French President Emmanuel Macron, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping following a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019.

© 2019 Nicolas Asfouri/Pool Photo via AP

French President Emmanuel Macron’s various public statements during his visit to China last week were remarkable, for what went unsaid more than their substance.

Given the enormity of human rights abuses in China, the French president had an important opportunity to publicly press his Chinese hosts on a slew of issues. But Macron made no public mention of the Chinese government’s mass repression campaign against Muslims in Xinjiang, including the arbitrary detention of about one million people. Not a word about Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uyghur economist recently awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize, who is languishing in prison. And nothing about China crushing peaceful activism throughout the country.

Warned by the Chinese government before the visit not to interfere in the country’s “internal affairs,” Macron seems to have chosen silence over any public criticism of serious violations under Chinese President Xi Jinping. At his closing press conference, Macron said he had stressed to Xi the need for dialogue and restraint in Hong Kong, but fell short of calling on Xi to respect China’s commitments to Hong Kong people’s rights.

In a letter, Human Rights Watch urged Macron to use his visit to publicly call on the Chinese government to close the “political education” camps in Xinjiang, free unjustly detained critics of the government, and commit to respecting the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.

Despite overwhelming evidence of China’s systematic human rights violations, many world leaders still claim to pursue only “quiet diplomacy” with China. But quiet persuasion has not generated sufficient pressure for Xi to incur a cost for his brutal repression. Keeping publicly silent in the face of such abuses as Macron did only encourages Xi to continue down the same road.

Macron was happier talking about business: US$15 billion in contracts were reportedly signed with French companies during Macron’s visit. The French president also inaugurated the new Pompidou Museum in Shanghai and lobbied for the filming of the new adventures of the Gallic comic strip hero Asterix to take place in China.

But the Uyghurs, detained activists, and other people persecuted under Xi’s brutal tenure cannot count on any public criticism from Macron. Xi can continue to repress apparently without having to worry about any consequences in its bilateral relationship with France.