“Wir haben es nicht gewusst.” This German catchphrase - literally meaning “we did not know” - refers to the stereotypical defense said to have been used by Germans attempting to deflect accusations of not having done enough to stop Nazi crimes against humanity during the Second World War, especially the Holocaust. Today, unfortunately, that phrase still holds true for a large part of the global population when it comes to the atrocities committed on a daily basis by dictatorial regimes around the world and the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) in particular.
The weapon of disinformation, propaganda and censorship is a key tool in the CCP’s toolbox of modern warfare, both in- and outside its national territory. They are being aided and abetted in this effort by the willingness of Western governments and companies to sign on to secret deals with this cruel regime, further obfuscating its true nature and slowly expanding their model of so-called social stability through absolute control of the flow of information.
Notwithstanding the annual celebrations of the end of the Holocaust under the motto “Never Again”, it took the world over three years to wake up to the crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Almost four years of mass surveillance, mass internment, reports of torture, rape and forced sterilisations. Almost four years in which family members abroad desperately looked for information and justice for their disappeared loved ones. Years in which the CCP has continued to tout its amazing accomplishments within the region and the world has not been able to come up with an adequate answer. Years in which numerous governments in the Western world have signed on to agreements with that same regime, and prohibited or thwarted efforts by human rights activists or Members of Parliament to raise the issue as to not embarrass Chinese partners.
A concrete example of such actions comes from my beloved Italy. It was the summer of 2017, roughly about six months after the reported start of the internment campaign in Xinjiang. We had invited Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, to come testify at the Italian Senate during a press conference with Italian Senator Luigi Compagna. After 24 hours on the Italian territory, we were stopped by the Italian anti-terrorism police right before entering the Senate. Dolkun was led away and held for questioning for four hours. When Senator Compagna insisted on inviting his guest to the Senate the next day, he was informed the Senate’s personnel had been kindly instructed not to allow Dolkun Isa to enter the premises under any circumstance, as to not create embarrassment. More staggering than the event in itself - which did not only censor Dolkun Isa but also an elected representative of the Italian people - was the deafening silence by which the event was met in Italian media, keeping the Italian public in the dark not only on what was happening in Xinjiang but also on the extent to which the Chinese regime evidently managed to intrude on constitutional institutions within Italy itself. It is this event that made me decide to dedicate most of my time as a human rights activist in Italy to promoting awareness on the nature of the Chinese regime and its aims and methods both within and outside China.
As the Venerable Luon Sovath - a Cambodian human rights activist now in forced exile in Switzerland - recently put it in an interview to the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders: “Access to information is crucial in the fight for human rights. […] Only real information will bring justice.” The people of Hong Kong have harnessed this power as no other in bringing their fight to the world stage. They have successfully used all the tools at their disposal to make it impossible for the world not only to bear witness to their plight, but they have used their global voice to shine a light on the ongoing abuse against other ethnic and religious minorities within China as well. And I have no doubt that in the eyes of Beijing, this is their biggest crime.
Under the COVID-19 crisis, the CCP has doubled down on its efforts to propagate its superior model of governance, and all too often we have seen democracies sign on to this narrative in an all too superficial manner. Some members of the Italian government, especially during the first months of the crisis, referred numerous times to the “Chinese model”, while refraining from mentioning models that have not only shown greater effectiveness in combating the spreading of the pandemic but also managed to do so while maintaining civil liberties, such as Taiwan. Combined with the government-endorsed propaganda of so-called aid packages arriving from the People’s Republic of China, the capitulation to the authoritarian supremacy narrative appeared complete.
If this operation - one may call it the true extent of the CCP-virus - has been met with growing opposition, it is not only due to the many opposing voices within the Italian parliament and civil society. An enormous role has been played and continues to be played by the numerous courageous voices coming from those on the frontline to the Chinese regime. From the horrors in Xinjiang to the increasing crackdown on Hong Kong, it is their stories and testimonies that render the full idea of what this Chinese model stands for. It shows us what is at stake in allowing the CCP, in all its forms - be it through direct control in multilateral agencies or through the backdoor of their enterprises - into our systems.
It is to them - the countless and often anonymous voices - that we own not only a huge debt of gratitude for they are literally paying for our awareness with their lives and liberty as the horrific example of the 12 Hong Kong activists being held in Shenzhen shows, but an obligation as well.
We have a debt to stand with them. We have an obligation to speak out for them. We must keep shining a light on what is happening to the people suffering at the hands of this regime, which will employ every means at its disposal to silence those voices. As their free media is attacked, as social media channels are censored, as activists are arrested, we must revendicate our right to know what is going on and make sure the majority of the people around the world will not be able to state one day “wir haben es nicht gewusst”.
If we want to counter not only the narrative but come up with adequate and timely countermeasures as well, we must start by halting the chinesization of our democracies and reinforce our resilience to authoritarian models by unequivocally refuting the secrecy surrounding agreements being signed with the CCP and its subsidiaries. Members of the Italian Parliament should not be forced to accept not having access to the secret “technical” attachments to the MOU on the Belt and Road Initiative signed in March 2019. We must not accept not knowing the content of the numerous agreements signed between Italian media and its Chinese counterparts. We cannot accept Italian news agencies “reporting” on China through Xinhua news agency. We must continue to press the Vatican to release the true contents of its biennial agreement with Beijing and not let down on claiming answers as to why it remains numb on the harsh treatment of its believers within China and prefers to silence its representatives instead.
As the official slogan of The Washington Post states: “democracy dies in darkness”. This is exactly what the CCP envisages. It is why the Nonviolent Radical Party, Transnational and Transparty - an NGO with General Consultative Status at UN ECOSOC since 1995 - started the struggle for the recognition of a people’s right to know at the time of the 2003 war in Iraq. This proposal is now under review at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a grouping of 47 Member States, in what we hope will be a first step to ensure this right for citizens around the globe and a fundamental tool to guarantee human rights abuses can no longer go unnoticed or be silenced in the name of economic or political advantages. It is the fundamental difference between an authoritarian model of censorship, information control and blotted out satellite images, and free democratic societies where we can all thrive and not be forced to be unwittingly complicit to abuses on the other side of the world.
Knowledge is power. It is the power to protect ourselves and others. It is the power to hold those in government in check. It is the power that brings activists from around the world together in fighting against abuse and for democracy. And it is the primary power of agenda-setting both authoritarian regimes and democracies fear today, be it in Beijing or in the Vatican.
(Laura Harth, a human rights activist, she coordinates activities with the Global Committee for the Rule of Law “Marco Pannella” (GCRL). She also acts as Representative to the United Nations Institutions for the Nonviolent Radical Party, Transnational and Transparty (NRPTT), and as a regional liaison for the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).)
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