Diplomatic Immunity: China faces few consequences over Uighur suppression

On 24th November 2019, a collection of leaked documents from the Chinese government revealed the extent of the suppression of the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang province. The “China cables” confirmed that “re-education camps” were part of a concerted effort to eradicate Uighur culture. In the immediate aftermath, fuelled by popular outcry, Western governments released public statements and passed resolutions condemning the Chinese government. However, more than half a year later the plight of the Uighurs has seen little change.

After the documents were leaked, confirming widespread reports of cultural suppression in Xinjiang province in China’s far West, many international officials expressed outrage. The US described it as a “horrific campaign of repression” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Communist Party of committing “very significant” human rights abuses. 

The European Parliament called on the Chinese government to close the “re-education” camps. Heiko Maas, the German Foreign Minister, called for “independent access to the region” for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The UK Foreign Office similarly called for “immediate and unfettered access” for UN observers to Xinjiang. China made no effort to do any of these things.

More recently, on June 17th, Donald Trump signed into law the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019. However, that same day it was revealed by John Bolton (former national Security Advisor) that Trump had previously encouraged Xi Jinping to go ahead with the camps, saying it was “exactly the right thing to do.” The law itself has been criticised for merely consolidating powers the President already had at his disposal. What is more, Trump signed the law at an untelevised, private event – a symptom of his unwillingness to exacerbate the US-China trade war, which could potentially harm his chances at re-election.

Tragically, this unwillingness to take strong actions over the human rights abuses against the Uighurs is not limited to the US President. At the same time Heiko Maas was calling for a UN investigation, the German government announced it would not interfere with German investments in Xinjiang province, and therefore would not implement sanctions. It just so happens that Volkswagen has a production facility in the province.

More significantly, majority-Muslim countries across the world remained silent over the suppression of the Uighurs, who predominantly practise Islam. When in July and October 2019 a group of EU states and the US signed a letter to the UN condemning the camps, they were met with rebuttals by countries including many Islamic nations such as Pakistan, Oman and Somalia that praised China’s record on human rights.

This reflects the global clout China has been amassing through its Belt and Road Initiative. Large investments in countries such as Belarus, who delivered the October statement, and Pakistan, Nigeria and Somalia amongst others who were co-signatories have made them dependent on Beijing – a sign of its ascendancy on the global stage.

Even among countries not part of the Belt and Road Initiative, economic ties to China seem to have limited their actions to public statements and weak resolutions. Xinjiang province, whilst not an industrial hub, is connected to Western supply chains and consumers. According to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the province produces  80 percent of China’s cotton and around 20 percent of the world’s. With many economies across the world dependent on Chinese manufacturing, few wish to cross its government.

However, with reports such as that of the CSIS and Australian Strategic Policy Institute detailing the connections between Uighur forced labour in (and beyond Xinjiang) and well-known global brands, there had been pressure building for foreign companies to review their supply chains for human rights violations. During the coronavirus pandemic, that pressure largely dissipated as attention shifted towards countries’ own borders. This must change.

It is not enough for governments to release statements buried in press-releases, as the EU did after a summit with Chinese leadership on June 22nd. Companies found to be linked to forced labour in and beyond Xinjiang should be subject to export controls or public campaigns by consumers and governments. What is more, the Chinese leadership must be openly and publicly challenged on its treatment of minorities in Xinjiang and a UN independent investigation should be allowed to access the province. 

Perhaps most importantly, public scrutiny of the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang must be kept up. The plight of the Uighurs has been recorded in global media since their systematic detention began in 2017. In 2019, with the release of the incriminating documents, public awareness of the crisis surged. Since then, little has changed and international pressure on China has waned. For any progress to be made, people the world over must first be aware of the crisis and publicly voice concern. Without that, the largest mass detention of a minority since World War II will be met with silence.

 

Image: A protest for Uighur rights, Langkawi via Flickr

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