support for Tibet or the Dalai Lama, they are immediately taken to task by the Chinese government. Soon after, millions of angry citizens invariably bay for blood and apologies are, of course, soon proffered. We in the West have become utterly spineless in the face of this predictable and yet abhorrent tactic. Chinese money is worth more than any sense of decency. In the past few months alone, Versace, Gap, Delta, McDonalds, Marriot, and Zara have all been forced to issue apologies and reaffirm their support for Beijing’s one-China policy. This is utterly appalling, and it shows the extent to which China has successfully imposed its own version of reality on the outside world.  

Since the turn of the century, those countries who once protested Chinese human rights violations have gone silent as China’s star has risen. It is now the second-biggest economy in the world and its military grows in power every day. It has perpetrated reprehensible deals in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Pakistan, and all over Africa in order to secure land for itself abroad. It is little more than a 21st-century colonial power, as it sends its own people (only the Han ethnicity, of course) to populate these regions. It bullies its neighbours in the South China Sea, knowing that no one will stand up to it and militarily confront it over its absurd territorial claims. Most of Asia is now completely powerless as China grows increasingly confident and asserts its own ridiculous views on the world.

China compared to Nazi Germany.

China recently incarcerated more than a million Muslims in its western province of Xinjiang. A few mutterings came from western governments and media outlets, but not much considering that the world was witnessing a dictator with unchecked powers utilizing concentration camps to get rid of a minority group. It is a familiar story. When Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, the world dithered before confronting him. Right now, we are dithering again. This time, though, the West is so divided that it is hard to imagine we will muster the courage, willpower, or strength to stand up to a force that is easily as terrifying as the Nazis. Yet while China rapidly eats up Asia and spreads its influence into Africa, it is already eroding Western democracy and undermining our way of life.

In the universities of the West, Chinese students are so valuable that their incorrect views of history and politics must go unchallenged. Our leaders must not tread on the toes of Beijing’s propaganda masters by meeting with the Dalai Lama (who is, to a billion and a half Chinese, a terrorist) or referring to any objective truths about Asian geography, history, or politics. We must all be very careful or else the Chinese will stop doing business with us, our economies will go haywire, and we will be the target (more than usual) of Chinese digital espionage. If China invaded Hong Kong tomorrow (and it very well might), could you seriously imagine any Western power doing more than wagging a finger and muttering as tanks rolled through the streets, crushing students underneath their tracks as happened in Beijing in 1989? If China invaded Taiwan and slaughtered their population in order to pacify that “renegade province,” would anyone step in to put a halt to the bloodshed? It seems unlikely, given that the price of an iPhone would surely double, along with most other electronics and household goods.

The future is, of course, uncertain, but as China rises and no one stands to check their vile behaviour, it begins to look increasingly bleak. If they want to live in a surveillance state that would shock even Orwell, so be it, but their influence is moving rapidly beyond their own expanding borders, and we need to be very careful with how we deal with them. The time for courage is at hand, but can we muster it?