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Why The West Won’t Act on China’s Uighur Crisis

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Western nations have criticized but failed to impose punitive measures for China’s internment of as many as one million Uighur Muslims in de facto concentration camps.

As evidence mounts of China’s internment of almost one million Muslim Uighurs in the country’s far western region, Western nations have largely failed to respond to the reported abuses, a conspiracy of silence that speaks to China’s still-strong economic and political clout.

In what some critics have referred to as a campaign of “ethnic cleansing”, Chinese authorities have since late 2017 corralled hundreds of thousands of Turkic minority, Uighurs into locked down indoctrination camps in the purportedly autonomous Xinjiang region.

Human rights groups contend that torture and beatings are common in the camps – which form a new “gulag archipelago,” according to some activists – as the ruling Communist Party engages in a social-engineering drive to destroy the Uighur’s traditions, identity and religious beliefs.

But despite the widespread reports of systematized mistreatment, the international response has been at best been muted, and at worst appeasement, Uighur activists and human rights groups monitoring the situation say.

They argue that foreign governments, namely in the rights-promoting West, should impose economic sanctions and threaten to boycott Chinese companies in punitive response.

A Canadian parliamentary committee reported last month that the detention of the Uighurs, as well as other Muslim minority groups, is “unprecedented in its scale, technological sophistication and in the level of economic resources attributed by the state to the project.” Yet the Canadian government has not yet engaged is anything beyond rhetorical criticism.

The United States has sought to tackle China on everything from its military expansion in the South China Sea to reputed unfair trade practices, but indignation over the Uighur issue has been relatively absent in Washington’s broadsides against Beijing.

Uighur men walking into the Id Kah mosque for afternoon prayers in Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region in a 2015 photo. Photo: AFP/Greg Baker

Uighur men walking into the Id Kah mosque for afternoon prayers in Kashgar, in China’s western Xinjiang region in a 2015 photo. Photo: AFP/Greg Baker

In September, President Donald Trump’s administration said it was considering sanctions against senior Chinese officials and companies linked broadly to human rights abuses, though over four months later nothing has apparently come of the deliberations.

US lawmakers introduced legislation in November calling for the release of over one million Uighurs in China, with the bill’s co-sponsor, Republican congressman Chris Smith, referring to the internment centers as “concentration camps” and “crimes against humanity.”

The still pending bill recommends sanctioning individual Chinese officials found to be responsible for abuses and for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track and report China’s harassment of any Uighurs resident in the US.

There are credible reports that the Uighur detainees are being used as forced or low-cost labor, and that the goods they produce are now flooding international markets.

A US State Department official said last month before a Senate committee that Chinese authorities have “indefinitely detained at least 800,000 and possibly more than two million Uighurs, ethnic Khazaks and other members of Muslim minorities in internment camps.”

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In October, the European Parliament adopted an emergency resolution on the internment camps and arbitrary detention. “The EU cannot continue with the business as usual approach with China,” said one Italian Member of the European Parliament (MEP) during talks on the resolution. Two other MEPs described what is happening in the Xinjiang region as “ethnic cleansing” and “cultural genocide.”

The final resolution called on Beijing to “immediately end the mass arbitrary detention of members of the Uighur and Kazakh minorities, to close all camps and detention centers and to release detained persons immediately and unconditionally,” among other demands.

But it failed to set a clear agenda for how the EU would respond if Beijing fails to improve the situation, nor did it lay down “red lines” that the European parliament would consider too egregious and prompt a punitive response, including possible sanctions.

Peter Irwin, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, international organization of exiled Uighur groups, says although there has been criticism at the EU level, “the response has been largely muted” and the actions of individual European states “have been tremendously disappointing.”

“It’s important for states to join together as coalitions to confront the Chinese government, and the EU seemingly presents itself as the perfect entity for this kind of response,” he adds. (Uyghur is an alternative spelling of Uighur).

Reports from survivors contend that inmates are tortured, face sleep deprivation and solitary confinement, and are regularly beaten. Others say that Chinese authorities forbid them from growing beards, and force them to consume pork and alcohol, both of which are strictly forbidden in Islam.

Ethnic Uighurs take part in a protest march asking the European Union to call upon China to respect human rights in the Chinese Xinjiang region and the closure of "re-education centers" where some Uighurs are detained, during a march in Brussels, April 27, 2018. Photo:AFP/ Emmanuel Dunand

Ethnic Uighurs take part in a protest march asking the European Union to call upon China to close its re-education centers in Xinjiang, Brussels, April 27, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Emmanuel Dunand

Beijing has denied the reports as “fake news” and “hearsay,” and says the camps are merely for “re-education” where the inmates, who “voluntarily” attend, study Mandarin and learn trades like baking. It also claims that the camps are designed to tackle religious extremism within Muslim Uighur communities.

Some Uighurs have traveled to fight with jihadist forces in the Middle East in recent years, while others agitate for their own independent state. But analysts say these represent a tiny fraction of China’s Uighur community, which has tried to assimilate with the Communist Party’s rules, even as Beijing has for years attempted to “Sinicize” the region.

The arrest of hundreds of highly educated and skilled Uighurs, moreover, has shown Beijing’s claims of merely providing skills to the inmates to be patently false, rights groups say.

“The fact that highly educated intellectuals and academics and scientists and software engineers are being held in these facilities is one of the best counterarguments to authorities’ claims that this is some kind of educational program meant to benefit Uighurs,” Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, was quoted saying in media reports.

The detention of intellectuals who analysts say had previously tried to chart a moderate path between Uighur independence supporters and the Chinese government, including those who publicly supported the Communist Party, indicates that Beijing now aims to purge all manifestations of Uighur identity.

The centers should “teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison”, Xinjiang’s party secretary Chen Quanguo was quoted in one recently leaked document cited in media reports.

Another Chinese government document argued that the centers should “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” It went on: “Completely shovel up the roots of ‘two-faced people,’ dig them out, and vow to fight these two-faced people until the end.”

Earlier this month, the Chinese government passed a new law to “Sinicize” Islam within the next five years. One state-run newspaper said that the government “agreed to guide Islam to be compatible with socialism.”

Police watch as Uighur Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after morning prayers in the old town of Kashgar in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele

Police watch as Uighur Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele

Tens of thousands of Uighurs have fled the Xinjiang region in recent years, with many attempting to get asylum in the West. Europe has tended to oscillate between hosting them and sending them back.

Gardner Bovingdon, a professor and expert on politics in contemporary Xinjiang, wrote in his book The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land that from 2001 onwards the Chinese government has “complained mightily to Brussels and sought in vain to pressure the European Union to refuse space” to the Uighurs on the continent. China warned that failure to heed Beijing’s demands would “damage Sino-European relations,” he added.

In the 2000s, however, most European states were rather supportive of Uighur migrants. Germany, for example, became a base for many of Uighur rights organizations.

Dolkun Isa, the general secretary of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress who was given German citizenship in 2006, was detained by the Italian police in 2017 while on his way to speak at the country’s parliament.

Although later released, it is thought the Italian authorities were following a “red notice” issued by Interpol, an international police organization, which at the time was run by former Chinese security minister Meng Hongwei, who, himself, was detained by Chinese authorities last year, purportedly for corruption.

There are numerous examples, however, of ethic Uighur asylum seekers being sent back from Europe to China. Uighurs trying to gain asylum in Europe have contrasted their own situation with those of Syrians, Iraqis or Afghans, who have been welcomed in Europe by the millions in recent years.

(Last year, Germany and Sweden moved to suspend the return of all ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs or other Turkic Muslims to China.)

China-Xinjiang-Internment Camp-Google Earth

The site of a suspected internment camp in Shufu County, Xinjiang, as seen in satellite imagery in May 2017. Photo: GoogleEarth

Political pressure from Beijing partly explains the response, but money likely matters more. During talks in the European Parliament before it issued a resolution in October, one Hungarian MEP asserted that “economic interests cannot be an obstacle to honest dialogue and the demand for legitimate human rights” of the Uighurs .

But this exactly what is happening, say activists and analysts.

Irwin, of World Uyghur Congress, compares Europe’s response over the Uighur issue to its vocal criticism of the Myanmar government, which now faces European sanctions over its maltreatment of its Muslim Rohingya population.

Some in the international community have described Myanmar’s brutal clearance operations that have driven over 700,000 Rohingya over the border into Bangladesh as a “genocide.” Now, some are starting to refer to what is happening in Xinjiang as the beginning of a genocide.

While “it’s easy to pile on criticism against a much weaker state,” says Irwin, referring to Myanmar, “it takes living up to real principles to criticize when you know there may be a threat of an economic cost.”

China is the EU’s second largest trading partner, after the US, and has been a major investor in many European states for many years. So vital is Chinese trade that Europe has struggled to decide whether it should support its historic political and security ally, the US, during the ongoing US-China trade war.

Paramilitary policemen stand in formation as they take part in an anti-terrorism oath-taking rally, in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, February 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters.

Chinese paramilitary policemen in an anti-terrorism oath-taking rally in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, February 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters.

There is also the belief – a false one according to some analysts – that Europe is powerless to affect what China’s government does within its own borders. This, some say, leads to apathy, but Irwin argues this is a wrong reading of geopolitics.

“China knows that there is a particular cost to perpetrating human rights abuses on such a massive scale. The problem is that the international community has not yet increased those costs to the extent that China will be forced to change its behavior,” he says.

It is not only Europe, however, that fears the economic cost of criticizing China’s persecution of Uighurs.

In July, an editorial in the Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party’s tabloid, said that Beijing would help to provide “economic stability” in Turkey, a Muslim majority nation, but only as long as Ankara refrains from making “irresponsible remarks on the ethnic policy in Xinjiang.”

The same goes for the other Muslim majority nations. It took until December for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to publicly express concerns about “the disturbing reports on the treatment of Muslims” by China, which is the main trading partner of 20 of the bloc’s 57 member nations.

But fear of economic retaliation from China doesn’t fully explain the mostly muted response.

After all, some European governments have risked Beijing’s ire and possible financial revenge on other issues, including recently by cancelling contracts with Chinese technology giant Huawei, which stands accused of spying on foreign governments for Beijing.

In that case, many European governments have gambled their economic links to Beijing on national security grounds. Yet they clearly do not think the security of more than a million Uighurs in China is worth the potential economic loss of Chinese trade and investment. ATIMES


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China Launches Military Drills Amid Visit by U.S. Official

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China launched a fresh round of military drills in the Taiwan Strait, as a top U.S. diplomat demonstrated increasing American support for the democratically ruled island with a visit to Taipei.

The Eastern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army will conduct “scenario-based exercises” in the Taiwan Strait starting Friday, Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang told a news conference in Beijing. Ren, who was speaking at a briefing on the Chinese military’s international peacekeeping efforts, didn’t elaborate on the nature of the drills or how close they would come to the sensitive median line of the strait.

“It is a legitimate action of the Chinese army in promoting our security and sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Ren said. “The U.S. and Taiwan authorities have been in close contact recently, frequently stirring up trouble. In fact, it will only be a day dream for Taiwan to promote independence by colluding with foreign countries.”

China has stepped up military activities in the waterway, as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen courts greater military and diplomatic support from the U.S. and its allies. Beijing regards the island as part of its territory, and reserves the right to take it by force, even though the two sides have been ruled separately for more than 70 years and have deep social and economic ties.

The latest announcement came after Undersecretary of State Keith Krach began a visit to Taiwan, ostensibly to attend the Saturday funeral of former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. It’s the second such visit in as many months, after Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar became most senior American official to travel to the island since Washington switched diplomatic ties to Beijing from Taipei in 1979.

The PLA has conducted more than 30 maritime drills in all four of its major sea regions since late July, the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper reported Monday, citing unidentified experts. The U.S. and Taiwan have also increased military drills in the area.

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Follow Party’s lead, Beijing tells private firms

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A new directive issued by the Communist Party’s top leadership on stepping up the “United Front” work for the nation’s wide swath of private businesses has again ignited fears. Some entrepreneurs wonder if Beijing aims to sit on the board of each and every private company and poke its nose into business operations.

In related guidelines issued on Wednesday, Beijing has laid out plans to strengthen “guidance and supervision” of entrepreneurs and foreign businesspeople running joint-ventures or wholly-owned companies in the country.

“Owners and the management of private and foreign-invested firms, as well as stakeholders in these businesses, should learn and keep themselves up to speed the party’s overarching tenets, in particular, Xi Jinping’s thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics that is enshrined in the party’s constitution,” read a circular from Xinhua.

The document drafted by the party’s United Front Work Department, the first of its kind in decades regarding the party’s networking and broad coalition affairs in the private sector, also added that all businesses, irrespective of their ownership structure, should “heed the party’s call and follow the party’s lead.”

There is a special chapter dedicated to ideological training and aggrandizing the party’s supervision in the day-to-day running of private companies.

Also, another internal memo, issued separately to all party cadres of the rank of deputy mayoral level and viewed by Asia Times, stated that Beijing’s new United Front drive had everything to do with the challenges arising from the growing heft of the private sector as well as the “manifold political and ideological demands from high-profile entrepreneurs.”

The guidelines come on the heels of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s latest ukase about the United Front work for non-state-owned enterprises. In a nutshell, Xi has highlighted the need to rally the entire private sector behind the party and make the sector more yoked to the party and the state-owned economy.

Wang Yang, a standing member of the Politburo, the party’s top decision-making caucus, and chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top political advisory body, was quoted by Xinhua as saying at a recent meeting that successful entrepreneurs must realize that “they owe their fame and fortune to the party.” Wang also heads the party’s working group on United Front affairs.

Cadres from well-off provinces like Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong, where the private sector contributes the lion’s share of local economic output, also attended the meeting on implementing Xi’s instructions.

Beijing has already mandated that party branches must be established in sizable private companies whose revenues or market capitalization reach a specific level.

Chinese corporate leviathans like Huawei, Tencent and Alibaba that claim they are owned by employees and shareholders already have party branches, with party representatives getting involved in their business activities at various levels.

Such party-building in China’s private sector has been expedited since Xi took power in 2012, raising concerns that the party’s tentacles are reaching into every nook and cranny of people’s lives.

Critics say the latest move is yet another step towards the party’s “takeover” of the entire Chinese economy and the muzzling of calls for political reforms from the private sector.

A file photo shows Alibaba founder Jack Ma briefing President Xi Jinping on the e-commerce giant’s business performance. Photo: Weibo

“Beijing may be getting wary of the influence of [Alibaba founder] Jack Ma, Pony Ma and the like, whose growing sway over the economy and people could make the party feel uneasy and insecure,” said Taiwan-based current affairs commentator Lin Heli, who fled the mainland during Mao Zedong’s anti-landlords movement in the 1950s that saw the forced sequestration of private properties.

But Jack Ma has repeatedly shrugged off rumors about Beijing’s plan to take over his e-commerce empire, stressing that the party’s leadership was a requisite for his success and that of the entire private sector.

An official with the Shanghai branch of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, a state-backed nationwide alliance pooling leading private business leaders, told Asia Times that United Front work was meant to strengthen the party’s leadership but that may also entail greater responsibility.

“The party may get more involved in the running of private firms but that also means more responsibility to address their problems and difficulties to further nature growth. And such arrangement also helps party cadres to better feel and grasp business sentiments and make their policies more pertinent,” said the official, who refused to be named.

“Also, all businesses seek to maintain sound relationships with the government and align themselves with new policy initiatives… China’s private sector has never been too ‘private’ or independent from the party, and the party’s overarching role, like it or not, is part and parcel the political reality that all entrepreneurs must live by and adapt to… Still, over the past 20 years we have cultivated an impressive line-up of world-class companies. Why would Beijing want to take over these private firms when it can get decent tax revenues from them and convince the world that private firms can also thrive in a Communist country.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese State Council has also launched a pilot scheme to dispatch officials to private firms, SMEs and startups to gauge sentiments and seek views to improve government services. Premier Li Keqiang has reportedly requested that all provinces and municipalities make public the views collected from these businesses, which must be followed up. Feedback from entrepreneurs will be part of Li’s annual appraisal of local officials.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world’s first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

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China Passed ‘Extraordinary’ Covid-19 Test, Says Bullish Xi

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President Xi Jinping. REUTERS

China has passed “an extraordinary and historic test” with its handling of the coronavirus, President Xi Jinping said on Tuesday (Sep 8) at a triumphant awards ceremony for medical professionals decorated with bugle calls and applause.

The nation’s propaganda machine has churned out praise for China’s COVID-19 response, reframing the public health crisis as an example of the agility and organisation of the Communist leadership.

Xi doled out gold medals to four “heroes” from the medical field in front of hundreds of applauding delegates on Tuesday, all wearing face masks and strikingly large red flower pins.

“We have passed an extraordinary and historic test,” Xi said, praising the country for a “heroic struggle” against the disease.

“We quickly achieved initial success in the people’s war against the coronavirus. We are leading the world in economic recovery and in the fight against COVID-19.”

China has come under intense global scrutiny over its response to the virus, with the United States and Australia leading accusations against Beijing that it covered up the origins and severity of the virus.

Defying charges from the United States and elsewhere that early failures enabled the coronavirus pandemic to spread more quickly, Xi said that China acted in an open and transparent manner throughout, and took decisive actions that saved lives.

“China has helped save the lives of tens of millions of people around the world with its practical actions, showing China’s sincere desire to build a common future and community for humanity,” Xi said.

Tuesday’s lavish ceremony in the Great Hall of the People began with a minute’s silence for those who lost their lives during the outbreak.

The four awardees included 83-year-old Zhong Nanshan – the country’s most famous medical expert who emerged as the face of China’s fight against the contagion.

He was awarded China’s top national medal by Xi, who placed it around Zhong’s neck.

“We will join hands with the … world’s medical workers to continue the fight in tracing the origins of the virus,” said Zhong.

Beijing has insisted the source of the virus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, is still unknown.

Three others were given the honorary title of “The People’s Hero” – biochemical expert Chen Wei, the head of a hospital in Wuhan, and a 72-year-old expert in traditional Chinese medicine.

Some delegates were in tears during a series of speeches.

There was no mention however of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, who was among the first to be silenced for raising the alarm about the outbreak and later died from the disease.

Local authorities in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus was first identified, were accused of a cover-up that delayed the country’s emergency response by at least two weeks.

But as infections spread throughout the world while slowing domestically, Beijing grew more assertive, resisting global investigations into the origins of the outbreak and saying its swift actions helped buy time for other countries to prepare.

Before the ceremony, state broadcaster CCTV showed a video montage of Wuhan at the peak of the outbreak set to rousing music, including images of medical staff in hazmat suits and crowded hospitals.

According to official numbers there have been 4,634 deaths in China from COVID-19. The government has largely contained the outbreak through a serious of strict lockdowns and travel restrictions.

State media has stressed Xi’s role in China’s containment of the coronavirus.

The official Xinhua news agency said in a long special report on Tuesday that Xi has worked tirelessly since January and even suffered sleepless nights as he “shouldered the extremely difficult mission of fighting the epidemic”.

Beijing has sought to focus on China’s success at overcoming the virus, rather than its origins.

During a government-arranged tour of Wuhan last week, reporters were shown schools and tourist sites reopening, but were not allowed to report from the Huanan seafood market where the outbreak was first believed to have originated.

“The shifting narrative is aided by the government’s success in containing the spread and it has been quite successful at home, though internationally it isn’t as successful as it would hope,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think-tank. t

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