Thu, Mar 28, 2019 - Page 9 News List

China could be winning the battle for silence over the Uighurs

Many feel they can no longer quietly ignore Beijing’s so-called Uighur ‘re-education’ camps, but it is also not an issue that most countries, or businesses, want to have dictate their relations with the growing superpower

By Peter Apps  /  Reuters, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

For Turkish firms exporting marble and other stone to an increasingly lucrative Chinese market, the China Xiamen International Stone Fair should have been the business highlight of the year. Instead, the arrest and detention of four Turkish executives for tax evasion sent scores of others fleeing, grabbing any flight they could from mainland China for fear they might be next.

Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News reported widespread panic among attendees.

One vowed never to return to China, saying he was lucky to find a place on the first plane out.

It appeared to be a deliberate and brutal reminder by Beijing of the economic costs of Turkey’s February criticism of China for the treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority.

With a UN panel last year accusing Beijing of interning up to 1 million Uighurs in so-called “re-education camps,” it is a topic many in the rest of the world feel they can no longer quietly ignore.

However, it is also not something most countries — or businesses — want to dominate their relations with a growing superpower. It is a dilemma made even more challenging by Beijing’s apparent complete unwillingness to accept criticism on the issue, coupled with the very real difficulty of knowing what is truly happening to the Uighurs in Xinjiang Province.

Earlier this month, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet made her second request in six months for access to the region — but few believe Beijing has any real intention of allowing a detailed outside investigation. However, those who watch the region closely say things are getting worse.

On March 13, the US made its most overt criticism of Beijing so far on the issue, saying abuses against China’s Muslim minorities were on a scale not “seen since the 1930s.”

Beijing’s campaign of internment against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities has intensified significantly over the past year, it said, with numbers now reportedly detained ranging from 800,000 to 2 million, double the upper number estimated by the UN last year.

Another academic estimated the potential number of internees at 1.5 million, about one-sixth of China’s Uighur population.

Speaking at the US Department of State’s annual review of human rights, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Beijing was now in a “league of its own when it came to abuses.”

However, what is much less clear is how willing Washington is to let these concerns interfere with ongoing trade negotiations with China.

Ultimately, many human rights activists fear the fate of China’s Uighurs could become a strictly secondary concern when pitted against more hard-nosed security and economic considerations.

Foreign business leaders, politicians, journalists and academics all privately express their worries about publicly commenting on the Uighur interments, fearing the loss of access to China on which careers and business models often depend.

The Chinese government allowed selected diplomats and journalists extremely limited access to a camp earlier this year.

Chinese officials say they are “vocational training centers,” with one saying “absurd preachings” by Muslim extremists had turned some in the region into “murderous devils.”

A handful of Chinese Uighurs are believed to have fought for Islamic State and associated groups in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, and suspected Islamist militants are believed to be behind a small number of attacks in China, including several 2013-2014 assaults in Beijing, Kunming and Urumqi that killed dozens.

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