- Muslim countries have been silent over China’s crackdown on its Uighurs, a Muslim-majority ethnic minority in the country’s west.
- Experts and activists say it is because countries fear economic retribution from China.
- Many also say it’s because many Arab states also have poor human rights records, and don’t want to draw attention to themselves.
- Turkey has tried standing up to China in the past – and Beijing has not forgotten it.
China’s crackdown on its Uighur citizens, a mostly-Muslim ethnic minority group, has faced heavy international scrutiny in recent months.
In August the United Nations said it was “deeply concerned” by reports that China had forced as many as 1 million Uighurs into internment camps in Xinjiang, western China. In April, the US State Department said it had heard of Uighurs who had “disappeared” or were unexpectedly detained.
Meanwhile, Muslim countries have been deafeningly silent.
Over the past year alone, activists have found evidence of Chinese authorities tracking Uighurs’ mobile phone activity and forcing them to cut off their beards and dresses. Others say China has demanded the Uighur diaspora hand over personal information – and threatened their families if they do not.
Chinese officials have denied the camps exist, though have acknowledged a program of “resettlement” for people it refers to as extremists. Business Insider has contacted the Chinese government for further comment.
It’s not as if Muslim countries haven’t spoken out about human rights in the past. As Myanmar’s military ramped up its violence against Rohingya Muslims late last year, citizens in Jordan and Iran staged multiple protests in solidarity with the Rohingya.
Saudi Arabia’s mission to the UN also condemned the situation online.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, an international consortium which calls itself “the collective voice of the Muslim world,” also pledged this May to set up a “proper investigation” into the Rohingya crisis.
So why hasn’t anyone said anything about China’s Uighur issue?
Money, money, money
Many Muslim-majority countries aren’t speaking out because they don’t want to jeopardize their economic relationships in China, experts say.
Several states in Central Asia and the Middle East are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive project launched in 2013 linking 78 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania through a network of railroads, shipping lanes, and other infrastructure projects.
Many of these deals entail China giving hefty loans to economies with a bad credit rating, which countries such as Pakistan are already finding difficult to repay. And it appears that these economic partnerships are stopping these countries from speaking out about Xinjiang.
Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Chinese politics researcher at University of Technology Sydney, told Business Insider: “Like most states, many Muslim-majority countries have increasingly close economic relations with China.
“There is a general consensus that speaking out about the situation in Xinjiang might jeopardize the development of economic ties, and it is therefore not in their interests to do so.”
Alip Erkin, an activist in Australia who runs the Uyghur Bulletin network, specifically cited BRI as a hindrance. He told BI: “Enormous trade and investment opportunities, as well as debt burden from China, through the BRI not only result in the tight lips of Muslim states but also an active cooperation with China in Uighur crackdown.”
Egypt, a BRI partner country, has even appeared to help China with its Uighur crackdown.
Last summer, Egypt detained dozens of Uighur students in the country without giving a reason, denied them access to lawyers and their families, Human Rights Watch reported.
Cairo also deported at least 12 Chinese Uighurs back to China around the same time, according to The New York Times.
Peter Irwin, the program manager at the World Uyghur Congress, told BI: “There is a certain expectation that Muslim-majority countries would naturally lend support to Uighurs and criticise China, but we just haven’t seen this, and I don’t expect we’ll see this given China’s economic ambitions with the Belt and Road Initiative, however successful the plan may or may not be.”
China’s Uighur treatment may not offend Arab states
It may be too simplistic to cite economic dependence on China as the only reason why Muslim countries aren’t standing up to China over the Uighurs.
Many Middle Eastern states also have a poor human rights record, and prioritise social stability over individual rights, much like China does, van Nieuwenhuizen said.
China justifies its crackdown on Xinjiang as protecting the peace and preventing terrorism. Militant Uighurs have been accused of starting deadly ethnic riots in Xinjiang and terrorist attacks across the country from 2009 to 2014.
Many Arab countries “exhibit a similar understanding” of prioritising social stability over human rights, van Nieuwenhuizen said.
She told BI: “Many Middle Eastern states have a poor human rights record themselves – including when it comes to the treatment of religious minorities. Many exhibit a similar understanding of human rights to China’s – that is, that social stability trumps individual rights.
“This is how the Chinese government has framed the presence of re-education camps and other repressive measures.”
Erkin also told BI that although many Gulf states can afford to make a political stand against China, they “are mostly ultra-authoritarian states that advocate non-interference in other states’ internal affairs to avoid the same interference in theirs.”
He added: “The silence of the Muslim majority countries over the horrific treatment of Uighurs, especially the recent cultural cleansing drive in East Turkestan, is both frustrating and unsurprising.”
East Turkestan is the Uighur term for Xinjiang.
He continued: “It is frustrating because the principle of Muslim brotherhood has become a selective foreign policy tool that has more to do with the international politics of Muslim countries and less to do with its true message of solidarity.”
Business Insider has contacted the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation for comment, but received no reply.
What happened when Turkey tried to stand up to China
Turkey, which is majority-Muslim, has spoken out against China’s treatment of its Uighurs in the past – and China has not forgotten.
In 2009 then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who is now president) described ethnic violence in Xinjiang as “a kind of genocide” and said: “We have difficulty understanding how China’s leadership can remain a spectator in the face of these events.”
Shortly after the comments were made, the state-run China Daily newspaper ran an editorial warning Erdogan to take back his remarks, with the headline: “Don’t twist facts.”
In 2015 Turkey also offered shelter to Uighur refugees fleeing China, which China Daily again warned “may poison ties and derail cooperation.”
Although Erdogan has not spoken out recently, Chinese state media has continued to threaten Turkey.
As the country witnessed a dramatic economic crisis this month, the state-run tabloid Global Times published an unsparing editorial offering Chinese economic support, but warned it against making any more “irresponsible remarks on the ethnic policy in Xinjiang.”
What Uighurs are saying
It’s hard to gauge what Uighurs in Xinjiang think about the issue, because the Chinese government severely restricts information flow out of the region, Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told BI.
But many other activists with ties to the region say that, although many Uighurs and diaspora feel helpless, they are still holding out hope for change.
Erkin, the Uyghur Bulletin publisher, told BI: “There is no doubt that Uighurs in East Turkestan as well as in the diaspora feel extremely helpless in the face of the current cultural cleansing campaign in their homeland, and hope that the UN and other powerful countries of the world call China out and defend their basic religious and cultural rights as humans.
“But still, given the past political solidarity and migration support from Turkey, many Uighurs would like to keep their hopes alive about it being the defender of Uighurs when its international relations are stabilised and economic woes are tackled.”
Irwin of World Uyghur Congress added: “The Uighur community is obviously disheartened by the lack of support, but it is certainly not something that has been given up on.
“The United States, European Union and others need to remain vocal on human rights and bring on larger contingents of like-minded countries to collectively stand against these policies,” he added.
“Although China seemingly flouts international norms of behaviour, the country’s leadership still remains particularly concerned about how they are perceived internationally.”