The US on Tuesday cautioned that companies that invest, provide venture capital, or have supply-chain ties to the Xinjiang region of China “run a high risk of violating U.S. law,” due to widespread reports of forced labor and other human rights violations against ethnic minorities in the region.
Companies who don’t pull out of the region could violate statutes that criminalize benefitting from or importing goods that are the result of forced labor. The advisory also warned US companies against assisting in the development of surveillance tools for Xinjiang or supplying US-made goods to entities that use forced labor.
In 2020, activist groups accused some of the world’s biggest fashion brands – including Nike and H&M – of sourcing cotton from factories that exploit the forced labor of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. Over a million ethnic minorities have been detained in Xinjiang, a region that produces a fifth of world’s cotton, and activist groups have called for companies to exit the region to avoid profiting from human rights violations in the area.
Yet, governments of Muslim-majority countries have so far largely refrained from criticizing China over its actions in Xinjiang. Why? There are justifiable fears that their relations with Beijing would suffer if they condemned the repression of the Uyghurs.
China had yet to begin constructing the network of internment camps – which it euphemistically calls “education and training centers” – in Xinjiang, but a diverse range of officials and politicians in Ankara were still vocal about the oppression of the Uyghurs, whom they refer to as “eastern Turks.”
Turkey’s secular nationalists viewed solidarity with a fellow Turkic-speaking people as an important priority, while the Islamists of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party framed the Uyghurs’ plight as a pan-Islamic cause for Turkey to defend.
Yet due to growing Chinese investment in Turkey – as well as the geopolitical fallout of the failed Turkish coup of 2016, which prompted Ankara to pivot away from its Western allies and build closer ties with China and Russia – Turkey’s leadership has muted its stance on Xinjiang in recent years.
In Iran, which recently signed a comprehensive cooperation agreement with China, few high-level political figures are willing to speak out on Xinjiang. Ali Motahari, a former Iranian lawmaker, is one of them. He complained in August 2020 that Tehran has remained silent on the “complete eradication of Islamic culture” in western China, due to fear of rocking the boat with Beijing.
In an interview with a local media outlet, Motahari said he had asked a Foreign Ministry official about the issue and was told the government needs to be silent “due to economic needs.” In light of Iran’s efforts to further integrate its economy with China’s through its cooperation agreement, it is safe to assume that Tehran’s position will not change, particularly if the US is leading the charge against China.
At the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Prime Minister Imran Khan acknowledged that Pakistan’s close economic ties with China played a major role in shaping his government’s approach to Xinjiang. “China has helped us,” he said. “They came to help us when we were at rock bottom, and so we are really grateful to the Chinese government.”
Such statements are significant considering Islamabad’s indirect role in boosting the salience of Islam among the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. China and Pakistan partnered to build the Karakoram highway, one of the highest-altitude paved roads in the world, which was completed in 1979.
Also known as the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway, it connects Xinjiang with the Pakistan-administered province of Gilgit-Baltistan. This has led more Uyghurs to be exposed to the Saudi-inspired conservative interpretations of Islam that are prevalent in Pakistan, encouraging more overt expressions of religiosity in Xinjiang.
Many Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries also have important roles to play in implementing China’s ambitious infrastructure development strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, which seeks to build regional trade and transport connectivity.
These countries, many of which are ruled by autocratic regimes, understand that there are no human rights litmus tests that must be passed to cooperate with Beijing on its projects. This approach is welcome for countries like Saudi Arabia, which have faced pushback in the West due to their human rights abuses.
Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East also have deep concerns about political Islam, which may factor into their decisions to give Beijing a pass on Xinjiang. Their support, in turn, gives China valuable political cover from governments of Muslim-majority countries, especially those that claim religious authority in the Muslim world, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
These two countries, along with the United Arab Emirates, claim to promote “moderate Islam” – an approach that, in practice, is used to discredit any expression of Islam not sanctioned by the state. The demonization of non-state-sponsored forms of Islam aligns conveniently with the objective of the Chinese government: to characterize expressions of faith among the Uyghurs as potential signs of dissent, violence or even terrorism.
Given its own concerns about the perceived threat of Islamist activism, the UAE has been particularly supportive of China’s “Strike Hard” campaign in Xinjiang.
When the UAE’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed, visited Beijing in July 2019, President Xi Jinping thanked him for his country’s “valuable support” when it comes to Xinjiang. Mohammed bin Zayed told Xi that the UAE would be willing to work with China to “jointly strike against terrorist extremist forces.”
A host of Middle Eastern governments also have concerns about their own separatist movements, which pushes them further into the pro-China camp on this issue.
“Beijing claims that the Uyghur controversy is a Western-propagated conspiracy aimed at hindering China’s progress by creating ethnic minority divisions within its borders – similar to the situation in many Arab states, where governments tend to view Kurdish and other minority movements as Western-fueled attempts to sow internal strife and separatism,” Haisam Hassanein, a former fellow with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in 2019. “Arab and Chinese leaders alike are firm believers in suppressing any such movements within their borders.”
Uyghurs seeking to flee China are generally safer in Western countries than in the Muslim-majority states of the Middle East. Yet the relative difficulty of gaining entry to countries in Europe and North America has left Uyghur refugees with few safe havens.
A final factor in Muslim-majority states’ tepid approach to Xinjiang is Global South solidarity. Segments of many Arab and African countries see China as an anti-imperialist power and for this reason would oppose their governments joining the West in attacking Beijing for its human rights abuses.
When 22 mostly Western countries issued a joint statement condemning the treatment of Uyghurs in 2019, 37 other states, mostly from the Global South, signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Council praising China’s contributions to human rights.
“In many countries, criticizing China is the new blasphemy,” wrote Nick Cohen, a columnist for The Observer. “Nowhere can you see the power more nakedly displayed than in Muslim-majority regimes.”
Indeed, from the perspective of these governments, the parallels between China’s goals and their own increasingly make Beijing a more attractive partner than Washington. This means that the Uyghurs will continue to find greater support from Western nations than from governments comprised of their fellow Muslims.
Annelle Sheline is the research fellow for the Middle East at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Follow her on Twitter @AnnelleSheline.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy that focuses on the Middle East. His writing has been published by Al Monitor, LobeLog and the Middle East Institute. Follow him on Twitter @GiorgioCafiero.
The US is considering a joint boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing over the Chinese government’s human rights abuses, the US State Department said Tuesday.
“It is something that we certainly wish to discuss,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. “A coordinated approach will not only be in our interest but also in the interest of our allies and partners.”
“This is one of the issues that is on the agenda, both now and going forward,” Price added, making clear that a final decision has not been made.
In a later statement to Yahoo Sports, an unnamed State Department official stressed that no such talks have yet taken place. “We have not discussed and are not discussing any joint boycott with allies and partners,” the official said.
The US government has been ramping up criticism of and pressure on the Chinese government over human rights violations, which led to a public spat between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China’s top diplomat in Alaska last month.
Human rights groups say the Chinese government has forced over a million Uyghur Muslims and other minorities into detention camps in the Xinjiang region, though Beijing has vehemently denied the allegations.
Blinken has said what’s happening to the Uyghurs amounts to genocide, while calling on China to release “all those arbitrarily held in internment camps and detention facilities.”
Human rights lawyer Djaouida Siaci told Axios that a boycott could open the door for the International Criminal Court to begin an investigation into the allegations of genocide in Xinjiang.
GOP Sen. Mitt Romney in a New York Times op-ed last month said the US should engage in a diplomatic and economic boycott of the 2020 Beijing Olympics.
“Prohibiting our athletes from competing in China is the easy, but wrong, answer. Our athletes have trained their entire lives for this competition and have primed their abilities to peak in 2022,” Romney said.
“The right answer is an economic and diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. American spectators – other than families of our athletes and coaches – should stay at home, preventing us from contributing to the enormous revenues the Chinese Communist Party will raise from hotels, meals and tickets,” Romney added. “American corporations that routinely send large groups of their customers and associates to the Games should send them to U.S. venues instead.”
The last time the US boycotted the Olympics was during the 1980 summer games in Moscow.
The US Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Women who fled detention camps in Xinjiang gave several accounts of systemic rape inside the centers, the BBC reported.
Tursunay Ziawudun, who spent nine months in the detention centers before eventually fleeing to the US, told the BBC that women were taken from their cells “every night” and raped.
“Perhaps this is the most unforgettable scar on me forever,” she told the BBC. Ziawudun said she was gang-raped three times.
She said men would select women they wanted from the cells, and have them taken to a dark room where there were no security cameras. She said the men wore masks even before the pandemic.
In May 2018, Ziawudun said she and a cellmate were taken out and shown to a Chinese man. Her cellmate was taken into one room, where she could be heard screaming, according to Ziawudun’s account to the BBC. Ziawudun said she was sent to the “dark room” – even after the man was told she was having medical issues and bleeding. There Ziawudun told the BBC: “They had an electric stick, I didn’t know what it was, and it was pushed inside my genital tract, torturing me with an electric shock.”
The BBC could not completely verify Ziawudun’s story but reviewed travel documents and immigration records that corroborate the timeline of her story; her description of the camp matched satellite images, and her description of the treatment inside the camps matched those told by former detainees.
Gulzira Auelkhan, a Kazakh woman who was detained for 18 months in the camps told the BBC that she was forced to strip the Uighur women naked and handcuff them. After the Chinese men left them, she would clean the room.
“Then I would leave the women in the room and a man would enter – some Chinese man from outside or policeman. I sat silently next to the door, and when the man left the room I took the woman for a shower,” Auelkhan said.
Chinese officials have repeatedly denied any abuse and claimed the camps were for re-education and to prevent extremism.
“The Chinese government protects the rights and interests of all ethnic minorities equally,” a spokeswoman told the BBC.
Adrian Zenz, an expert on China’s policies in Xinjiang told the BBC that the recent accounts provide “authoritative and detailed evidence of sexual abuse and torture at a level clearly greater than what we had assumed.”