Muslim governments silent as China cracks down on Uighurs

Bloomberg

Thu, Sep 06, 2018 - Page 9

As calls grow in the US and Europe to pressure China to halt alleged human rights abuses against its Muslim minority, Beijing has so far escaped any serious criticism from governments across the Muslim world.

Almost three weeks after a UN official cited “credible reports” that the country was holding as many as 1 million Turkic-speaking Uighurs in “re-education” camps, governments in Muslim-majority countries have issued no notable statements on the issue.

The silence became more pronounced last week after a bipartisan group of US lawmakers urged sanctions against senior Chinese officials.

“We are hopeful that the [US] State Department will seek addition [sic] opportunities to condemn these abuses while also undertaking robust diplomatic engagement with like-minded governments to further elevate this human rights crisis in international forums and multilateral institutions,” US lawmakers led by US Senator Marco Rubio and US Representative Chris Smith on Wednesday last week wrote in a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin.

They joined EU officials who have previously expressed concern about the camps in Xinjiang.

By contrast, the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan have not released public statements on the clampdown. Neither has Saudi Arabia.

Even Turkey, which has in the past offered favorable policies to Turkic-speaking groups and hosts a small Uighur population of its own, remained silent as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan grappled with an economic crisis.

The split underscores how China’s position as a key trading partner and aid provider to many Muslim-majority nations — as well as its long-standing policy to avoid commenting on the internal affairs of other countries — is paying off.

The alleged abuses are also occurring in one of China’s most remote and heavily policed frontiers, making it hard to acquire firsthand evidence, such as photographs and videos, that might sway public opinion in the Muslim world.

“China generally has friendly relations with most Muslim countries, mostly around trade,” said Hassan Hassan, senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a Washington think tank.

The Muslim world is largely unaware of the situation in Xinjiang, he added. “It’s not covered almost at all in Arabic media, and even jihadis don’t dwell on it as much as they do about other conflicts.”

China officially denies problems in Xinjiang, a vast region the size of Alaska bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan that is home to about 10 million Uighurs.

Beijing on Thursday last week warned the US lawmakers not to interfere in its internal affairs.

“The policies and equal rights that Chinese minorities enjoy are far better than in the US, which has [a lot of] issues with racism and human rights protection,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) told a briefing in Beijing.

The US lawmakers should focus on issues at home “instead of interfering in other countries’ internal politics, playing judges on human rights and casting blame, or even threatening to impose unreasonable sanctions,” she said.

The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said in a report released on Thursday last week that estimates of the number of Xinjiang residents held in camps ranged from the tens of thousands to upwards of 1 million.

The panel called for an immediate halt to the detentions, the release of those already held, and an official investigation into allegations of racial and religious profiling.

China’s clampdown has been fueled by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) orders to “strike first” against Muslim extremism following deadly attacks in the region involving Uighurs and reports that some members of the minority were fighting alongside terror groups in Syria.

A Chinese Communist Party-run newspaper has rebuked criticism of the crackdown, saying that it had prevented Xinjiang from becoming another Syria.

The silence on Uighurs contrasts with outrage last year when about 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled clearance operations by the Burmese military, which the UN has since likened to genocide.

One big difference between the two cases: Myanmar’s economy is 180 times smaller than that of China, which is the top trading partner of 20 of the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

China accounts for about one-10th of Saudi Arabia’s oil exports and about one-third of Iran’s, according to ship-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg.

It is Malaysia’s top source of foreign investment and it has ensured the flow of more than US$60 billion in loans for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor infrastructure projects.

Muslim nations “don’t want to damage their relations with China, and consider China a potential ally against the West and the US, and therefore they are trying to stay silent,” said Omer Kanat, chairman of the executive committee at the World Uyghur Congress, an overseas Uighur advocacy group.

Over the years, these governments have vocally opposed US slights of Muslims, including US President Donald Trump’s ban last year on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif called it “a great gift to extremists.”

An expert testifying before a UN human rights panel on Aug. 10 cited reports that Beijing might be holding up to 1 million Uighurs in re-education camps.

Bloomberg in January reported on the Chinese government conducting experiments with facial recognition technology in the region.

The governments of Turkey, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

Multiple telephone calls to the OIC for comment were not answered.

To be sure, maintaining trade ties is not the only motivator. Some governments are loathe to draw global attention to their own shabby human rights records. Beijing has largely refrained from involving itself in conflicts in the Muslim world.

Those nations “don’t particularly respect human rights themselves, so it’s hard to imagine that they would jump at an opportunity to criticize China,” said David Brophy, senior lecturer in Modern Chinese History at the University of Sydney.

Still, it could prove increasingly difficult to maintain their silence, as China’s policies in Xinjiang spill across its borders.

In Kazakhstan — a neighboring economic partner key to Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative — an undocumented, ethnic-Kazakh Chinese citizen has testified to being forced to teach in a camp before escaping.

Kazakh authorities, risking Beijing’s anger, allowed her to remain.

The incident shows that the crackdown is starting to seep into China’s foreign relations, said James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University and author of Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang.

“What we’re seeing is the policy effects of a shift in philosophy with regard to cultural diversity and ethnic diversity in China,” he said.