2020: The Year of Authoritarianism, East Asia

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2020 has not been a normal year. While most of the 21st century has been defined by steady progress towards democracy and human rights, the last few years have been dismal. While countries like Poland and Hungary retreat from democracy, so do their counterparts in Asia. Within the last year we have seen countries in the region not only continuing the erosion of institutions, but now using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to further authoritarianism or diminish civil rights. China continues its annexation of Hong Kong and genocide of the Uyghurs; Duterte’s regime in the Philippines has passed new security laws to strengthen his control while cronies use the pandemic to rob their fellow countrymen, and even South Korea, a success story of liberal democracy in Asia, has seen violations of privacy and civil rights in its fight to control COVID-19. 

Last year the world watched the governments of China and the Philippines continue to restrict civil rights. This year, all eyes are focused at home instead of abroad. With a pandemic crippling national economies and killing thousands upon thousands, paying attention to these developments might be seen as distracting or unnecessary. Despite this, the fight continues along a widening front.

Authoritarianism in China


While most of the world struggled with COVID-19, China has turned this pandemic into an opportunity. President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), initially burdened by an economic slowdown and medical crisis, have reaped political rewards at the fringes of the country. Much of the world has lauded China for its response to the pandemic, yet many are afraid that the response has led to crackdowns on civil rights and liberties. 1.Marine Strauss, “China’s response to COVID-19 better than U.S.’s, global poll finds”: Reuters Hong Kong has been a longstanding issue for the Chinese government. Since 1997, Hong Kong has retained the special status of having free elections and free speech. As a result, Hong Kongers have published books critical of the CCP, elected officials antagonistic to Beijing, and continue to protest in large numbers. 

Previous protests focused on expanding electoral rights and maintaining independence from the Chinese legal system. 2019 saw some of the largest protests in Hong Kong’s history, with more than 2 million people partaking in a single day. Protests continued into 2020 and the Chinese government kept looking for a swift end. COVID-19 was that opportunity in Hong Kong. Learning the lessons from the 2003 SARS outbreak, officials in Hong Kong sprang into action to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.2.Timothy Mclaughin, “A Glimpse of the Coronavirus’s Possible Legacy”: The Atlantic With the living memory of a past epidemic, residents adhered to the new rules and were able to contain the spread within weeks. 3.Timothy Mclaughin, “Get Used to It: This Lockdown Won’t Be the Last”: The Atlantic

However, influxes of Hong Kongers abroad and Chinese mainlanders traveling for shopping, work, and tourism led to a resurgence of the virus. In May, the city’s pro-Beijing government extended restrictions to June 5, which would coincidentally stop the annual protest against the Tiananmen Square Massacre scheduled for June 4.4.“China is using covid-19 to throttle Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement”: Washington Post The restrictions limited gatherings of more than four people, while hosting events would carry a six month jail sentence. With crowds forbidden, the HK Legislative Council was able to enact the National Security Law on June 30. The new law has given the police the extreme power to conduct searches without a warrant, while banning the promotion of extremist or anti-communist ideology.5.“China Approves Plan to Rein In Hong Kong, Defying Worldwide Outcry”: New York Times The fallout from the new law has led to the collapse of pan-democratic forces within Hong Kong. Leaders have fled, organisations have disbanded, and activists fleeing the city have been detained by the Chinese government.6.“Pro-democracy leader Nathan Law leaves Hong Kong”: CNN7.“Hong Kong democracy activist group led by Joshua Wong disbands”: Reuters8.“China Captures Hong Kong Activists Fleeing to Taiwan by Sea”: New York Times

Meanwhile in Xinjiang, China’s most Western province, China continues its policy of erasure of an entire minority group. While China is home to a number of ethnic minorities, the minority Muslim Uyghurs have provoked the government’s ire, which has resulted in aggressive targeting. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many Turkic peoples were able to govern themselves for the first time. The Uyghurs, being without a nation, sought to change that through protest. Mass public demonstrations similar to democratic and separatist movements of the era were the norm for a few years.9.“Xinjiang, China’s Restive Northwest”: Human Rights Watch

However, failure and government crackdown would lead Uyghur extremists carrying out terrorist attacks in China.10.“Why is there tension between China and the Uighurs?”: BBC While the Chinese government was already committed to cracking down on terrorism and crime in 1996, Xinjiang soon became the focus after the Ürümqi Riots of 2009.11.Edward Wong, “Riots in Western China Amid Ethnic Tension”: New York Times The government began a campaign of systematic destruction of Uyghur culture. It destroyed mosques, burned Qurans, banned halal food, and prevented civil servants from fasting during Ramadan.12.Nithin Coca, “The Long Shadow of Xinjiang”: Foreign Affairs Reeducation centers were constructed for the sole purpose of reprogramming people to become model Chinese citizens. The wearing of religious clothing was banned, while torture and abuse occurred on a regular basis at detention centers.13.“What’s been happening in China’s Xinjiang, home to 11 million Uyghurs?”: CNN In most legal definitions, these actions are the hallmarks of genocide.14.“China Suppression Of Uighur Minorities Meets U.N. Definition Of Genocide, Report Says”: NPR This repression continues despite the Chinese government acknowledging that no terrorist incidents have occurred in the country since 2016.15.“Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: China (Hong Kong and Macau)”: US Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism 

Many countries have condemned China’s actions taken in Xinjiang against the Uyghur people, while some have even praised it. However, the outrage and barbarity have been overshadowed by the global pandemic. While the rest of the world deals with COVID-19, the Chinese government essentially has a carte blanche to continue its crimes against humanity. While the rest of the country has had COVID-19 measures lifted, Xinjiang has remained under heavy lockdown since July. Train stations are closed, intercity bus routes have been canceled, and returning Xinjiang residents must undergo centralized quarantining.16.Emily Feng, “China Calls It A ‘Wartime Mode’ COVID-19 Lockdown. And Residents Are Protesting”: NPR At the beginning of the year, the Chinese government implemented a campaign called “one million police enter ten million homes,” allowing auxiliary police and community officials to help the CCP keep tabs on Xinjiang residents during the pandemic. Chinese netizens in Xinjiang have been posting about a mysterious traditional medicine they have been forced to take.17.“In Xinjiang, Forced Medication Accompanies Coronavirus”: Time Even in the city of Ili, 400 miles away from Ürümqi and with zero cases of the virus, lockdown is still in full effect.18.“Thousands use social media to protest ‘draconian’ lockdown in China’s Xinjiang”: Telegraph With no way into the region and no one to watch the injustice unfold, the government more or less has free reign in continuing its current course of action. COVID-19 has provided the perfect smoke screen, both for Chinese citizens and the rest of the world, because the measures are sensible on paper and the pandemic has already affected most of the world. 

Duterte’s Power Grabs in the Philippines

In the Philippines, the country’s President, Rodrigo Duterte, continues to accumulate power since his inauguration in 2016. While most infamous for his war on drugs, Duterte has used coronavirus as an opportunity to silence dissidents, enrich his political allies, and expand his powers to new authoritarian heights.19.“Philippines drugs war: UN report criticises ‘permission to kill'”: BBC After a string of six suicide bombings between July 2018 and November 2019, the Filipino government decided to take stronger action against the Islamist terrorist threat in the Sulu Archipelago.20.“The Philippines Anti-Terrorism Act: Who Guards the Guardians?”: The Diplomat Incidents of terrorism have increased in the Philippines in recent years, which has given the Duterte administration legitimacy in combatting it. However, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 is severely problematic, enabling the government to hold suspects without a charge for weeks, use vague language to create a broad range of punishable offenses, and infringes on free speech.21.Julie McCarthy, “Why Rights Groups Worry About The Philippines’ New Anti-Terrorism Law”: NPR Many human rights groups have condemned the legislation, with the Philippines Catholic Church outright comparing the similarities with the Hong Kong security law. Even without the law, the Filipino government was able to disperse public gatherings such as a LGBTQ pride event.22.Ryan Thoreson, “Philippines Police Crack Down on LGBT Protest”: Human Rights Watch In this instance, the government relied on the Public Assembly Act of 1985 and the Law on Reporting of Communicable Diseases of 2019. While the new terrorism law makes it easier to arrest dissidents, previous laws already empower the government to disperse protests. 

Prachatai, Rodrigo Duterte, November 14, 2016

In the months prior to the passage of the new law, the Duterte administration ordered several broadcasters to cease operations, including the major news outlet ABS-CBN.23.Julie McCarthy, “‘It’s Unbelievable’: Shutdown Of Philippines’ Major Broadcaster Worries Many”: NPR The administration also targeted journalists who were critical of the administration, such as Maria Ressa, who was arrested in late March and sentenced to six months in prison for cyber libel.24.“Maria Ressa: Philippine journalist is arrested again”: BBC25.Ted Regencia, “Maria Ressa found guilty in blow to Philippines’ press freedom”: Al-Jazeera Ressa and her news organization Rappler were notorious for their relentless coverage on Duterte’s war on drugs along with exposing pro-Duterte networks spreading fake news. 

South Korea’s COVID Reaction

Even outside of the authoritarian regimes and flawed democracies of Asia, echoes of the past seem to haunt the now liberal democratic South Korea. In the wake of the pandemic, the South Korean government has widely been praised and lauded for its ability to contain the novel coronavirus.26.“The big lesson from South Korea’s coronavirus response”: Vox27.Derek Thompson, “What’s Behind South Korea’s COVID-19 Exceptionalism?”: The Atlantic28.Heesu Lee, “These Elite Contact Tracers Show the World How to Beat Covid-19”: Bloomberg However, these techniques employed in the fight might infringe upon civil liberties ordinarily enjoyed in a liberal democracy. In many of the articles that highlight the effectiveness of the Korean response, there is an omission of this fact: the government uses enhanced tracking methods to contract trace, methods privacy advocates would oppose if it were not for the pandemic.

The initial outbreak in South Korea began in a megachurch in Daegu where a woman unknowingly transmitted the virus through a digital scanner.29.Derek Thompson, “What’s Behind South Korea’s COVID-19 Exceptionalism?”: The Atlantic As soon as cases were confirmed in the city, the government sprang into action. After the MERS outbreak of 2015, the Infection Disease Control and Prevention Act (IDCPA) allowed the Minister of Health to collect private data without a warrant from confirmed and suspected patients.30.Brian Kim, “Lessons for America: How South Korean Authorities Used Law to Fight the Coronavirus”: Lawfare Additionally, the National Police Agency and private telecommunication providers were required to share the location information of confirmed and potential cases. The IDCPA also enabled the government to use surveillance footage and credit card purchases to trace cases.31.“New Covid-19 Outbreaks Test South Korea’s Strategy”: New York Times While these tracking methods were important in containing the virus, they are still a major violation of privacy and rights. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the South Korean government did not only use this information to track but to also alert neighborhoods of potential cases.32.Anthony Kuhn, “South Korea’s Tracking Of COVID-19 Patients Raises Privacy Concerns”: NPR This has led to the local Chinese population and the Joseonjok (ethnic Koreans in China) to be stigmatized by other Koreans. An outbreak occurred later in May in the Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon, the foreigner district known for its nightlife. Many of the clubs in this area cater to the LGBTQ crowd. The outbreak was traced to one 29 year old gay man who had visited several clubs and bars that night.33.Jason Strother, “South Korea’s coronavirus contact tracing puts LGBTQ community under surveillance, critics say”: PRI This incident caused a wave of hostilities against the LGBTQ in Korea, with many fearful at being outed in a mostly conservative society. Many were afraid of being terminated from their jobs, while others faced physical violence.34.Ryan Thoreson, “Covid-19 Backlash Targets LGBT People in South Korea”: Human Rights Watch35.Jen Kwon, “
A new coronavirus cluster linked to Seoul nightclubs is fueling homophobia”: CBS
 

The Korean government has most recently put a stop to all unnecessary gatherings. This has put religious Koreans into conflict against the government as most of the country is under a restriction of 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors while the strictest measures prohibit 10 or more.36.“South Korea imposes stricter measures to stem spread as coronavirus cases continue to rise”: CNBC37.Hooyeon Kim, “South Korea Warns of ‘Massive’ Coronavirus Risk”: Bloomberg President Moon pushed forward with the draconian restrictions, saying “no freedom of religion, assembly or expression can be asserted at the cost of such damage.”38.“New Covid-19 Outbreaks Test South Korea’s Strategy”: New York Times While most outbreaks have been linked to churches within the country, there is a real possibility that the Korean government may be suppressing religious liberties. South Korea’s churches are known for their charismatic preachers and large attraction of congregants throughout the country.39.“In South Korea’s New Covid-19 Outbreak, Religion and Politics Collide”: New York Times

Namoroka, Shincheonji Daegu Church, March 2, 2020

Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon of the Sarang Jeil Church was able to pull hundreds of thousands to a protest in mid-August while other pastors are targeted by the government for their activities. The Shincheonji Church in Daegu, where the outbreak started in Korea, was ordered to provide a full list of its members despite the church not having a complete list due to some churchgoers not being full members yet.40.Kim So-Hyun, “‘Shincheonji didn’t lie about membership figures’”: Korean Herald41.David Volodzko, “South Korea’s COVID-19 Church Scapegoat Is Fighting Back”: Foreign Policy Shincheonji and its founder, Lee Man-hee, were threatened with prosecution if enough documentation was not provided. The Seoul Metropolitan Government banned Shincheonji gatherings in February, sued 12 church leaders for murder, and the Gyeonggi provincial government threatened to close all of their churches. The Daegu city government sued for $82.3 million, and prosecutors had arrested three church officials for giving false health information.42.“Seoul bans gatherings of Shincheonji church to curb virus spread”: Korean Herald43.“3 Shincheonji officials arrested for hindering virus control measures”: Yonhap News Agency

While Shincheonji was a vector for the virus, the behavior demonstrated by the government appears to be more retaliatory given the treatment towards other religious institutions. With recent events provoking the public’s ire, some of that might be considered politically motivated as other congregations hold a grudge against Shincheonji’s scalping techniques, with some people going as far as forcing members to deconvert or undergo deprograming 44.David Volodzko, Foreign Policy: South Korea’s COVID-19 Church Scapegoat Is Fighting Back. Based on the words of President Moon, further actions could be taken against even less fanatic church organizations if coronavirus continues to persist. Worse than that, religious freedom could be restricted in South Korea should it be seen as a threat to the government’s goals.

Xi Jinping used COVID-19 as a way to crackdown on dissidents and coverup a genocide. Rodrigo Duterte saw an opportunity to continue his crusade against crime and consolidate his own power. Moon Jae-in, despite being a leader in a liberal democracy, violated the privacy and rights of his citizens under the pretext of public safety. What might be the most terrifying part of COVID-19 in Asia is not its deadliness nor the lingering health problems it leaves behind, but the fact that governments are empowered to act in the name of public safety. Any restrictions of rights or liberty are fine under this framework so long as COVID-19 continues to haunt us. While many of these measures are necessary in curbing the disease, it is important to be cautious about their long-term ramifications once the world emerges from the pandemic and begins to move on again.

Andrew Michels

Andrew Michels is a contributor to International Review. He gradated from Xavier University with a BA in Political Science and International Studies. His region of focus is on East Asia and the Pacific.

References

References
1 Marine Strauss, “China’s response to COVID-19 better than U.S.’s, global poll finds”: Reuters
2 Timothy Mclaughin, “A Glimpse of the Coronavirus’s Possible Legacy”: The Atlantic
3 Timothy Mclaughin, “Get Used to It: This Lockdown Won’t Be the Last”: The Atlantic
4 “China is using covid-19 to throttle Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement”: Washington Post
5 “China Approves Plan to Rein In Hong Kong, Defying Worldwide Outcry”: New York Times
6 “Pro-democracy leader Nathan Law leaves Hong Kong”: CNN
7 “Hong Kong democracy activist group led by Joshua Wong disbands”: Reuters
8 “China Captures Hong Kong Activists Fleeing to Taiwan by Sea”: New York Times
9 “Xinjiang, China’s Restive Northwest”: Human Rights Watch
10 “Why is there tension between China and the Uighurs?”: BBC
11 Edward Wong, “Riots in Western China Amid Ethnic Tension”: New York Times
12 Nithin Coca, “The Long Shadow of Xinjiang”: Foreign Affairs
13 “What’s been happening in China’s Xinjiang, home to 11 million Uyghurs?”: CNN
14 “China Suppression Of Uighur Minorities Meets U.N. Definition Of Genocide, Report Says”: NPR
15 “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: China (Hong Kong and Macau)”: US Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism
16 Emily Feng, “China Calls It A ‘Wartime Mode’ COVID-19 Lockdown. And Residents Are Protesting”: NPR
17 “In Xinjiang, Forced Medication Accompanies Coronavirus”: Time
18 “Thousands use social media to protest ‘draconian’ lockdown in China’s Xinjiang”: Telegraph
19 “Philippines drugs war: UN report criticises ‘permission to kill'”: BBC
20 “The Philippines Anti-Terrorism Act: Who Guards the Guardians?”: The Diplomat
21 Julie McCarthy, “Why Rights Groups Worry About The Philippines’ New Anti-Terrorism Law”: NPR
22 Ryan Thoreson, “Philippines Police Crack Down on LGBT Protest”: Human Rights Watch
23 Julie McCarthy, “‘It’s Unbelievable’: Shutdown Of Philippines’ Major Broadcaster Worries Many”: NPR
24 “Maria Ressa: Philippine journalist is arrested again”: BBC
25 Ted Regencia, “Maria Ressa found guilty in blow to Philippines’ press freedom”: Al-Jazeera
26 “The big lesson from South Korea’s coronavirus response”: Vox
27, 29 Derek Thompson, “What’s Behind South Korea’s COVID-19 Exceptionalism?”: The Atlantic
28 Heesu Lee, “These Elite Contact Tracers Show the World How to Beat Covid-19”: Bloomberg
30 Brian Kim, “Lessons for America: How South Korean Authorities Used Law to Fight the Coronavirus”: Lawfare
31, 38 “New Covid-19 Outbreaks Test South Korea’s Strategy”: New York Times
32 Anthony Kuhn, “South Korea’s Tracking Of COVID-19 Patients Raises Privacy Concerns”: NPR
33 Jason Strother, “South Korea’s coronavirus contact tracing puts LGBTQ community under surveillance, critics say”: PRI
34 Ryan Thoreson, “Covid-19 Backlash Targets LGBT People in South Korea”: Human Rights Watch
35 Jen Kwon, “
A new coronavirus cluster linked to Seoul nightclubs is fueling homophobia”: CBS
36 “South Korea imposes stricter measures to stem spread as coronavirus cases continue to rise”: CNBC
37 Hooyeon Kim, “South Korea Warns of ‘Massive’ Coronavirus Risk”: Bloomberg
39 “In South Korea’s New Covid-19 Outbreak, Religion and Politics Collide”: New York Times
40 Kim So-Hyun, “‘Shincheonji didn’t lie about membership figures’”: Korean Herald
41 David Volodzko, “South Korea’s COVID-19 Church Scapegoat Is Fighting Back”: Foreign Policy
42 “Seoul bans gatherings of Shincheonji church to curb virus spread”: Korean Herald
43 “3 Shincheonji officials arrested for hindering virus control measures”: Yonhap News Agency
44 David Volodzko, Foreign Policy: South Korea’s COVID-19 Church Scapegoat Is Fighting Back