On July 11th, 2019, twenty-two “Western countries”, countries marked by substantial European heritage, signed a letter condemning major human rights violations in Chinese Xinjiang Uighur camps. The next day, thirty-seven countries signed a response in support of Xinjiang’s policies, calling out the “Western letter” as slander. With allegedly 1 million Chinese Uighurs in camps, the legitimacy of these claims could set a disastrous discriminatory precedent for other minority groups in China. While the letter can be viewed as a western versus non-western ideological battle, it can also be viewed through an economic lens. Allied countries with deep economic ties to China support the CCP actions in Xinjiang, countries insulated from direct Chinese investment have the freedom to denounce the camps, and countries like the US, Turkey and Indonesia, feel pressured to stay neutral. China’s international economic influence contextualizes these otherwise counter-intuitive international dialogues.
Much of the publicity regarding the Xinjiang Uighur camps originated from the testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby on December 4th, 2018. There is massive detention of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang,” said Busby. “Some of the worst human rights abuses are occurring unchecked.” Through public reports and witnesses Busby estimated that since April, 2017, anywhere between 800,000 and 2 million minority groups are held in internment camps.
Busby also reported “relentless indoctrination and harsh conditions…forms of torture, or cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, including sexual abuse.” Most importantly perhaps, Busby’s testimony maintained that “one common goal in reports from former detainees seems to be forcing detainees to renounce Islam and embrace the Chinese Communist Party.” Since Busby’s damning reports, outcries against the Uighur camps have not been uncommon, for example the letter signed by twenty-two western nations, however alongside international denunciation, many nations, even primarily Muslim nations, have publicly supported China’s policies toward minority groups.
Of the 37 countries who signed the letter in defense of China’s human rights policies, the most notable were Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the UAE, Syria, Egypt and Tajikistan, who are all members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group usually vocal in defense of Muslims around the world. In contrast, the letter against Xinjiang Uighur camps had zero signatories from majority Islamic nations. Other signatories include countries from around the world, including those from Latin America, Central Asia, South East Asia, and East Africa. The support for Xinjiang’s Uighur policies is global and diverse, while its criticism seems limited to European democracies and their allies.
In addition, some Indonesian and Islamic groups “see the reports of religious persecution as Western propaganda aimed at denigrating China while it is locked in a trade dispute with the United States.” Because of this, Indonesia has remained neutral on the Uighur issue. Indonesian President Joko Widodo claims that “to engage in their [Uygur persecution] narrative…it would only empower the Islamists and radicals belonging to the opposition.” Others, like Indonesia, are hesitant to become locked in the middle of the United States and China as the trade war rages on so they refused to sign either letter.
Turkey, one of the only majority Muslim nations to denounce the Uighur camps, did not sign either UN letter either. Turkish President Recep Yayyip Erdogan’s Foreign Minister stated that the camps were “a great shame for humanity” where prisoners were subject to “torture and political brain washing.” While Turkish President Erdogan was ready to condemn the camps, he also cautioned against “acting emotionally” in response to “those who would exploit the issue.” Erdogan’s recent caution is contrasted by previous statements against alleged Chinese abuse against Uighurs. In 2009, Erdogan said that the Chinese treatment of Uighurs was “tantamount to genocide.” Now, China is Turkey’s second largest importer, in addition 3.6 billion in loans to Beijing, while currently “negotiating massive infrastructure deals with China, ranging from high-speed railways to nuclear power plants.” These trade deals have been a strong deterrent against the former harsh criticism.
Many of the thirty-seven signatories, are set to benefit from China’s eight trillion-dollar expansion project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which stretches from South East Asia to Turkey, throughout all of Asia and into Africa. One of the major trade routes flows directly through Xinjiang.
The United States has also succumbed to trade pressure from China, calling off planned human rights sanctions against the country. The November Senate bill was shelved because of its potential to “disrupt trade talks.” A new bill was reintroduced in the Senate earlier this year, but with little progress thus far. It is clear that Beijing is throwing its considerable economic weight against any accusation against its policies in Xinjiang, and many nations are being forced to choose between speaking out against human rights violations and Chin’s eight trillion-dollar infrastructure project.The international economic implications for critics of the Uighur internment camps are only part of the complex situation in Xinjiang. They do,however, raise concerns about China’s growing global influence. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan refused to recognize the Uighur camps, while Indonesia and Turkey are wary of being manipulated in global trade wars—United States called for sanctions but failed to follow-through because of potential economic backlash.