China’s piti­less war on Mus­lim Uighurs poses dilemma for the west

The Observer - - World - Si­mon Tis­dall

China is fac­ing mount­ing crit­i­cism over its sys­tem­atic re­pres­sion of Mus­lim Uighurs in western Xin­jiang prov­ince, where an es­ti­mated 1 mil­lion peo­ple have been de­tained in “re-ed­u­ca­tion” camps and sub­jected to pro­longed phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal abuse.

But Chi­nese lead­ers re­main de­fi­ant, telling the UN and hu­man rights ac­tivists last week, in ef­fect, to mind their own busi­ness. The stand-off highlights one of the most chal­leng­ing dilem­mas for western democ­ra­cies: how to sus­tain the pre­tence that an in­creas­ingly to­tal­i­tar­ian China is a “nor­mal” coun­try with which they can do busi­ness.

The crack­down on the Uighurs, who make up about 11 mil­lion of Xin­jiang’s 24 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, has in­ten­si­fied since Xi Jin­ping be­came Com­mu­nist party leader in 2012 and pres­i­dent in 2013. Xi claims the cam­paign is nec­es­sary to de­feat Is­lamist ter­ror­ism and the “ide­o­log­i­cal virus” of sep­a­ratism, de­spite anec­do­tal ev­i­dence that it is hav­ing the op­po­site ef­fect.

Uighurs say the harsh mea­sures, ef­fec­tively crim­i­nal­is­ing an en­tire eth­nic group, are in­tended to erase their iden­tity, re­li­gion, cul­ture and lan­guage while as­sur­ing the party’s as­cen­dancy. Hun­dreds of thou­sands – ex­act fig­ures are un­ob­tain­able – have been sent to the camps, where they are in­doc­tri­nated in party dogma, forced to learn Man­darin, and or­dered to cor­rect their think­ing through self-crit­i­cism.

Un­counted thou­sands more are held in prison, while the re­main­der of the pop­u­la­tion is sub­ject to an Or­wellian sur­veil­lance sys­tem com­pris­ing cam­eras placed in Uighur homes and neigh­bour­hoods, net­works of lo­cal snoop­ers, bio­met­ric data col­lec­tion, and voice and face recog­ni­tion tech­nolo­gies. As in Stalin’s Rus­sia, chil­dren are en­cour­aged to in­form on their par­ents.

A UN hu­man rights panel chal­lenged China last month over “cred­i­ble re­ports” that up to 3 mil­lion Uighurs had been sub­jected to de­ten­tion or re-ed­u­ca­tion. Xin­jiang, it was claimed, had be­come “a mas­sive in­tern­ment camp”.

Chi­nese of­fi­cials re­sponded with a vari­a­tion on Vladimir Putin’s “Skri­pal de­fence”, in which truth is fun­gi­ble, or fluid. China’s pol­icy to­wards mi­nori­ties pro­moted unity and har­mony, said Hu Lianhe, a se­nior cadre: “There is no such thing as re-ed­u­ca­tion cen­tres.”

When Michelle Bachelet, the UN hu­man rights chief, pro­posed last week that in­ter­na­tional mon­i­tors be al­lowed into Xin­jiang, Bei­jing ac­cused her of lis­ten­ing to “onesided in­for­ma­tion” and de­manded the UN re­spect China’s sovereignty.

Fol­low­ing pres­sure from Congress, the US con­firmed last week that it was con­sid­er­ing sanc­tions on named com­pa­nies and of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing a Xi loy­al­ist, Chen Quan­guo, the party’s Xin­jiang chief who trans­ferred to the prov­ince af­ter a ca­reer of re­pres­sion in Ti­bet.

Xi’s suc­cess in es­tab­lish­ing him­self, de facto, as un­elected “para­mount leader” for life, his ag­gres­sive stance over the South China Sea, Tai­wan and Hong Kong, his party purges, and his na­tion­wide curbs on re­li­gious free­doms, free speech and in­de­pen­dent me­dia all add up to a wider chal­lenge to western dou­ble stan­dards. Euro­pean coun­tries seek a “golden era” of trade, in­vest­ment and new mar­kets, ex­em­pli­fied by Theresa May’s Bei­jing visit in Fe­bru­ary. At the same time, their most cher­ished be­liefs and values, long en­shrined in in­ter­na­tional law, are be­ing shred­ded by a regime that treats their opin­ions with dis­dain.

But the western democ­ra­cies are not with­out lever­age and in­flu­ence, from the use of eco­nomic sanc­tions to po­lit­i­cal and moral pres­sure ap­plied across a range of in­ter­na­tional plat­forms. If the abuses suf­fered by Ro­hingya Mus­lims in Myan­mar re­quire in­ves­ti­ga­tion by an in­ter­na­tional crim­i­nal tri­bunal, as the UN has sug­gested, then so too does Bei­jing’s piti­less war on the Uighurs. But who among western lead­ers will ad­mit that the price of do­ing busi­ness is too high?

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