China's incarceration of more than one million Turkic Muslims in camps, and indefinite rule by its increasingly authoritarian president are among a number of global threats to democracy, according to a new report from the independent watchdog Freedom House.
China is increasingly seeking to export its model of government to other countries, filling a gap once occupied by the United States in global affairs, the "Freedom in the World 2019" report warned.
"Democracies face threats at home and abroad," the report found. "A crisis of confidence in open societies is sapping faith in democracy as a system."
"Domestic attacks on key institutions — the judiciary, the media, and electoral mechanisms — are undermining the foundations of democracy," it said.
"At the same time, a global assault on the norms of democracy, led by an increasingly assertive China, challenges their spread around the world," the report said, awarding China just 11 points out of a possible 100 in its freedom score.
Mass detentions in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have drawn significant attention from the international community, and particularly from the U.S., where lawmakers have called for access to the camps and proposed sanctions against officials and entities in China deemed responsible for abusing the rights of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, the chairman of the XUAR government, Shohrat Zakir, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations has shown that those held in the camps are detained against their will, are subjected to political indoctrination and rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
The atmosphere is more like a prison than any kind of school, multiple sources say.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress exile group, called for greater international action over the camps in Xinjiang.
"What we expect from the international community isn't just concern, but also some concrete restraints and direct pressure letting the Chinese government know that human rights abuses will result in united sanctions from the rest of the world," he said.
"There has to be effective and binding international action to force the Chinese government relax its current, extreme policies when it comes to human rights," he said.
‘Nations may turn to China’
The Freedom House report also warned of Beijing's efforts to export its lack of freedom and to undermine overseas democracies.
Faced with a fading role for the U.S. on the world stage, "more nations may turn to China, a rising alternative to US leadership," the report said.
"The Chinese Communist Party has welcomed this trend, offering its authoritarian system as a model for developing nations," it said.
Australia-based dissident Wu Lebao said many university lecturers in the country now avoid politically contentious topics like the mass incarceration of Muslims, Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and public support for self-determination in Taiwan and Tibet, for fear of being targeted by Beijing's supporters.
"In the classroom, Australian lecturers dare not mention such topics at all, because if they do, Chinese students studying in Australia will stage protests, at the instigation of the Chinese Embassy, saying they are insulting China," Wu said.
"They are misappropriating the idea of discrimination to demolish academic freedom in Australia," he said.
William Nee, China researcher for Amnesty International, said there is basically no freedom of speech or association in China now.
"We have seen online spaces like Weibo which were once quite vibrant ... come under government or party control," Nee said. "There are now also very strict controls of all kinds on media and broadcasters."
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lau Siu-fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.