European countries defend the Uighurs of Xinjiang, Muslim countries don’t
FOR THE PAST three years China’s government, citing national-security concerns, has run relentless campaigns against the culture and religion of the Uighur people, 11m Muslims who speak a Turkic language and live in Xinjiang, China’s north-westernmost corner. Mosques have been shut. Men are forbidden to grow beards, women may not wear head coverings and children are barred from prayers. Most troubling are the growing details emerging about a network of detention facilities, which Chinese officials call vocational-training centres but which look for all the world like internment camps. Credible reports say these are holding at least 1m people—mostly Uighurs but also Chinese people of Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnicity—in extra-judicial detention.
Until the middle of 2018, Chinese diplomats managed to keep international criticism of the camps in check. At that point America’s vice-president, Mike Pence, raised concerns about “round-the-clock political indoctrination”. Since then, the Chinese have lost their battle to persuade foreign countries that Xinjiang is purely an internal matter, of no concern to anyone else. But they have turned it into an issue that polarises diplomatic opinion. That polarisation has now burst into the open.
On July 8th, 22 countries signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Council, calling on China to end the “mass arbitrary detention” of Uighurs and other Muslims, and to allow international observers access to detention camps. This was the first concerted international condemnation of Chinese actions in Xinjiang. Signatories included most European countries, Canada, Japan and Australia but not the United States (see map), which withdrew from the council in 2018. However, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, later called China’s treatment of the Uighurs “the stain of the century”.
Days later, 37 countries, among them Russia and Saudi Arabia, responded with a letter of their own, defending China’s policies on the grounds of fighting terrorism. Some signatories were anti-Western autocracies which can be relied upon to rally round anyone that the West criticises. They include Russia and Venezuela. Other signatories are Western allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which oppose what might be called the global human-rights regime. They lock up plenty of their own opponents on security grounds. Still others are beneficiaries of Chinese investment, such as Pakistan and Laos, which cannot easily afford to bite the hand that feeds them.
Most intriguing, however are Gulf states which back China for a combination of defence, economic and even religious reasons. The United Arab Emirates, for example, cannot get the drones it wants from America, so is buying China’s Wing Loong 2 drones. (Its de facto ruler was in Beijing this week.) It signed the letter, along with 19 other members of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, an international group of mostly Muslim-majority states. In 2018 China signed construction and investment contracts worth $28bn in the Middle East, a region that is struggling to attract foreign investment elsewhere. And some Gulf states, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are trying to fight jihadist extremism at home by encouraging more modern forms of Islam. They seem receptive to China’s claim that it is merely attempting to modernise Uighur beliefs (though in reality Chinese actions go far beyond that).
China’s attempt to divide international opinion about Xinjiang has worked so far. But, as more details leak out about the region’s camps, Muslim leaders are beginning to come under domestic pressure to defend their co-religionists. One day, they may find it harder to kowtow.