China has repeatedly batted away criticism over Xinjiang, saying that its policies helped clamp down on terrorism and violence in the region. Shortly after The Times published the leaked Uighur files, the Chinese foreign ministry said its tactics in the region were “worth learning from.”
Not a single Muslim country is standing up to China over its actions, either to preserve existing economic ties or in response to Chinese threats to suspend future investment. Many Western countries have publicly criticized China’s actions in Xinjiang — but have taken limited steps to stop the atrocities.
The European Union, for example, has told China to “change” its actions but has not taken any tangible steps to ensure it. The 28-nation bloc lacks a coherent view toward China — and Beijing has capitalized on this disunity by pitting EU countries against each other to prevent a united policy that could hamper its plans.
Last month the US Commerce Department blacklisted 28 Chinese companies, including eight highly-valued AI startups, in response to their role in the “implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance” against Muslims in Xinjiang.
The sanctions were hailed as a good first step, but there is no evidence of change in China’s activities, or any indication that the US will take further measures.
An executive at Dahua, one of the sanctioned tech firms, even appeared to celebrate after the announcement, telling a business newspaper: “The fact that we are under the US control list shows that we indeed have a strong technological capability.”
“I think there’s a lot of rhetoric — people want to care, they want to project that they’re caring, but when it actually comes down to some kind of human or economic cost, they’re not willing to take that step,” Byler, the Uighur expert, said.
“They also point a finger at the Muslim-majority countries, saying: these countries aren’t even taking a stand at all, or they’re supporting the Chinese state,” he added. “So that helps them feel justified in saying, ‘at least we’re condemning it, we’ve taken that step.'”
An appropriate venue to raise China’s actions would be at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) but the fact that the US, the most powerful country in the world, quit the UNHCR — calling it “hypocritical and self-serving” — has effectively neutered its leadership in human rights and leverage to condemn China’s human rights abuses.
There is also evidence to suggest that UNHCR condemnations don’t work: Earlier this year 22 mostly-Western countries wrote a joint letter slamming China’s “arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang.”
The harsh language of the letter was outweighed by 37 other countries — including Syria and North Korea — standing up for China.
What China is doing to their Muslim minorities is bleak. But without powerful countries and international bodies willing to take a stand, these persecutions are likely to continue unimpeded.