China’s struggle to explain away the detention of at least one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang has become much more difficult in recent days. The latest development is the New York Times’ publication of two dozen internal government documents that show that the brutal crackdown is systematic and driven by China’s top leadership, including President Xi Jinping.
For over a year, the Chinese government has rejected compelling evidence from journalists and organizations like Human Rights Watch detailing mass arbitrary detention, torture and other mistreatment of Turkic Muslims, as well as hyper-intrusive surveillance and increasingly pervasive controls on daily life.
Lately, Beijing has moved away from denials and started painting its persecution of Xinjiang’s Muslims as a tremendous success. A Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters that because of “preventive counterterrorism and de-extremism measures,” Xinjiang had not had a violent terrorist incident for three years.
That shift in its story may be because the government is increasingly on the defensive. Last month, Britain’s United Nations Ambassador Karen Pierce delivered a stinging public rebuke of China’s Xinjiang policies to a UN General Assembly committee on behalf of two dozen countries, including France, Germany, the United States and predominantly Muslim Albania. They called on Beijing to end the human rights violations and grant the UN’s human rights chief “immediate unfettered, meaningful access to Xinjiang.” The statement echoed one that 25 countries sent to the UN Human Rights Council in July.
That’s not all. Earlier this month, a dozen UN rights experts issued an unprecedented and devastating assessment of the Chinese government’s use of its counterterrorism law to justify persecution in Xinjiang, warning that the “disproportionate emphasis placed by the authorities on the repression of rights of minorities risks worsening any security risk.”
Unsurprisingly, Beijing managed to round up a cluster of countries to sing its praises. At October’s UN committee meeting, Belarus responded to Ambassador Pierce by saying that 54 countries joined together to “commend China's remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.”
On the surface, it would appear that China is surrounded by friends. A closer look reveals a different story. Egregious human rights abusers like Russia, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar doubtlessly support China’s brutal suppression of a large ethnic minority under the pretext of “counter-terrorism.”
But there are others on China’s list that don’t fit that category, such as Serbia, Palestine, Oman, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Several well-placed UN diplomats told Human Rights Watch that China used strong-arm tactics to pressure countries to back the Belarus statement, including threats of economic retaliation. It added “backers” of the Belarus statement without consulting governments to make refusal more difficult. At least one country formally requested that it be removed from the official list of supporters.
There is no denying that China is a foreign policy behemoth. But that is precisely why determined governments and the UN should capitalize on China’s struggle to cobble together a coherent narrative on Xinjiang. They should use every opportunity to publicly raise the horrors being inflicted on Xinjiang and demand closure of the detention camps. Simply raising concerns privately with China’s leadership is futile.
Unfortunately, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hasn’t recognized the importance of a concerted international response. When questioned this week about the New York Times’ reporting, his spokesman declined to comment on the leak, and mimicked the Chinese government’s line about China’s “unity and territorial integrity” and “condemnation of terrorist attacks.” He talked about human rights only in the context of “the fight against terrorism” — as if to confirm Beijing’s position that it’s all about counter-terrorism, not widespread government repression.
Top UN and government officials around the world who have so far kept silent about China’s abuses in Xinjiang should speak out. Muslim-majority countries – independently and through the 57-member state Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – should follow Albania’s example and raise publicly the deep concerns they often express in private.
To back up their words, countries should impose sanctions on individuals orchestrating the repression and other measures to press China to end its campaign. Finally, international companies should think twice about the ethics of doing business in Xinjiang to avoid being complicit in China’s abusive policies, which have sparked one of the biggest human rights crises of our time.