WASHINGTON ― Now that United Nations experts have endorsed widespread reports that China is holding a million members of its Muslim minority Uighur community in internment camps, the Chinese government’s denials of a crackdown look flimsier than ever. Activists and reporters who have documented the repression appear vindicated and awareness about the crisis seems to be growing ― but there’s no certainty of resulting international pressure from governments like the United States that experts see as essential to forcing change.
“There’s very few countries in the world that have been vocal about the Uighur situation, even historically,” said Sean Roberts, a George Washington University professor and former U.S. Agency for International Development official. “The United States might have more leverage over China than any other country that might seek to sanction China but China also has a lot of leverage over the [U.S.] economically … I really think that in the end this can only be addressed by the [U.N.], which requires a lot of states coming together.”
The dilemma for world leaders is that so much of the global economy now relies on China ― Chinese manufacturing, Chinese consumers and Chinese investment. Since the Chinese government is so enmeshed in the country’s economy, to criticize even policies far removed from business like human rights violations is to risk becoming a target of political retribution through economic means. Beijing has exploited that fear to avoid even acknowledging its excesses. In some cases, it has even successfully forced other governments to aid its repression by handing over Uighurs living within their borders.
For years, particularly since a new top Chinese official took over the predominantly Uighur region of Xinjiang in 2016 and began instituting harsh new surveillance and measures like forcing families to host Communist Party officials in their homes, Beijing has felt it can treat the estimated 10 million Uighurs and other members of Muslim-minority communities as it pleases despite international law.
“There has not been comparable foreign government pressure” to the criticism from rights groups and analysts, said Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese government continues to act with impunity … The camps’ very existence and construction shows the government thinks it can continue to do so.”
In some cases, small but influential countries with business ties with China have helped shield it from criticism. Greece last summer blocked a disparaging European Union statement on China’s human rights record, and it aligned with Hungary against a separate EU statement on Chinese regional expansionism in 2016.
The argument from Chinese partners like Greece is that such issues are better discussed in private. But advocates argue general silence around the targeting of Uighurs is the very reason their communities now exist in what U.N. expert Gay McDougall called a “no-rights zone.”
“If one million Tibetans were arbitrarily detained in camps, there would be much stronger condemnation from the international community, which is a testament to the work of Tibetan advocacy groups around the world and people speaking strongly about rights issues there,” Peter Irwin of the World Uyghur Congress told HuffPost in an email. “This is perhaps why the Chinese government hasn’t gone to this extreme in Tibet.”
“The reason that we’ve seen things escalate to this extent … is at least in part because of the lack of response from the international community over the last three decades when [Uighurs] were targeted by discriminatory policies,” he added.
The Chinese policy in Xinjiang is now perhaps “more acute” than even the brutal upheavals during the country’s Cultural Revolution because it is planned in such detail and so specifically targeted on an ethnic and religious minority group, Roberts said.
The U.S. has been one of the few governments to at least pay lip service to *the need for change, through its support of a well-respected Uighur news service run by state-funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia and a consistent line for years from officials and lawmakers.
For Zubayra Shamseden, a Xinjiang native now working with the Uighur Human Rights Project in Washington, D.C., even that counts: “If there was no U.S. government or no U.N. to stand up, imagine what’s going to happen to Uighurs,” she said.
Uighur groups estimate that more than a million members of the community now live outside China. They are primarily in Central Asia, but 10,000 are scattered around Europe, while about 5,000 are in the U.S., around 3,000 in Australia and up to 50,000 in Turkey, a country with which they share historical and cultural ties.
As a result, the crisis affects citizens in foreign countries as well. With arrests of Uighurs in China having surpassed the 1 million mark, essentially every family has a member or a friend who has been detained, subjected to lectures about loyalty to the Communist Party or even torture, Shamseden said.
“What’s happening inside the country is obstructing normal living” for Uighurs trying to live as productive citizens in countries abroad, she continued. In nations ranging from Egypt and Malaysia, they now also live in fear of being forced back to China.
The perceived lack of concern for Uighurs is especially striking coming from governments in Muslim-majority countries, given their rallying around the cause of the Palestinians and to some degree that of the persecuted Rohingya minority in Myanmar. Some of the most powerful of those governments, like Iran and Pakistan, are hoping to benefit from China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, a transnational development plan seeking to tie Europe and Asia closer together.
“I’m not very religious, but at least I know the principles of our religion: If your brothers and sisters are suffering, you are too,” Shamseden said. “I don’t know why the Muslim world won’t really follow what that religion told me.”
The spike in attention to the Uighur cause thanks to the U.N. session that ended Monday could create momentum, particularly because it comes a few months ahead of another big international review of China’s approach to human rights scheduled for November. With the Trump administration eager to confront China on all fronts as it ramps up its trade war, Washington could see a benefit to highlighting the issue even more, for instance by using evidence of mass detention to place sanctions on powerful Chinese officials, Roberts said.
But the Trump administration has made that task potentially more difficult through its withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council, which forfeited its official role in the November review. That makes it more important for governments like those in Europe to speak out, said Sarah Brooks, a program manager at the International Service for Human Rights.
Still, she and other experts believe the unprecedented U.N. finding could make China so wary of further criticism and damaging revelations that the government will become a little more receptive to external calls for change.
“You can’t necessarily stop a government from oppressing its own people,” Roberts said. “It’s a question of whether the tide could be turned to at least put enough pressure on China to … at the very least shut down those camps.”