Modern purges: Tyranny in the (re-)making

North Korea made headlines last March with the high-profile assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, the current leader Kim Jong-Il’s half-brother, not only for how significant this could be for the future of the Korean peninsula and beyond, but also for how spectacularly it was executed, since it was carried out in foreign soil (Malaysia international airport) by two hitherto unknown women with a highly mysterious weapon. This was a blatant violation of international law, since it is murder and those held responsible should be trialed for life penalty or capital punishment. In fact, this is one of the most spectacular assassination attempts since Stalin’s assassination of his arch-enemy, Leon Trotsky, who was murdered by a Mexican agent with an ice-pick at his home in Mexico at the peak of Stalin’s purges. One now wonders just what modern-day purges are like.

I mentioned last time that while repression within one’s territory is understandable, exerting tactics of intimidation and fear abroad is extremely dangerous. One feels immense sympathy for the recent death of the American student in North Korea, but by entering their territory he indirectly put himself at risk. Assassination abroad, however, is on a different level of criminal offence, since on this basis no one is safe and governments cannot offer guarantees of protection to their citizens and foreign nationals. This is indeed at the heart of the debate on modern terrorism ever since 9/11/2001.

Nearly all governments nowadays are taking terrorism very seriously, and levels of national surveillance are almost always high. In this sense, it is striking just how similar most if not all governments are in terms of policing their citizens, since pre-emption of terrorism, namely attack the terror suspects and potential terrorists before they even have a chance to carry it out, is the widely accepted way of preventing terrorism but highly controversial. Ever since the Patriot Act of 2001 was implemented to increase surveillance on citizens at home and abroad, there have been numerous actions that have been deemed as violation of human rights all around the world. China is infamous for its authoritarian regime, and last time I mentioned that house arrests of political activists, civil servants and intellectuals are getting increasingly frequent in mainland China.

Indeed, just last month there was the high-profile arrest of Gui Minhai who was taken away on a train bound for Beijing in the presence of two Swedish diplomats, and since he is an ethnically Chinese Swedish national, there is now a lot of uproar coming from Sweden and international organisations to protect and free Gui as best as they can (though it is not clear what the extent of their ability is in this case, since he was in China’s territory and hence bound by Chinese law). For the Chinese government, there is full justification for conducting such arrests which are stated to be in the interest of national security and the detainees are, in their book, ‘inciting subversion against the government’. Exactly the same rhetoric for self-justification has been used by George W. Bush and his successors who have also claimed to be acting ‘in national interests’ by arresting terror suspects and subjugating them to systematic torture and extortion (e.g. Guantanamo Bay). US and China may have polar opposite ideologies (western liberal democracy vs Asian authoritarianism), but when it comes to ‘national interests’, both feel justified to arrest normal citizens and patrol their daily lives ‘for the sake of national security’.

It is fine line between playing the hero card and repressing civic liberties, since ‘in the interest of national security’ can be, and has been, used for just about anything. The boundaries for terrorist suspicion are also highly arbitrary, since there is no scientific or objective definition for what constitutes ‘imminent terrorist act(s)’ or ‘subversion against the government’. These are the forms of modern purges, which are no less evil than Stalin’s textbook examples despite being seemingly morally and self-justified. In face of global terrorism, anyone could be a suspect and as soon as one steps out of line (arbitrarily towed by the officials in charge), one is immediately susceptible to arrest (and torture etc). This is tyranny in the (re-)making.


Langley Henry

Langley Henry is a postdoctorate Research fellow in political science at St John’s College, University of Cambridge after having done his undergraduate (Politics, Philosophy, Economics (PPE)) and postgraduate (Political Science and History of Western Thought) degrees (B.A., M.Sc., DPhil) at Balliol College, University of Oxford. He is the author of several essays that have been published in peer-reviewed journals and is now working on publishing his Oxford doctoral thesis as a monograph with Oxford University Press. Other than his academic work, he is a keen blogger and has written on contemporary and historical political topics as well as on western contemporary music.


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