Asia Pacific

As China cracks down on Uighurs, Muslim nations stay silent

Bloomberg, AFP-JIJI

As calls grow in the U.S. and Europe to pressure China to halt alleged abuses against its Muslim minority, Beijing has escaped serious criticism from the Islamic world.

Almost three weeks after a United Nations official cited “credible reports” that China is 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 this week after a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers urged sanctions against senior Chinese officials.

“We are hopeful that the State Department will seek additional 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,” lawmakers led by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey wrote Wednesday in a letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. They joined European Union officials who have previously expressed concern about the camps in Xinjiang.

Germany said last week that it would refrain from deporting members of China’s mostly Muslim Uighur minority, after admitting a Uighur man was sent back by mistake in April and has not been heard from since. His lawyer fears he has been detained by Chinese authorities.

By contrast, the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan haven’t 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 Prime Minister 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 now paying off.

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

“China generally has friendly relations with most Muslim countries, mostly around trade,” said Hassan Hassan 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 some 10 million Uighurs.

China’s clampdown has been fueled by President Xi Jinping’s orders to “strike first” against Islamist extremism following deadly attacks in the region involving Uighurs, and reports that some were fighting alongside terrorist groups in Syria.

The silence on Uighurs contrasts with outrage last year when some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled clearance operations by the Myanmar military, which the U.N. 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.

China accounts for about a tenth of Saudi Arabia’s oil exports and a third of Iran’s. It is Malaysia’s top source of foreign investment. And it has ensured the flow of more than $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 U.S., and therefore they are trying to stay silent,” said Omer Kanat, chairman of the executive committee at the World Uyghur Congress, an overseas Uigher advocacy group.

Over the years, these governments have vocally opposed U.S. slights of Muslims, including President Donald Trump’s 2017 ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called it “a great gift to extremists.”

An expert testifying before a United Nations human rights panel on Aug. 10 cited reports that Beijing may be holding up to 1 million Uighurs in re-education camps. Bloomberg reported in January on the government conducting experiments with facial-recognition technology in the region.

To be sure, maintaining trade ties isn’t the only motivator. Some governments are loath 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 neighbor key to Xi’s signature “Belt and Road” trade initiative — an undocumented, ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizen recently 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.