For the past four years, the region of Xinjiang in Northwest China has witnessed the largest forced incarceration of an ethno-religious minority anywhere in the world since the Second World War. Upwards of one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have been forced into internment camps for “re-education” and “thought transformation”, or into high security prisons, or forced labour.
This situation has come to the wider attention of the world when the world “genocide” – unqualified by the modified “cultural” – was used recently to describe it.
Even the Americans get how bad this is. On January 19th 2021, one day before leaving office, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that China’s actions against the Uyghur minority group constituted “genocide and crimes against humanity.” Antony Blinken, Pompeo’s successor, would later agree with this characterisation in his confirmation hearing. For more detail on the U.S. view, here’s the testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee from back in 2018.
The notion that a genocide is underway in the twenty-first century seems outlandish from a country that produces every fridge you need down at Harvey Norman and everything from doormats to toothbrushes at The Warehouse. We may well resile from Air New Zealand servicing Saudi aeroplane engines, but our utter addiction to China’s cheap manufacturing also ties us to the largest-scale oppression of the 21st century.
In October 2020 39 countries at the United Nations criticized China for its human rights abuses against Uighur, and also its crackdown against Hong Kong.
The German Ambasador Christoph Heugsen said on behalf of 39 countries at the U.N. committee that deals with human rights abuses, “We call on China to respect human rights, particularly the rights of persons belonging to religious and ethnic minorities, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet.”
Heugsen urged China to allow U.N. human rights observers “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to Xinjiang. Among the 39 countries were most of the EU member states, as well as Canada, Haiti, Honduras, Australia, and ourselves.
If you’re unfamiliar with the human rights abuses going on there, this backgrounder will serve as a starter.
Of course straight after that statement, China’s Ambassador to the United Nations Zhang Jun, hit back targeting the United States. Without addressing the Uighur issue, he claimed China’s human rights achievements are “widely recognised” and he urged Washington to “take a good look in the mirror” and eliminate racial discrimination in its own society before attacking other countries.” Clearly the way the United States ‘takes a look in the mirror’ is to start with (a) vote out their leader and his supporting party, and (b) twice hold him to close scrutiny through impeachment – accountability that can never happen to the autocratic Xi Jinping of course. There has been more ‘looking in the mirror’ to follow of course even after Facebook has reformed, FoxNews has cleared house, and Twitter turned against the President.
It is patently clear that many of the world’s countries with the most corrupt and anti-democratic practices are the ones over which China has the most influence. China’s resolute silence over the coup in Myanmar is deafening when placed against most other countries including our own who over this week have withdrawn all contact with them. Then there’s North Korea.
And Nepal. Look up the Human Rights Watch ratings for any of those countries, or their corruption index. Sometimes they resist China, as in Mongolia, but not for long. China’s toxic authoritarian influence is spreading.
It’s not as if international outrage hasn’t been raised. It’s that the Chinese government doesn’t care, refutes any imposition of any kind of judgement about how it treats its citizens, and actively undermines the very idea of human rights as an international norm. China is getting better at undermining global human rights.
This 2019 analysis about ‘human rights with Chinese characteristics’ – an active corrosion of human rights as a framework for moral judgement and sanction of countries by China – has also been followed up by UN Human Rights Watch and comes to similar conclusions.
The Australian Institute of Foreign Affairs has followed up on this pattern mid last year as well.
Now, of course we could wait for more neutral observers to be let into Xinjiang, and I expect you would have a longer wait than the World Health Organisation inspectors who tried to get into Wuhan to determine the origin and Chinese government response to Covid19. China’s government practise is to actively stonewall until evidence is obliterated or at least too cold to prosecute.
Whatever the merits of the term genocide, the evidence of the atrocities that China has committed against Uyghurs is undeniable.
The chill for New Zealand is this: by depicting itself as the primary leader of developing countries around the world, China showcases its political system of state-centric anti-democratic authoritarianism as a model for other countries to emulate, actively degrade international norms of basic freedoms, and suppress facts leading to criticism let alone dissent. That’s the first and most obvious reason we need to work to regain unity among the Pacific Islands Forum.
Meanwhile, New Zealand should continue to protest against China’s massive oppression of Uighur peoples. It’s what a country with a conscience ought to do.