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  • Roberto White

The plight of China's Uyghur Muslims


On July 19th 2020, Liu Xiaoming, Chinese Ambassador to the UK, appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. During the interview, Marr showed an aerial video of dozens of figures in black attire being shifted on board a train. The video was allegedly taken in Xinjiang, China, and is alleged to be evidence of the China’s mass internment of Uyghur Muslims, but when pressed for an explanation, Xiaoming changed the subject to the regional rise of Islamic terrorism. This tactic of diverging from the question asked is commonly used by Chinese diplomats when pressed on controversial issues; yet despite feigning ignorance, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is well aware of the plight of Uyghur Muslims in China.

In 1949 the People’s Liberation Army of China entered Xinjiang and declared it a Chinese province, and since 1955 it is officially an autonomous region within China, yet the region enjoys very little autonomy. Recently, in spite of there being roughly 11 million Uyghurs who are culturally and linguistically distinct from the rest of China, Beijing has allegedly curtailed many of their religious practices including banning fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. In 2017 Xi Jinping issued a directive that religion in China must be ‘Chinese in orientation’, leading to a stringent crackdown on Uyghur practices. Since April 2017, it is alleged that between 800,000 and 2 million Uyghur Muslims and other minorities have been detained in camps located in remote areas of Xinjiang. Inhumane practises are reportedly used in the camps, including forced pledges of allegiance to the CCP, renouncings of faith and the consumption of products such as alcohol and pork.

However, even more shocking has been the response of leaders of Muslim-majority countries. In July 2019, ambassadors from 37 countries, nearly half of which are Muslim majority, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, wrote a letter defending the CCP’s policy of using ‘vocational education and training centres’ for Uyghurs as necessary to combat Islamic extremism in the region. Saudi Arabia’s contribution to this letter is particularly unnerving. Theoretically, the Kingdom is the protector of all Muslims, as it is where the two holiest sites in Islam are located, yet clearly this protection does not seem to extend to the Uyghurs. The response of countries such as Pakistan is less surprising. Pakistan has for the last twenty years suffered through political instability, economic catastrophe and in recent years China has emerged as a major financier for the country’s much needed infrastructure projects. Part of China’s ambitious global infrastructure program, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is set to provide Islamabad with a significant cash flow - provided that it supports Beijing’s policies.

Three factors explain the lack of action towards China. The first is national sovereignty. China is a sovereign nation, and it would argue that it is simply carrying out a domestic policy in response to a domestic ‘problem’. Thus, there is little basis in international law for any Western-led intervention to liberate the Uyghurs from their plight. Even so, China regularly labels issues where they are allegedly abusing human rights but want little foreign interference as ‘domestic affairs’. Notable examples including anything related to Tibet or Hong Kong. The second reason is because of China’s economic might. Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, China’s foreign policy - dominated by debt-trap diplomacy - has been increasingly expansive. The BRI now has investments all over the world, with developing countries receiving a substantial amount of Chinese investment. As such, countries that heavily rely on Chinese trade are incentivised to publicly back China’s stance on controversial issues. The third reason is due to the perceived hypocritical nature of these criticisms. Many have questioned the basis for the West’s criticism of the CCP’s actions. Given the West’s historic treatment of minorities, those on this side of the debate ask whether or not the West really has the right to criticise. Yet whilst virtually every country in the West has dark parts of its history, this should not mean they are not allowed to criticise what many perceive to be an objectively cruel reality that Uyghur Muslims are forced to live with.

The plight of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang by the Chinese government should wake everyone up to the reality of the threat China poses. If any other country in the world was using government forces to allegedly target, imprison, sterilize and torture some of its ethnic minorities there would be global outcry, and rightly so. The grotesque treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China must catalyse a tougher stance by the West towards China, or else Beijing will find comfort in knowing the world is unwilling to restrain even its most malicious policies.

IMAGE - Flickr (Paul Kagame)



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