Due to fear of economic retribution, Muslim countries have been largely silent on Xinjiang’s “re-education” camps, which have detained between 800,000 and two million Turkic Muslims. As of last fall, Malaysia’s prime minister-to-be Anwar Ibrahim was the only leader to have issued a strongly worded statement. Earlier this month, after apparently erroneous reports that famous Uyghur musician Abdurehim Heyit had died in while in Chinese detention, Turkey outwardly called for the camps’ closure, saying they were “a great shame for humanity.” Earlier today, Turkey’s foreign minister also raised concern about the Uyghurs’ plight at the opening of the 40th Human Rights Council session in Geneva.
To address rumors of Heyit’s death, Beijing released an unverified video of him. In response, Finland-based Murat Harri Uyghur launched a social media movement titled #MeTooUyghur, prompting waves of Uyghurs worldwide to ask for videos showing proof of life of their loved ones, too. Uyghurs have also been hosting concurrent events in the U.S. and eight other countries to raise awareness of their detained relatives. At AP, Christina Larson covers an event held in Washington, D.C.:
[…] [Ferkat] Jawdat co-organized Sunday’s gathering so that Uighurs in the U.S. could start collecting information on their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even children whose whereabouts are unknown. They plan to present the data to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the U.S. State Department.
[…] Those in China with relatives abroad come under particular suspicion from the Chinese security forces, increasing the likelihood of them being interned.
Abduwaris Ablimit, a 34-year-old chef living in Boston, said his first impulse had not been to speak out, frightened of what the Chinese authorities might do in retaliation.
[…] “Please don’t call me again, son,” his mother said through sobs, Ablimit recalled. “Maybe one day we will see each other again.”
[…] After more than a year of being unable to reach his parents, Ablimit started talking to the media and reaching out to the U.S. consulates in Beijing and Shanghai. According to text messages reviewed by the AP, Ablimit received threatening messages from someone who claimed to be a Chinese police officer. The person urged Ablimit to stay quiet about his family’s case. [Source]
Students at the City University of London have also joined in to call for greater awareness of the ongoing human rights crisis in Xinjiang:
We, the students of City University of London, stand with the Uyghur people in condemning the mass persecution imposed on them by the Chinese government. Up to a million Uyghur Muslims are being held in ‘re-education camps’, in a campaign of forced assimilation, torture and death pic.twitter.com/Q00HwiePwf
— CUL_UyghurCampaign (@CuL_Uyghur) February 18, 2019
Meanwhile, Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman recently condoned Beijing’s approach while on a state visit to China. The prince had been heavily criticized for his alleged role in the orchestrated murder of prominent Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October. At Newsweek, Cristina Maza reports:
“China has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremization work for its national security,” the crown prince was quoted as saying on Chinese television.
[…] Uighur groups called on Mohammed bin Salman to use his official visit to pressure China on the issue of the concentration camps, as Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a defender of the rights of Muslims worldwide.
But under the leadership of the young crown prince, the country’s leadership has become more pragmatic in its pursuit of foreign policy interests. For example, Saudi Arabia has reportedly started developing closer ties with Israel despite persistent complaints from human rights groups about the country’s treatment of Palestinians. The tentative alliance is meant to sideline Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia’s mutual enemy.
[…] China and Saudi Arabia have close economic ties, having done an estimated $63 billion worth of trade in 2018. [Source]
Social media users addressed the prince’s support of the camps by pointing out that had he been Uyghur, he too would be an ideal candidate for the camps:
#MohammadBinSalman would have been an ideal candidate for de-radicalisation in Chinese concentration camps if he was a Uyghur Turk. His beard, clothing, the Arabic language, and even his name “Muhammad” would be enough to be sent to a 're-education' camp! #MeTooUyghur pic.twitter.com/TFO9qPDFgi
— Arslan Hidayat (@arslan_hidayat) February 24, 2019
Despite some Muslim countries speaking up, some observers believe China’s economic might will ultimately allow it to keep the Muslim world under its thumb. Yaroslav Trofimov details why Muslim leaders’ statements lack teeth in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal:
But Mr. Erdogan has yet to speak out in person on Beijing’s latest Xinjiang crackdown, unleashed in 2017. Virtually all other Muslim leaders are equally quiet, in contrast to the steady stream of condemnation that they shower on Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians and on Myanmar for the Rohingya crisis.
[…] The shift isn’t hard to explain. With its massive Belt and Road investment initiative and its expanding military and technology muscle, China is simply too central an actor in the Muslim world—and the world at large—for the cause of the Uighurs to matter much. That is especially the case as U.S. foreign policy turns increasingly unpredictable, prompting many Muslim countries to reach out to Beijing as a hedge.
[…] One of the reasons for the reluctance of Muslim governments to criticize China over Xinjiang is that, following the upheaval of the 2011 Arab Spring, many are implementing unprecedented crackdowns on dissent of their own. Countries such as Egypt and the Gulf monarchies are using the language of combating extremism to justify detentions of human-rights activists and independent journalists and to shut down opposition voices online. As a result, coverage of Xinjiang has been very limited on pan-Arab satellite TV channels.
[…] Activist Ismail Cengiz, prime minister of the self-styled government of East Turkestan in exile, said he has no doubt that Turkish society, like public opinion across the Muslim world, remains committed to the Uighur cause. He acknowledged, however, that sympathy doesn’t necessarily yield political results. “The love between states isn’t like love between people,” Mr. Cengiz said. “For the states, interests come first.” [Source]
In the face of mounting diplomatic pressures to allow international monitors to enter Xinjiang, China began hand selecting several rounds of countries to visit for a few days at a time. Earlier this month, Beijing invited diplomats from Pakistan, Venezuela, Cuba, Egypt, Cambodia, Russia, Senegal and Belarus to Xinjiang. It subsequently invited 16 countries to visit this week, a move observers believe reveals China’s “rattled” state. At Reuters, Ben Blanchard reports:
Six diplomatic sources told Reuters that the government had invited for the next visit China-based diplomats from Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Russia, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Hungary and Greece.
[…] Diplomatic sources say China has become increasingly worried about the overseas backlash against the camps, especially threats of U.S. sanctions, and has sought to counter that with a public push for a friendlier narrative.
[…] “China does not want any other Muslim countries joining Turkey in criticizing the camps,” a second Beijing-based diplomat said.
[…] China hopes to mute criticism of its Xinjiang policies at two upcoming events, diplomats say.
One is the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, which starts on Monday in Geneva; the other is the Belt and Road summit in late April in Beijing, at which leaders from several Muslim nations are expected. [Source]
Representatives from more than 80 countries also attended a briefing from the Chinese government about Xinjiang last Friday, according to a Reuters report:
The Xinjiang deputy governor, Erkin Tuniyaz, and deputy foreign minister, Zhang Hanhui, explained Xinjiang’s “development achievements” and their “preventive counter-terrorism and de-extremism work” to the gathering, the ministry said.
[…] The diplomats said China’s explanation had helped them understand Xinjiang, that what China was doing there was important for the rest of the world in combating terrorism, and that the “successful experience in Xinjiang was worth studying and drawing on,” the ministry added.
It did not say which countries’ representatives had made the comments, or which countries’ envoys had attended.
Diplomatic sources told Reuters last week that Western diplomats would attend, as well as those from countries close to China and which traditionally do not criticise its rights record. [Source]
For more on leaders’ responses to the ongoing plight in Xinjiang, see remarks given by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) at the Hudson Institute. See also nine editorials published by the Washington Post on the situation in Xinjiang over the past nine months, and an opinion piece by Anne Applebaum.