A wall of silence around China’s oppression of its Muslim minority is starting to crumble

A protester wears a mask painted with the flag of Xinjiang, also known as East Turkestan, and tears of blood in Brussels, Belgium, in April 2018. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty
  • China’s Muslim minority, the Uighurs, are subject to harsh surveillance, with many interned in prison-like detention camps.
  • Beijing justifies this crackdown as a counterterrorism measure, and calls the internment camps “free vocational training.”
  • Countries in the Muslim world have largely avoided confronting Beijing over this crackdown in the past, but the tide is turning.
  • More and more Muslim countries are openly calling out China over its human rights record.
  • It is a powerful symbol, but in order to force change, these countries will need more than words.

More and more countries are standing up to China over its oppression of the Uighurs, the country’s majority-Muslim ethnic minority.

Beijing is interning up to 2 million Uighurs in prison-like detention camps, according to the US State Department, where authorities reportedly force inmates to renounce their religion and native language, and even push them into forced labour.

Activists have found evidence of Chinese authorities tracking Uighurs’ mobile phone activity in their home region of Xinjiang, which is also known as East Turkestan.

Others say Beijing has demanded the Uighur diaspora hand over personal information, and has threatened their families if they do not.

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Xinjiang camp yingye'er
Footage purportedly of a re-education camp for China’s Uighur Muslims in Yingye’er, Xinjiang, taken in August 2018. Bitter Winter/YouTube

Chinese authorities say the policies are a counterterrorism strategy, and that placing Uighurs in internment camps is “free vocational training.”

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Until recently, countries from the Muslim world largely avoided mentioning China’s Uighur crackdown.

Experts say this was because the countries fear economic retribution from China, and also because many Arab states do not want to draw attention to their own poor human rights records.

But the tide is turning.

A crumbling wall of silence

In September 2018, the federal minister for religion in Pakistan – China’s closest economic ally in the Muslim world – openly criticised Beijing’s regulation of Uighur activity, saying that the crackdown actually “increases the chances of an extremist viewpoint growing in reaction.”

A month later, Malaysia – a major economic ally to China, and home to many ethnic Chinese – ignored Beijing’s requests to deport a group of Uighurs imprisoned in the country.

In December the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – a consortium of 57 countries which calls itself “the collective voice of the Muslim world” – noted in December “disturbing reports” of China’s Muslim crackdown.

It said it hoped China “would address the legitimate concerns of Muslims around the world.”

Relations between Turkey and China soured over the past three weeks after Turkey broke its yearslong silence and called the Xinjiang crackdown “a great shame for humanity.”

In response, Beijing accused Ankara of “unfairly blaming” it based on “ridiculous lies,” and called it “extremely irresponsible.”

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China on Thursday temporarily shut down its consulate in Izmir, western Turkey – in a sign of strained relations between the two countries. While China cited operational reasons, Turkey’s pro-government Hurriyet Daily News and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post both linked it to Xinjiang.

N Uighur woman protests in front of policemen at a street on July 7, 2009 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region, China.
A Uighur woman protests in front of riot police in Urumqi, Xinjiang, in 2009. These riots were one of the deadliest in Chinese history. Guang Niu/Getty Images

In countries where world leaders haven’t stood up to China, there have been significant protests.

Prominent politicians and religious figures in Indonesia – the country with the world’s largest Muslim population – are urging the government to speak up. It has so far refused to do so, saying it that it didn’t “want to intervene in the domestic affairs of another country.”

Muslim groups in India and Bangladesh also staged multiple protests over the Uighur detentions this year.

People have been particularly vocal in Kazakhstan – where the government relies heavily on Chinese economic support – as many ethnic Kazakhs have been imprisoned in Xinjiang camps.

The fate of one Kazakh citizen, who used to work as an internment camp instructor and is threatening to speak out, currently hangs in limbo as the government weighs whether to extradite her to China.

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Uyghur men gather for a holiday meal during the Corban Festival on September 13, 2016 in Turpan County, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.
Uighur men gather for a holiday meal in Turpan County, Xinjiang, in September 2016. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Western powers like the US and the UK, as well as the UN, have repeatedly criticised Beijing over its actions in Xinjiang.

But the criticism of Muslim nations shows a turning tide in the world’s attitude to China, said Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch.

China has long batted away Western criticism, with state-run Global Times tabloid describing Western critics as “a condescending judge” earlier this year. China’s foreign ministry said a reported investigation by western diplomats into the Uighur issue was “very rude.”

Richardson told Business Insider in December: “When governments like Indonesia or Malaysia … or organisations like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation speak up, China can no longer dismiss concerns about Xinjiang being some kind of Western conspiracy.”

“That’s very encouraging.”

Mahathir mohamad
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government ignored Beijing’s requests to deport a group of Uighurs. How Hwee Young/Getty

The world is paying attention

The rising tide of outrage against China comes as more and more of the country’s human rights record was brought to light these past few months.

Last summer journalists, academics, and activists were taken aback by the disappearance of the Chinese “X-Men” actress Fan Bingbing, whom Chinese authorities detained and kept from the public eye for three months over accusations that she evaded taxes.

Meng Hongwei, the Lyon-based president of Interpol, remains missing after being mysteriously detained in China in late September. His wife thinks he could be dead.

The New York Times also featured a story about the Xinjiang detention camps on its front page for the first time last September:

Richardson said: “Increasingly, governments are seeing the way in which China uses thuggish tactics at home and overseas on governments and citizens, and are starting to realise it’s time to push back against it.”

“Three months ago, if you were to tell me there would be critical language coming out of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, I would have suggested it was unlikely,” she said.

Uighur men make bread under a poster of Chinese leaders including Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping in Kashgar, Xinjiang, in July 2017. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Next comes action

Muslim countries speaking up against China over the Uighurs is a significant first step, but is not likely to do much by itself.

Countries now need to take concrete action to punish or persuade China to end their crackdown on the Uighurs, Richardson said.

“The question now is what everybody is willing to do,” she said. “Talking and putting in consequential actions are two different things. That’s where the game shifts next.”

Countries will also have to be “mindful that China will fight it tooth and nail,” she added.

Since last December, Chinese authorities have invited dozens of journalists and diplomats from at least 16 countries – many of which are majority-Muslim – to tightly-controlled tours of Xinjiang’s re-education camps.

But representatives from the United Nations and activists from groups like Human Rights Watch – who have campaigned unsuccessfully, for access into the region – have not been invited.

Uighur men at a tea house in July 2017. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A of Chinese fightback could could come in the form of sanctions of troublesome countries, or cancelling contracts.

Richardson, the Human Rights Watch director, noted that many accusations against China came as multiple Muslim countries are reassessing their economic ties with Beijing.

Malaysia axed $US22 billion of Beijing-backed infrastructure projects this August. Egypt’s talks with a Chinese building company over a $US20 billion development also broke down this week, Bloomberg reported. Neither of those cancellations were over the Uighur issue.

Meanwhile in the US, a bipartisan group of introduced the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act in November (“Uyghur” is an alternative spelling). The act urges the White House to consider imposing sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for the Uighur crackdown, as push the government to ban exports of US technology that could be used to oppress Uighurs.

Chinese cash could be hard to quit

Whether Muslim countries follow suit remains to be seen, however. China is the largest trading partner of 20 of the 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, according to Bloomberg.

Pakistan, for example, is one of the largest recipients of Chinese aid and infrastructure contracts.

Three months after its religious minister criticised China’s Uighur crackdown last September, the country’s foreign ministry dramatically rowed back the religious minister’s comments, accusing the media of “trying to sensationalize” the Xinjiang issue, Agence France-Presse reported.

Mohammad Faisal, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, also appeared to echo Beijing’s line on the detention camps, saying that some Pakistani citizens who were detained in Xinjiang were “undergoing voluntary training” instead.

And in January, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed “I don’t actually know much” about the situation of Muslims in Xinjiang, and changed the subject to discuss his country’s economic partnership with China instead.