A century ago, as the world struggled with recovery from the Spanish Flu, totalitarian movements rose to power and went on to shake the very foundations of human civilization. National Socialism (Nazism) and Soviet Communism left behind a legacy of death, destruction, and poverty.
Today, liberal democracies face serious challenges to their fundamental principles at home while newly emboldened authoritarian regimes abroad gain strength. While we’re fortunate both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are long gone, the conditions that lead to totalitarianism are still with us, and many have not learned sorry lessons of the past.
After witnessing firsthand how the forces of collectivism and totalitarianism swallowed his native Austria, F. A. Hayek published “The Road to Serfdom.” Tracing the roots of illiberal movements, Hayek pointed out that Nazism was a variant of socialism that was “the culmination of a long evolution of thought” which percolated for decades in Germany.
Socialism and nationalism shared a symbiotic relationship, especially among the intelligentsia, who cheered for the centralization of the German state in the late 19th century. The National Socialist movement was one of collectivist ideologies seeking total dominion over other human beings.
Heading Down the Same Road
Today, ominous parallels can be observed in the People’s Republic of China. Since its founding in 1949, and to this very day, the PRC remains under the absolute control of the Chinese Communist Party (unlike its Eastern bloc counterparts). Like twentieth-century Germany, the PRC’s embrace of socialism, nationalism, and the worst elements of collectivism resulted in unspeakable horrors.
Under Mao Zedong’s rule of China, the end goal was communism — the violent abolition of private property. Industries were nationalized, farms were collectivized, and all private property was seized. Civil society itself — private life and existence outside the state — ceased to exist. The end result was the greatest man-made famine in history and an estimated 30-45 million deaths. More mass death, destruction, and chaos followed in the Cultural Revolution.
From its very genesis to the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution to the present, the PRC’s bloody trail of atrocities cannot be openly discussed in the mainland. To this day the truth is systematically covered up by the Chinese government.
Holding and Consolidating Power
Despite its economic reforms, however, the Chinese Communist Party has refused to relinquish total social control. Calls for greater social and political freedom have been suppressed, exemplified most dramatically in the brutal military crackdown of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement in 1989. China’s incomplete liberalization has left it susceptible to a full relapse into full-blown authoritarianism.
Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power, many intellectuals, international businessmen, and their Chinese counterparts working and living in the mainland rightly recognize that China has become less free in recent years.
Although “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is still the official guiding ideology of the land, Chinese nationalism undergirds the outlook of the Chinese Communist Party, both in domestic politics and foreign relations. This toxic stew of nationalism and socialism has brought China back onto the road to serfdom that is likely to pave over the people of Tibet, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and many other unwilling lands.
Consider the PRC’s ruthlessness toward any opposition. For over two decades, the PRC has tightened its grip on Hong Kong. Alarmed by last year’s protests, the Chinese government passed a sweeping national security law.
A city that not so long ago breathed a modicum of freedom is now suffocating under Beijing’s totalitarian vice grip. Opposition lawmakers and activists have been arrested en masse. Trials are underway for ten people who attempted to flee Hong Kong after the PRC’s crackdown on dissent begin. As Hong Kong’s last vestiges of liberty vanish, it is no surprise many are trying to flee to freer shores.
Punishing dissent is almost always one of the first steps a totalitarian regime takes after seizing power. The first Nazi concentration camp opened less than two months after the National Socialists took control. Most of the early prisoners in the camps were political prisoners. In any totalitarian system, dissent poses a threat to the regime and is often squelched through oppressive or violent means.
The Returning Specter of Genocide
Totalitarian collectivism sadly leads to some of history’s worst crimes against humanity. The forced famine of Stalin’s Holodomor resulted in the death of millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s. Contemporaneously, the Nazis were in the early stages of their reign of terror, targeting groups they deemed “racially unfit” — primarily the Jews.
Boycotts of Jewish goods and businesses began viciously in the spring of 1933. By the fall of 1935, German Jews had lost their citizenship and the right to marry “Aryans” through the Nuremberg Laws. As the Nazi Wehrmacht plowed through Europe beginning in the late 1930s, they instituted their genocidal aims at a rapid clip. By the time the spring of 1945 arrived, six million Jews had been murdered, as well as millions of others.
The PRC’s treatment of the Uighurs, a primarily Muslim minority group living in Xinjiang, bears eerie similarities to the ethnic cleansings and genocides of the 20th century. Up to 2 million Uighurs have been imprisoned in forced labor camps, where brainwashing is constant, conditions are deplorable, and forced sterilizations of Uighur women reportedly occur.
The PRC responded to criticism about the camps’ existence by claiming they are “re-education” centers. The news continues to worsen. More than 500,000 Uighurs have been forced to pick cotton in brutal conditions as part of a “government-run work scheme.” If this oppression is allowed to continue, the plight of the Uighurs will likely worsen even more. It is no wonder the U.S. State Department just labeled the PRC’s treatment of the Uighurs as “genocide.”
Learning from Past Mistakes
Great Britain currently offers special visas for people fleeing Hong Kong and is processing them at a very rapid rate. There is currently no limit to the number of these visas Britain plans to give out. The United States should do the same, and quickly. Freedom in Hong Kong is shrinking by the day. A similar visa could also be considered for Uighurs and other persecuted minority groups in China.
Although it is extremely difficult for persecuted minorities to leave China, some are still able to do so. We should not only ensure these refugees have a place to go, we should ensure they have the proper resources to leave by designating funds for relief organizations and to lower immigration costs.
There is still much more to be done. The outgoing Trump administration slashed the number of refugees allowed in the United States, and just last year announced that they planned to allow only 18,000 refugees annually.
During the Holocaust, the United States made the mistake of enforcing immigration quotas that turned away thousands escaping Nazi persecution. Those quotas were at least partially based upon fears that Germany would plant spies in the United States. While that fear was realistic, the policy had a dramatic negative effect when thousands of freedom-seeking refugees were turned away.
Yes, China has been known to exploit our immigration system to plant spies in American universities and elsewhere. The solution to that problem, however, is not to limit all visa seekers. We should crack down on Chinese espionage and provide safe haven for people fleeing the PRC’s grasp. The United States should consider providing an unlimited number of special visas for vetted Uighurs, dissidents, and targeted religious minorities. The situation is dire — we cannot wait.