Captive Nations Update 2018


Every July since Congress unanimously passed the 1959 Captive Nations Resolution, the United States officially recognizes the struggle of those nations held captive by communist tyranny. Since the time that President Eisenhower published the first Captive Nations Week proclamation, most of the countries named in the original law have achieved independence and are now democratic and free. But there are other nations named in the Congressional resolution—including “mainland China,” Vietnam, Tibet, and North Korea—which still live under brutal oppression. It is important to recognize their struggle and continue to support these countries, with the hope that one day they will finally shake off the shackles of totalitarianism.

President Trump has already released the 2018 Captive Nations Week Proclamation:

“When the citizens of East Germany tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was a defining moment for freedom.  But much work remains unfinished.  In many countries today, people remain subject to unjust arrest, detention, and execution.  Individual rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom to assemble, which are necessary to hold governments accountable, are significantly circumvented or denied entirely.  The United States stands with the repressed and continues to encourage despotic regimes to turn away from authoritarianism and respect the God-given rights of life and liberty.”

This month, as the United States affirms the importance of freedom from communist oppression for the purpose of international peace and stability, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation stands in solidarity with those captive nations still seeking liberty.

Towards that end, we have noted important developments in the world’s remaining captive nations, we note concerning trends in former captive nations, and we highlight countries which are at risk of becoming nations held captive by collectivist tyranny. It pains us to say that, in 2018, the tide of freedom is receding around the globe. The status of the captive nations is more dire than it was in 2017.


People’s Republic of China

The People’s Republic of China has unfortunately made great strides over the last 12 months in rolling out its techno-totalitarian social credit system. Originally proposed in 2014, and intended to cover all 1.4 billion Chinese citizens by the year 2020, the system has dystopian potential: people with low “social credit” ratings may be barred from traveling on planes and trains and their children may be denied access to public schools. Given the trajectory of “securitization” under president-for-life Xi Jinping, it is safe to assume that low “credit scores” might soon be cause for incarceration as well.

Within mainland China, the so-called “709 crackdown” on human rights lawyers and other activists continues apace. Notable Chinese human rights defenders Wang Quanzhang, Yu Wensheng, and Jiang Tianyong all remain behind bars—despite international calls for their unconditional release.

In January 2018, Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish citizen Gui Minhai was detained while traveling through China by train. Despite being accompanied by accredited Swedish diplomats, he was arrested and disappeared. Gui was one of a group of Hong Kong booksellers who sold magazines and books that depicted the Chinese Communist Party in an unflattering light. Previously, in 2015, Gui had been abducted from his home in Thailand and held for two years before being released on medical parole. He has not been seen since his latest abduction this year.

One positive development came last week: finally, after nearly a decade of house arrest, constant surveillance, and unconscionable treatment by the Chinese government, Liu Xia, the widow of murdered Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, was allowed to leave Beijing and go to Germany. After Liu Xiaobo died of medical neglect in a Chinese jail in July 2017, Liu Xia was held virtually incommunicado; only strong, pointed, and relentless pressure from democratic governments forced Beijing to relent. (It should be noted, however, that her brother, Liu Hui, was not allowed to leave with her—indicating that the CCP may try to use him to blackmail Liu Xia into silence in Germany.)


East Turkestan

Since 2016, when Chen Quanguo became Party Secretary of the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” (as the Chinese government calls East Turkestan), Chinese rule over the region’s Uyghur Muslim population has become vastly more coercive and tyrannical. The CCP is engaged in a comprehensive campaign of religious persecution and cultural genocide that, in its scope, sophistication, and intensity, is so far unparalleled in the twenty-first century.

At the time of writing, the CCP has created a network of so-called “re-education camps” throughout East Turkestan. Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Hui Muslims are subject to arbitrary detention and internment in such camps at any time. Offenses meriting “re-education” include wearing a beard, wearing a veil, refusing to consume alcohol or pork, owning a Quran, and praying publicly on weekdays. No one knows exactly how many people are detained in these camps, but estimates vary from 500,000 to more than 2 million.

Outside of the camp system, Chinese occupation forces are taking active steps to crush Uyghur cultural traditions and erase the Uyghurs’ Islamic heritage. Crematoria, known as “burial management centers,” have been built to prevent Uyghurs from burying their loved ones according to Islamic tradition. Since whole families have been detained for “re-education,” orphanages have been established to house the children left behind. There are widespread allegation of forced marriages being arranged between Han Chinese men and Uyghur women. Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur professor and Uyghur language activist, remains in prison serving a life sentence for allegedly “inciting separatism.”


Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, there is an ongoing struggle between political factions who want the city to be wholly subsumed into the People's Republic of China and those who want the city to maintain its historic independence and rule of law. The controversy centers on the principle of "one country, two systems," the founding precept of Hong Kong's post-1997 Basic Law. 

After the inauguration of Hong Kong’s new chief executive in July 2017, Xi Jinping delivered a speech in which he all but stated outright the primacy of "one country" over "two systems"—a shot across the bow at pro-democracy and localist political groups in the city. The graveness of Xi's words was underscored by the looming presence of a Chinese aircraft carrier in the nearby harbor.

Many civic rights and democracy advocates in Hong Kong have highlighted the shows of fealty required by Beijing; in 2016, several newly-elected pro-democracy and localist lawmakers, when giving the requisite oath to the People's Republic of China, took the opportunity to creatively protest. The methods were creative and varied: some wore anti-Beijing t-shirts, others omitted certain words, and more affected a demeanor meant to illustrate the coercive nature of the oath-taking ceremony itself. In July 2017, shortly after Xi's departure, a Hong Kong appellate court invalidated six pro-democracy lawmakers' oaths and disqualified them from serving in their elected positions.

Joshua Wong, one of the young students who emerged as a leader of the democracy movement after the 2014 Occupy Central protests, has been in and out of prison as he appeals criminal charges related to his campaign of civil disobedience during the Umbrella Revolution. He has also been subjected to punitive fines. Other young pro-democracy politicians, like Agnes Chow, have been banned from any political activity within the city for a period of years because they had voiced support for Hong Kong’s “self-determination.”



In Tibet, the Chinese Communist Party is realizing a policy of cultural genocide like the one in East Turkestan. Religious authorities and devoted practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism face particular discrimination from CCP authorities. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama remains in exile for the fifty-ninth year; Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama—who was kidnapped at the age of six—remains in CCP custody; the Dalai Lama has told reporters he believes that the Panchen Lama is still alive.

The Larung Gar monastery complex—one of the largest religious institutes in the world, capable of housing more than 40,000 people—was decreed to be “too crowded”; provincial authorities have been systematically demolishing the residences of monks, nuns, and students. If the CCP’s plans are carried out, the institute will be able to house no more than 5,000 residents at a time. Even more distressingly, sources inside the complex report that the management and administration of the institute will be taken over by CCP-appointed officials (all of whom will be Party members, meaning they are required to profess atheism).

Not only is Tibet’s traditional religion under assault by Beijing, but the Tibetan language is as well. Tashi Wangchuk, a young activist who spoke out about the CCP’s ongoing campaign to suppress Tibetan and promote Mandarin in its place, was sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting separatism.”

Oleg Sentsov behind bars.

Oleg Sentsov behind bars.

Occupied Ukraine: Crimea

This year, the pattern of repression in Russian-occupied Crimea has deepened and has been systematized. The occupation forces perpetuate a false narrative that ethnically Turkic and religiously Muslim Crimean Tatars are “terrorists” and “extremists.” Pursuant to this, homes and mosques have been raided on the pretext of antiterrorism. Twenty-eight Crimean Tatars have been arrested for allegedly conspiring with an Islamist organization known as “Hizb ut-Tahrir.” Four have been convicted in the past year. Tatar community leaders in Crimea and living in exile abroad fear that renewed ethnic cleansing, of the type carried out by Joseph Stalin, is in the offing.

Two important Tatar activists, Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz, were both convicted in Russian courts in September 2017: Umerov for “separatism” and Chiygoz for allegedly instigating civil disturbances. Both men were arrested in the aftermath of the Crimean invasion, and Umerov was in particularly poor health. In October, thanks to a deal brokered by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the two Tatar leaders were allowed to leave the peninsula and go into exile. Both promised to return to their embattled homeland.

Ethnic Ukrainian residents of Crimea are not exempt from persecution. Three of Russia’s highest-profile political prisoners—Oleg Sentsov, Olexandr Kolchenko, and Volodymyr Balukh—are Ukrainian Crimeans. Sentsov is a filmmaker and a participant in the 2014 Automaidan; Kolchenko is a trade unionist and vocal antifascist who was, ironically, falsely accused of being part of a far right wing political group; Balukh is a farmer who made himself nettlesome to the occupation authorities by hanging a Ukrainian flag from his roof. Crimean Tatar groups around the world and their allies have been unanimous in their calls for the release of these three (and other Crimean political prisoners held by Putin), especially in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup.


Occupied Ukraine: Donbas

The Donbas region of Ukraine, now occupied by Russian forces and the puppet regimes of the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics,” has remained the site of an essentially frozen conflict throughout the past year. In October 2017, defense analysts reported that more than 11,000 Russian troops were stationed in the territory, along with tanks, artillery, and armored vehicles. Ceasefire violations along the front lines (for which each side blames the other) have resulted in dozens of civilian deaths.

As in Crimea, Russian forces in the Donbas are increasingly engaged in paranoid and discriminatory religious persecution of both Muslims and Ukrainian Greek Catholics in an effort to root out “extremists” and pro-Ukraine sympathizers. The Russian government’s ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses has also been extended to the puppet state in Luhansk as well.

An international investigation into the 2014 shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over the Donbas region is ongoing. All evidence has conclusively pointed towards the culpability of the Russian military or its “separatist” proxies—a finding supported by airline industry safety groups, human rights groups, and European governments. The Joint Investigative Team—a specialized task force including law enforcement authorities from The Netherlands, Malaysia, Belgium, Ukraine, and Australia—reported that MH17 was downed by a surface-to-air missile that only Russian forces in the theater had access to at the time. Furthermore, in March 2018, Ukrainian intelligence named seven prime suspects in the shootdown, a list which included high-ranking Russian military officers involved the covert war in Donbas.



Cuba has taken pains over the past year to present to the outside world a façade of incremental democratic reforms and marked change from the Castro era. It is evident that such claims are propaganda meant for international consumption.

In March 2018, Cuba hosted nationwide parliamentary “elections”—but all the candidates allowed to stand for the country’s parliament, the National Assembly of People’s Power, were members of the ruling Communist Party. This assembly went on to choose the next president of the island nation: Miguel Díaz-Canel. Despite this change, Raúl Castro remains in the most powerful post—first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba.

Díaz-Canel, the first Cuban head of state born after the 1959 revolution, has carefully crafted the image of a modern, twenty-first century reformer—eschewing the Castro’s jungle fatigues and tracksuits for bright pastel guayaberas and Bermuda shorts. Evidence mounts, however, that behind closed doors Díaz-Canel is simply more of the same. In August 2018, the dissident media organization Estado de SATS released video footage of Díaz-Canel raving about the American embargo and “conquest” of Cuba; he speaks favorably of censorship and even refers to President Barack Obama’s 2016 visit to the island as an act of American political subversion aimed at breaking down the communist system.

Regardless of who stands at its head, Cuba’s repressive apparatus is churning onward unimpeded. Eduardo Cardet, a leader of the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), remains in prison for the second year. Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, a biologist and conservation advocate, was arrested after criticizing some of the regime’s irresponsible ecological policies—and only released following a much-publicized hunger strike. Berta Soler, leader of the peaceful protest movement called the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) put out an urgent call for international help lest the activist movement be “liquidated” by the regime.

North Korea

North Korea remains the last bastion of orthodox Stalinist totalitarianism in the twenty-first century. Though there has been much discussion of “opening” or “reform” within the DPRK since the Trump-Kim Summit last month, this year has seen no significant indicators of liberalization within North Korea.

In December 2017, a panel of three international jurists formed by the International Bar Association to scrutinize North Korea’s forced labor camps—the kwanliso—released their findings. One of the jurists, Thomas Buergenthal, wrote that the kwanliso were “as terrible” as Auschwitz and the Nazi concentration camps. As a child, Buergenthal was an inmate at both Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen. The report further found that North Korea should be charged with ten of the eleven crimes against humanity outlined in the Rome Statute.

Three Korean-Americans held captive by North Korea were released by the Kim regime as a goodwill gesture leading up to the Singapore summit. Tony Kim was teaching accounting at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Kim Hak-Song was working on agricultural development at the research farm of PUST as well. Kim Dong-Chul was living in Rason, North Korea, in a special economic zone where he ran a trading and hotel services company. Each had been accused of espionage by the North Korean regime.



The past year has witnessed the catastrophic intensification of an economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuelan, and a seismic shift in the country’s politics and constitutional law.

Afraid of losing its power to increasing opposition gains, the Maduro regime convoked an unconstitutional referendum to create a “National Constituent Assembly”—a legislative superbody completely dominated by the ruling socialist party and its allies. The democratic opposition faction, which holds a majority in the country’s existing, legally elected parliament, was totally sidelined. The move’s announcement provoked a wave of protest that shook the country and left more than 150 dead between March and August 2017.

The socialist economic program pursued by the regime has led to dire economic consequences. In May 2018, economists measured Venezuela’s annual inflation rate at upwards of 27,000%. Venezuela’s military has been deployed to supermarkets nationwide to ensure that government price controls are being respected. Government-loyal street mafias, called colectivos, are allowed a free hand to rule the streets through fear and intimidation.

Dissidents and opposition lawmakers live in perpetual fear of jail—or worse. Leopoldo López, leader of the anti-Maduro Voluntad Popular party, was released from three years’ imprisonment in July 2017, but is now under house arrest. Other leading politicians managed to leave the country, including mayors Antonio Ledezma and David Smolansky. Even former socialists are fleeing in the wake of Maduro’s ever-increasing brutality; Luisa Ortega Diaz, once the regime’s prosecutor general, was forced to slip out of the country under cover of night after criticizing her compatriots’ heavy-handed assault on protesting citizens. There are numerous accounts of torture and beatings of political dissidents in the country’s prisons.



Since the 2016 Formosa Ha Tinh chemical disaster—one of the worst industrial accidents in Vietnamese history—civil society organizing and activism against the single-party rule of the communist party have been gaining momentum in Vietnam.

In response, the regime has cracked down on bloggers and independent citizen journalists. Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, the citizen journalist also known as Mother Mushroom, remains imprisoned; she is currently engaged in a hunger strike to protest her treatment behind bars. Hoang Duc Binh, another blogger and member of the Viet Labour Movement, was arrested in May 2017 for livestreaming an environmentalist protest march. He is currently serving a fourteen-year prison sentence for “abusing democratic freedoms.”

Much of the activist organizing has been spearheaded by religious figures; “anti-Formosa” Catholics have been assaulted by plainclothes policemen and pro-state thugs called Red Flags. Other religious minorities like the Hoa Hao, a Buddhist denomination, are not exempt when practitioners are politically outspoken. In January 2018, a Hoa Hao hermit named Vuong Van Tha was sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment after police laid siege to his modest home.

The Communist Party of Vietnam has demonstrated a willingness to persecute its foes not just inside its borders, but outside of them as well. In July 2017, former party member and state-owned corporation boss Trinh Xuan Thanh was kidnapped by Vietnamese state security agents at a park in Berlin. He was illegally transported back to Vietnam, where he was coerced into confessing to embezzlement and given two life sentences in prison. The German government vigorously protested this “Cold War-style” abduction.



The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party continues its assault on civil society and free expression in the nation of Laos. Ng Shui Meng, wife of disappeared development activist and civil society organizer Sombath Somphone, continues to work with human rights advocates all over the world to demand the LPRP reveal Sombath’s whereabouts.

Land expropriation by the regime continues to be a flashpoint for dissent among the rural population. In July 2017, fourteen people from the village of Yeub in the southwestern Sekong province were jailed as part of a long-running dispute over the seizure of village land that was then given to a Vietnamese rubber harvesting company. The Yeub Village 14 were reportedly tortured in custody, and one man allegedly “committed suicide” behind bars. Two underage detainees were released, but eleven remain incarcerated.





Vladimir Putin, the autocratic ruler of the Russian Federation—successor state to the USSR, was elected to his fourth term as president in March 2018. The only truly anti-Putin candidate, Alexei Navalny, was barred from official participation in the election by Russia’s Central Election Commission. On the Saturday before Putin’s inauguration, thousands of protestors thronged the Moscow streets to voice their anger at the rigged system. Navalny and 1,600 other activists were rounded up and detained by Moscow police.

Free media continues to be targeted by the Putin regime. In November 2017, the Russian parliament amended its “foreign agents” registration law to include independent media and journalistic outlets. One month later, the regime so designated Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as seven other media organizations. Being labeled a “foreign agent” in Russia opens media outlets to harassment, sanction, and possible prosecution by authorities.

Not only is independent journalism under assault, but independent religious minorities are as well. In July 2017, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were declared “extremists” who “pose a threat to the rights of the citizens, public order and public security.” There are more than 175,000 practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia—but now, any proselytization or missionary work is outlawed, and police have carried out several mass arrests of Witnesses over the past year.

High-profile activists, dissidents, and human rights defenders remain targets for persecution. This year, historian and activist Yuri Dmitriev of the Memorial Society—an organization dedicated to memorializing victims of communist era oppression—has been tried on spurious charges. Dmitriev was forced to undergo Soviet-style punitive psychiatry, locked in the same cells as the victims of Stalin’s purges. Although temporarily acquitted, his acquittal was vacated by a politically-prejudiced court of appeals and he was incarcerated again.



Hun Sen, president of Cambodia and a former Khmer Rouge cadre, is facing an election at the end of July 2018. To secure his grip on power, Sen has spent the past year engaged in a campaign of anti-opposition crackdowns and democratic backsliding that has put Cambodia further down the road to complete autocracy than at any time since 1992.

The deepest-cutting jab at Cambodia’s fledgling democratic institutions came with the arbitrary arrest of Kem Sokha, leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. In September 2017, Sokha was accused of plotting a “color revolution” with a shadowy international benefactor strongly implied to be the United States. Two months later, courts finally ruled that the CNRP itself was dissolved and more than 100 of its lawmakers banned from political participation. Fifteen high-ranking CNRP members arrested in 2014 and 2015 are still behind bars, being held in deplorable conditions.

Hun Sen has also been more than willing to stoke hatred of and paranoia about foreigners to solidify his popularity. An Australian filmmaker named James Ricketson was arrested for flying a camera drone over a CNRP rally; his trial is ongoing, but friends, family, and other human rights activists in Cambodia say the charge is politically-motivated meant to deter foreign journalists’ curiosity about Hun Sen’s strongman rule.





Since April 2018, the Central American nation of Nicaragua has been wracked by protest. The police and paramilitaries loyal to socialist strongman Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) have repeatedly clashed with protestors, leaving more than 280 dead. The demonstrations began over pension reform, but soon they became a forum for expressing national dissatisfaction with the long-ruling FSLN boss.

The protests began in mid-April, spurred on by anger at proposed increases in contributions to Nicaragua’s ailing pension system. The protests quickly became a bloody confrontation: police fired on demonstrators with live ammunition, and pro-FSLN agitators pelted them with rocks. A journalist named Ángel Gahona was shot dead in the city of Bluefields, allegedly by a police sniper.

Since then, the Ortega regime has responded only with greater force and less restraint. In June, the regime’s police and paramilitares made headlines for their bloody siege of the town of Masaya, which declared itself a free city and no longer under orteguista control. Despite calls for a new election, Ortega has flatly refused any governmental concession that could leave him out of power. 

The capital city of Managua has been continuously roiled with violence, especially centering around the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN). The UNAN has become a bastion for resistance, and police have repeatedly assaulted it. After one such attack in June, an infant was shot dead by a pro-regime sniper. Another fierce siege laid by orteguista paramilitaries in July lasted more than 15 hours and left more than 30 dead.


Marion Smith is executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, DC.