China has a less than glamorous record when it comes to the protection and promotion of human rights inside its borders. Whether it’s land rights, religious freedom, family planning, freedom of speech or internet censorship, over the past decade there has been international criticism for failure to meet even the most basic human rights standards.

The condemnation has come from almost every angle, including from United Nations bodies, international non-governmental organizations, individual activists, human rights defenders, academics and foreign governments.

Disappointingly but not surprisingly, China routinely rejects any criticism. Instead, it claims that restrictive and draconian policies are fundamental in maintaining rule of law and national security.

Apologists also assert that, even if they wanted to implement the full gamut of internationally accepted human rights, it is simply not a realistic expectation for any country, let alone China. In their eyes, the full range of human rights standards and principles is a western pipedream.

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping. File photo: Kremlin.

In response to international criticism, China often points to its unique history, including the four-decade journey of economic growth and transformation. China’s economic transformation and poverty reduction measures are hailed as a miracle, significantly contributing to the attainment of human rights for millions of citizens.

For the most part, this is true. China’s economic development policies have had a significant effect on the masses, dragging more than 700 million citizens out of poverty and propelling them into the middle class. The achievement should be applauded, respected and admired.

However, this accomplishment has also come with serious costs. Notably, the nation has witnessed a significant erosion of civil, political and minority rights. Economic development alone cannot absolve the country of the multitude of human rights abuses of which it is accused.

Over recent years, among the many human rights infractions detected in China, there is one issue which has produced a marked increase in criticism: the treatment of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims.

The Uyghurs have faced institutionalized discrimination for decades, but things significantly escalated in July 2009, when simmering tensions erupted into deadly clashes between the Han Chinese population and the Uyghurs.

Following this period of extreme violence, which authorities say resulted in more than 200 deaths, the Uyghurs have been branded by the government as extremist Islamists and a threat to Chinese society. Life as they knew it was irrevocably altered.

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.

With the exception of periodic reports by non-governmental organizations and some UN bodies, in the years following the Urumqi violence, there was scant attention paid to the plight of the Uyghurs. This was especially true of most governments, with the world’s leaders sitting on the sidelines, hoping that the situation would resolve itself.

Whether it was China’s economic might, the fear of economic reprisals, or a simple underestimating of the scale of persecution, the international response was hushed for many years.

In mid-2017, the Uyghur issue again crept into the mainstream media, with dramatic accounts of large-scale detention camps operating in Xinjiang province. With estimates of more than one million Uyghurs and Kazakhs in detention, reports began to surface of detainees having to wear shackles, being subject to fierce beatings, and suffering other ill-treatment at the hands of government authorities.

Remarkably, despite a number of credible reports attesting to these atrocities, the majority of the world remained silent, unwilling to confront the economically and politically powerful elephant in the room.

xinjiang uighur camps
Chinese state media purporting to show life in a Xinjiang “education centre.” Photo: CCTV screenshot.

The first notable barb aimed in China’s direction came in the conclusions of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2018. During this August meeting, Xinjiang was referred to as a “massive internment camp”, with rampant use of torture and abuse to assist the stated goal of ‘reeducation’.

Again, public criticism from the world’s governments was not forthcoming. Instead, most states either ignored the report, or decided to raise the issue delicately behind closed doors.

It was not until July 2019 that a group of 22 primarily western governments finally decided to challenge the Chinese narrative of ‘re-education centres’ in Xinjiang province, by penning a letter to the UN Human Rights Council.

This correspondence represented a critical step, as it was the first time a coalition of states had publicly condemned China for flagrant abuses against the Uyghurs. The cone of silence surrounding China’s actions against the Uyghurs had finally been lifted.

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It was at this point that Chinese authorities decided to board the ‘fake news’ bandwagon. Before the ink had dried on the initial letter from western nations, China had enlisted a ‘who’s-who?’ of rights-abusing nations to vouch for the “progress of the human rights cause” in Xinjiang.

Whether this support was given for self-preservation purposes, to safeguard existing Chinese investments in their countries, attract foreign investment, or simply as a rebuff to the ‘western human rights system’, 37 countries including Pakistan, Syria, Laos and Venezuela all came to China’s defence.

A similar division in relation to China’s human rights record again surfaced in October 2019, with 23 countries issuing a joint statement in the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee. This time, the letter clearly condemned the reports of mass detention, “human rights violations, and other abuses”.

Again, almost immediately, a counter-statement was issued — by Belarus — on behalf of 54 states. This time, the narrative had slightly shifted to praising China’s successful ‘counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation’ measures, in addition to admiring the nation’s “people-centred development philosophy”.

As with the previous response from supporting states, it was likely that these countries were enticed by existing or promised financial support and infrastructure development projects.

xinjiang uighur camps
Chinese state media purporting to show life in a Xinjiang “education centre.” Photo: CCTV screenshot.

China has gone to great lengths to sell to the world a carefully constructed narrative about life in Xinjiang. Consistently referring to the camps as ‘reeducation centres’ and ‘vocational training centres’ in state media, there has been an active campaign to discredit reports decrying such actions.

In December 2019, China’s Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye went so far as to hold a rare press conference, claiming that all ‘trainees’ at the vocational training centres had graduated and found steady employment.

Despite China’s economic might, it is critical that countries do not condone China’s rights abuses, by active endorsement or by remaining silent. It is incumbent upon nations, including those in the global south, to set aside their economic considerations and instead take an active stand against such practices.

China should no longer be able to use its economic might to censor countries from raising concerns. Opposition can be voiced in a number of ways, including a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics being held in Beijing, through stricter negotiations related to the Belt and Road Initiative, or via more traditional means such as through international human rights mechanisms or via national laws.

Whatever the platform chosen, China’s fake news surrounding the Uyghurs and other human rights must be addressed.

evan jones

Evan Jones

Evan Jones is a South-East Asia based refugee advocate and a member of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN).