China has seemingly always made use of its technological innovation to achieve its goals and monitor its own people as well as foreign countries—just as every other sovereign state utilises its own respective assets. But a couple years ago, modern surveillance practices in China turned into incessant traffic stops and road blocks for forced DNA testing. Employees of the state were deployed into the homes of ethnic minority families, particularly in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province. There, the government workers were instructed to participate in all facets of daily family life: prayers, dinner, supermarket trips. All the while, hundreds of families began to report relatives suddenly gone missing. The rumour was that the Chinese government had sent those missing people to special facilities where they would receive what the state referred to as “vocational training” in “re-education centres.”
But in late 2017 and early 2018, international alarm bells began to ring. Allegations arose that Beijing’s “training centres” were actually part of a programme for systematically detaining anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of ethnic Uyghurs and other practicing Muslims in political concentration camps. The detained individuals did not receive formal charges explaining the reason(s) for their detention, a formal trial, or any semblance of legal representation. In many cases, the individuals were essentially kidnapped and were not allowed any form of contact with friends or family. Even more concerning, very few of them have returned home.
In September of 2018, the United Nations (UN) urged China to ease its broad restrictions on political and social freedoms and voiced particular concerns regarding the reported mass detention of ethnic minorities in China. Alongside the UN, Ms Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, spoke on the topic in the European Parliament, referring to the allegations against the Chinese state as the “most outstanding disagreement we have with China.” Since then, the UN has repeatedly demanded full access to the facilities and has called for a thorough investigation of the operations occurring within them.
Almost one year has passed since those statements were issued. Outside of a handful of conferences and official press releases condemning the Chinese government’s behaviour, very little action has been taken to hold Beijing accountable for its blatant denial of the most basic civil liberties.
Chinese officials have not acquiesced to UN demands. Instead, Beijing has defended the so-called training centres by claiming that Uyghurs and other Muslims are a threat to national security. The state claims the camps are part of a sweeping anti-terrorism initiative. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, popularly known as MBS—a leader whose authoritarianism could rival that of China’s President Xi Jinping—defended the detention of Muslims in the camps when he appeared on Chinese television recently. MBS stated that “China has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremisation work for its national security.” Many questioned the motives behind the Crown Prince’s support, calling the move a blatant denial of the basic right to freedom of religion and freedom of movement. The Saudi Kingdom’s stance on the matter was particularly offensive to some: Muslims in China, regardless of their ethnicity, are the co-religionists of the majority of Saudi citizens, who also practice Islam.
In early July, UN ambassadors from 22 countries signed and published a joint statement condemning Beijing’s ongoing ethnic and religious cleansing operation. The next day, a conglomeration of 37 different countries issued a statement arguing the exact opposite. Saudi Arabia, Russia, and North Korea among them, the group of foreign governments commended Beijing for its “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” When prodded, Saudi officials in particular defended their position, with Saudi UN ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi quoted stating that “the letter talks about China’s developmental work” specifically and was not intended to address anything else.
It is not a secret that showing solidarity with those who are being oppressed is often more socially expensive than saving political face. Rather than stand beside the people of China and choose to uphold human rights, the 37 countries who hedged their support with Beijing—including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Pakistan, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain—have chosen the path of least resistance.
Instead of using their strong platforms, ample resources, and impressive connections to assist those who have been wrongfully detained and oppressed under Xi’s regime, the states who have applauded the purported expansion of human rights protections in China have undeniably also signed off on China’s abusive Xinjiang policy.
There is no honour in such a flagrant misuse of power and influence. There is only shame. The governments who support Beijing in its human rights abuses invite that shame upon themselves with their continued support for one of the world’s most notorious authoritarian governments.