China’s mass detention and surveillance of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang province came under fire at the United Nations Tuesday, with 23 nations — mostly western — backing a British statement condemning Beijing’s human rights record.

But China’s allies countered with a statement of their own that won even broader support, with some 54 nations backing a Belarus text that heaped effusive praise on Beijing’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.”

xinjiang united nations
Photo: UK in UN, via Twitter.

They included Pakistan, Russia, Egypt, Bolivia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Serbia — which have all been criticised for their own rights records.

The duelling statements at the UN General Assembly are non-binding, but highlight the global divide on China’s human rights record — particularly as Beijing moves to flex its diplomatic and economic clout abroad.

Rights groups say more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities have been rounded up in internment camps in Xinjiang.

After initially denying their existence, Beijing now defends the Xinjiang camps as “vocational education centers” that are necessary to counter religious extremism and terrorism.

Uyghur Uighur Xinjiang detention centre reeducation camp
File photo posted by the Xinjiang Judicial Administration to its WeChat account, April 2017, showing detainees at a camp in Lop county, Hotan prefecture, Xinjiang. Photo: RFA, Oct. 2, 2018; cf. WaybackMachine Internet Archive, April 17, 2017.

China has embarked on a global public relations campaign to win support for its Xinjiang policies — even convincing Muslim-majority nations such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to voice support.

Britain’s UN statement Tuesday expressed concerns “regarding credible reports of mass detention; efforts to restrict cultural and religious practices; mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uighurs; and other human rights violations and abuses”.

“The Chinese government should urgently… (refrain) from the arbitrary detention of Uighurs and members of other Muslim communities,” it said.

Countries backing it included the United States, Germany, France, Canada, Japan and New Zealand.

But that statement was swiftly countered by the one from Belarus — where China is building a massive industrial park — which praised Beijing’s rights record.

“We commend China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights by adhering to the people-centred development philosophy and protecting and promoting human rights through development,” the statement said.

“We also appreciate China’s contributions to the international human rights cause,” it added, while criticizing the “politicisation” of the issue of human rights at the UN.

Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, make up the largest portion of the population of Xinjiang, a vast region in northwestern China.

Geng Shuang
Spokesperson Geng Shuang. File photo: Ruptly, via YouTube screenshot.

Beijing on Wednesday blasted the British statement on its human rights record, saying that the “anti-China performance by a small number of Western countries ended in humiliating failure.”

“China’s actions in Xinjiang have effectively safeguarded the basic human rights of all ethnic groups and protected the security and stability of the region,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing.

Geng urged the UK and the US in particular to “stop using human rights as an excuse to meddle in other countries’ internal affairs.”

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