It is becoming increasingly hard to ignore the issue of China’s persecution of its Uighur Muslim minority – or to claim that the rest of the world does not know enough about it. Evidence is mounting of Xi Jinping’s Communist Party’s systematic oppression of the population of Xinjiang province in the country’s far northwest.
Beijing is already facing US and other pressure over mishandling the Covid-19 pandemic and repressing freedoms in Hong Kong. Last week London followed Washington in banning the Huawei technology giant from its 5G network. China also had a deadly border clash with India and engaged in a damaging war of words with Australia. In recent years it has also embarked on a policy of naval expansion in the South China Sea.
“Today China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else,” the US secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared on July 23, the day before the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston and the US mission in Chengdu. China’s foreign ministry described as “futile” Pompeo’s efforts to “launch a new crusade.“
In the big picture this escalating crisis is forcing other countries to take sides, and increasingly they are opting for Washington rather than Beijing - despite President Donald Trump’s retreat from global leadership in line with his disruptive “America First” unilateralism. Nor does it help that Trump has repeatedly referred to coronavirus as “kung-flu” - or that he calls his Democratic rival as “Beijing Biden.”
It has long been assumed that the 21st century would witness China’s inexorable rise due to its combination of the largest population on the planet, its emergence as a centre of global manufacturing and the ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative.” In the last few months, however, the rest of the world is getting nervous – and with good reason.
Experts argue that Beijing is pursuing an over-assertive and ultimately risky strategy – both in terms of its foreign ambitions and domestic stability. This could cost it dearly in terms of its international reputation but also carry severe economic costs as it is now facing the threat of high unemployment because of the Covid crisis.
Numerous countries have been bought off. China has become a more active and influential voice at the UN because so many are benefiting from billions of dollars in its investments, especially in Africa. Earlier this year Australia discovered that when it called for an inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, it faced both cyber-attacks and sanctions.
Abuse of the Uighurs and other Muslim Turkic minorities in Xinjiang has been extensively documented but has always been strenuously denied by Beijing, which claims that its policies are intended to counter terrorism. But evidence of mass detention and surveillance as well as restrictions on religious and cultural beliefs, is growing.
There have even been reports of the forced sterilisation of Uighur women and efforts to curb the growth of the Uighur population, which human rights organizations say provide the clearest proof yet of “cultural genocide.”
On a BBC primetime TV show in mid-July the Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, looked uncomfortable after being shown meticulously-verified drone footage of the mass transport of blindfolded, shackled and shaven-headed Uighur men. But he still denied that anything unusual was being done and claimed, unconvincingly, that China treats “every ethnic group as equal.”
Many high-profile international brands have been linked to Chinese manufacturers alleged to be involved in forced labour programmes, where Uighur men and women are subjected to monitoring, the banning of religious observance, segregated dormitory living, and mandatory “ideological training” as well as supervision by “minders,” anthem-singing, flag-raising and Mandarin classes.
Beijing insists that what it calls “vocational training centres” are designed to address labour shortages and to alleviate poverty. It denies that people are forced into work. Activists counter that Uighurs may be held for “crimes” such as having beards or wearing headscarves, having a Muslim name, declining to eat pork, having WhatsApp on their phone or for no apparent reason at all.
Human rights experts say that China has also walked a “very deliberate and very careful” line in committing serious human rights abuses without perpetrating the sort of physical violence that might attract widespread global condemnation.
Still, calls are multiplying for China to be held to account. On July 19 the UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab accused China of “gross and egregious” abuses of Uighurs in the wake of the BBC interview with the ambassador.
Comparisons are being made between the Nazi persecution of the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust, in which 6 million people were exterminated. Jews - in solidarity with Muslims despite the longstanding confrontation over Israel and Palestine – are arguing that far more needs to be done to hold China to account.
Last week Pompeo declared in the name of the US – which remains, after all, the most powerful country on Earth - “the free world must triumph over this new tyranny.” It is still far from clear how this important goal will be achieved.