More than 20 countries have issued a joint statement this week condemning China’s mass detention program in Xinjiang in what is the first concerted international effort to challenge Beijing on its repressive policy in the far western region, where an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs are held in what are officially termed “vocational training” facilities. The letter comes after Vladimir Ivanovich Voronkov, the Under-Secretary for the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office, was widely criticized for failing to address the human rights situation in Xinjiang during his official visit there last month. CNN’s Ben Westcott and Jo Shelley report:
In a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, the group of 22 nations urged China to end its “mass arbitrary detentions and related violations” and called on Beijing to allow UN experts to access the region.
[…] Britain, France and Germany were among 18 European countries to co-sign the letter expressing concern about “credible reports of arbitrary detention … as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.” Other signatories included Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand.
“The joint statement is important not only for Xinjiang’s population, but for people around the world who depend on the UN’s leading rights body to hold even the most powerful countries to account,” said John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch.
“Governments are increasingly recognizing the suffering of millions of people in Xinjiang, with families torn apart and living in fear, and a Chinese state that believes it can commit mass violations uncontested,” Fisher said. “The joint statement demonstrates that Beijing is wrong to think it can escape international scrutiny for its abuses in Xinjiang, and the pressure will only increase until these appalling abuses end.” [Source]
At the UN, unprecedented joint call for China to end oppression in Xinjiang
Not one Muslim nation among the 22 signatories, 21 of whom are Western countries: https://t.co/j04rjIG7gO
— Adrian Zenz (@adrianzenz) July 10, 2019
The United States, which withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council last June, was not one of the signatories. Despite missing the support of the U.S., which has typically taken the lead among Western nations in criticizing China for its human rights record, the joint letter is seen as an effective way to collectively hold China accountable without having any one country risk being singled out for economic and political retaliation from Beijing. From Nick Cumming-Bruce at The New York Times:
The United States had previously led criticism of China’s treatment of Uighurs and led a joint statement condemning China’s treatment of lawyers and human rights activists in the Human Rights Council in 2016. But the United States withdrew from the council a year ago and did not sign the letter.
Diplomats said there was little prospect of another country leading a resolution in the council and exposing itself to the political and economic retaliation China often threatens against states that criticize it, especially in prominent forums.
The joint letter, on the contrary, had no obvious coordinator or sponsor, making it difficult for China to single out a particular signer for retribution. Diplomats said the letter provided a less risky but nonetheless effective way for states to express indignation over China’s measures in Xinjiang.
There was no immediate comment from China on the letter, but diplomats said China’s envoys in Geneva were preparing a counter-letter. Human rights activists welcomed it. [Source]
In response, 37 countries, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Syria issued a letter “supporting China’s policies in its western region of Xinjiang,” according to Reuters.
Rick Noack at The Washington Post writes that the first joint letter condemning the Xinjiang camps is the latest example of the international community working to adapt to global diplomacy and address pressing issues at a time when Washington has withdrawn its support from important international organizations.
Without the United States, many expected the council to be significantly weakened. But this week’s step to condemn China has illustrated the way in which U.S. allies have begun to adapt to Trump’s abandoning of global bodies and treaties by recalibrating their own strategies. In some cases, the void left by the United States has been largely filled by other Western democracies. But in other cases, U.S. absences from treaties has allowed rivals like China or Russia to expand their influence.
The United States has rarely shied away from condemning Chinese government practices, but smaller Western democracies like Germany, France and Britain are more vulnerable to Beijing’s political and economic leverage and have often attempted a balance between private criticism and public signs of support.
But the letter issued against China this week is not attributed to any one nation and did not have a clear initiator or coordinator — a role that would previously have fallen to the United States in many instances. This time, the document was equally backed by every signatory, which makes it far more difficult for Beijing to retaliate, given that it would need to target more than 20 individual nations. [Source]
Nearly twice as many countries signed on to the current statement than compared to the number of signatories that joined in on a previous statement led by the United States in March 2016.
The current human rights crisis in Xinjiang arose in part due to a fundamental shift in policy that occurred following the Urumqi riots of 2009. At The Diplomat, Australian National University’s Michael Clarke writes that the Urumqi incident served as an important trigger that led the Chinese state on a trajectory towards “the dissolution of Uyghur identity and culture as a means of ensuring the security of the ‘new colonial society’ it has erected in Xinjiang.”
This was also accompanied by a shift in how the CCP conceived of the relationship between development, identity, and security. Since “reform and opening,” the Party’s strategy in Xinjiang had rested on the bedrock assumption that economic development would gradually resolve the “minzu question” by breaking down the traditional cultural, religious, and social ties that underpinned Uyghur identity and thus securing the region. After 7/5, however, economic development per se was viewed as no longer sufficient to this end.
Rather, the question now was what obstacles prevented development from achieving the goal of integration and what should the Party do about it. An answer emerged from the debates about a so-called “second generation” of minzu policy after 2009. Here, a number Party-affiliated scholars (Ma Rong, Hu Angang, and Han Lianhe) argued that the “first generation” of policy – based on minzu equality and “national regional autonomy” — had solidified ethnic boundaries, ethnic elites, and notions of “separateness.”
Their solution suggests that they believed that there was something intrinsic to ethnic minority identity that blocked the path to modernization, and hence, integration. Thus, the advocates of “second generation” policy asserted that minzu policy must discard the nominal pluralism and preferential policies of the past in favor of an approach that explicitly seeks the “mingling,” “fusing,” or “standardization” of ethnic groups with a supra-national conception of the Chinese “state-nation” (zhongguo minzu). The means through which this was to be achieved included political, economic, and cultural measures: “eliminating group-differentiated rights and obligations to ensure the equality of all citizens”; increasing “economic interaction and ties between ethnic minority regions and the rest of the country”; and “increasing ethnic mobility, co-residence, and intermarriage and promoting Putonghua, bilingual, and mixed-ethnic schooling.”
The final element in the CCP’s transformation of its approach to Xinjiang and the Uyghur after 7/5 was the implementation of a hi-tech surveillance apparatus that some observers have described as a “carceral state.” Many have now documented the technological architecture at the leading edge of this apparatus: installation of China’s “Skynet” electronic surveillance system in major urban areas; installation of GPS trackers in motor vehicles; use of facial recognition and iris scanners at checkpoints, train stations, and gas stations; collection of biometric data for passports; and mandatory apps to cleanse smartphones of potentially subversive material. [Source]
A particularly significant surge in security presence took place in Xinjiang following the appointment of Chen Quanguo as the region’s Party Secretary in 2016. Chen’s role in overseeing the exponential increase in police presence in Xinjiang has led some to argue for the U.S. government to sanction him under the Magnitsky Act.
The following is an excerpt from a three-part piece by Adam Hunerven at Chuang detailing the deep trauma experienced by Uyghurs living in Xinjiang today:
Soon after I arrived in Ürümchi in 2014 I met a young Uyghur man named Alim. He grew up in a small town near the city of Khotan in the deep south of the Uyghur homeland near the Chinese border with Pakistan. He was a tall, quiet young man who had come to the city looking for better opportunities. Critical of many of the rural people with whom he had grown up, he saw them as lacking capitalist ambition and an understanding of the broader Muslim world. But he was even more critical of the systemic, ongoing issues that had pushed Uyghurs into migrant labor and limited their access to Islamic knowledge. There were far too few economic opportunities and far too many religious and political restrictions in the rural areas of Northwest China, he explained. Since the beginning of the most recent “hard-strike campaigns” that lead up to the implementation of the “People’s War on Terror” (Ch: renmin fankong zhanzheng) in May 2014, many people in the countryside had reached a new level of despair and hopelessness. Alim told me: “If suicide was not forbidden in Islam many people would choose this as a way out.” After praying in the mosque he often saw men crying in each others’ arms—the promise of future redemption matched by the brokenness they felt in their own lives. “Have you seen the Hunger Games?” he asked. “It feels just like that to us.” But it was hard for him to put into words what, exactly, this felt like. He was grasping for a cultural script with which to contextualize the devastating feeling of being so powerless. As a young Uyghur male, he was terrified that he would be caught up in the counter-terrorism sweeps. Every day, he tried to put the threat out of his mind and act as though it was not real.
As I got to know Alim better, he began to tell me more explicit stories about what was happening to his world. “Most Uyghur young men my age are psychologically damaged,” he explained. “When I was in elementary school surrounded by other Uyghurs I was very outgoing and active. Now I feel like I ‘have been broken’” (Uy: rohi sunghan). He told me stories of the way that friends of his had been taken by the police and beaten, only to be released after powerful or wealthy relatives had intervened in their cases. He said, “Five years ago [after the protests of 2009] people fled Ürümchi for the South (of Xinjiang) in order to feel safer, now they are fleeing the South in order to feel safer in the city. Quality of life is now about feeling safe.”
By 2014 the trauma people experienced in the rural Uyghur homeland was acute. It followed them into the city, hung over their heads and affected the comportment of their bodies. It made people tentative, looking over their shoulders, keeping their heads down. It made them tremble and cry. Many Uyghur migrants to the city had immediate relatives who remained in the countryside and with whom they stayed in touch with over social media. Rumors of what was happening in the countryside were therefore a constant part of everyday conversation. Once, meeting Alim in a park, he said that a relative stationed at a prison near Alim’s hometown had told him what was happening there. Over the past few months many young Uyghur women who had previously worn reformist Islamic coverings had been arrested and sentenced to 5 to 8 years in the prison as religious “extremists” who harbored “terrorist” ideologies. As he spoke, Alim’s lower lip trembled. He said the Uyghur and Han prison guards had repeatedly raped these young women, saying that if they did this “they didn’t miss their wives at home.” They told each other “you can just ‘use’ these girls.” Alim told this story in a very quiet voice, hunched over on the park-bench. His knee was touching mine. His shoe was touching mine. Among Uyghur men, having an intimate friend means sharing the same space and sharing each others’ pain. Nearby a Uyghur woman was shaking apple trees, while two other women filled bags with small stone-sized apples (Uy: tash alma). I looked away from Alim so that I wouldn’t cry. [Source]
One website has documented the details of nearly 5000 individuals that have been detained in Xinjiang.