China is committing ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang – it’s time for the world to stand up

Beijing needs to be held to account. On Tuesday, a UN meeting provides other nations with that chance

Police patrol a night food market in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
 Governments have been slow to react to the human rights disaster in China’s Xinjiang region. Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Now is the time to act on China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. China’s efforts to destroy the ethnic Uighur identity through mass internment camps and militarised surveillance must be raised loudly and clearly condemned during a UN human rights review of China on Tuesday in Geneva.

Countries afraid of standing up to China on their own can speak out on 6 November on a UN platform, known as the universal periodic review (UPR), where all countries equally take turns to be scrutinised by their peers about every four years. The UPR tests UN member states’ commitment to promoting and protecting human rights, but more pragmatically, it gives governments a shield to protect themselves when speaking up.

These countries are at less risk of China angrily cutting economic or political ties if they criticise its policies in Xinjiang as a part of a UN process. As peers, their opinion carries more weight with the Chinese government than the NGOs, journalists, and academics who have been sounding the alarm for months. A clear, collective voice from dozens of countries at this critical juncture in China’s crackdown on Xinjiang could make the Chinese government pause and rethink its approach.

So far, governments have been slow to react to the human rights disaster in China’s far western Xinjiang region. Its sheer scale demands immediate international action. An estimated one million Uighurs and other Muslims minorities are believed to be held in extra-legal detention centres in Xinjiang because of their ethno-religious identity, with torture and ill-treatment rife in the camps. Authorities in partnership with tech companies have developed and deployed dystopian surveillance technologies to turn the rest of Xinjiang into an open-air prison.

In August, the UN committee on racial discrimination described Xinjiang as a “massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy”. The US congressional-executive commission on China said the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang might amount to crimes against humanity. The UK government recently confirmed reports of internment camps for Uighur Muslims following a visit to the region by British diplomats.

Step-by-step the Xi Jinping regime has crossed thresholds unthinkable years ago, with little repercussionThe government detained nearly every single human rights lawyer over a single weekend in July 2015, imprisoned China’s only Nobel peace prize laureate until he died in custody in July 2017, and earlier this year, abolished presidential terms limits, paving the way for Xi to become dictator for life. The Han-dominated Chinese Communist party is now confident that the only way to govern Xinjiang is to eradicate the distinct Uighur identity in the name of countering terrorism. This cannot continue.

It’s no coincidence that China’s crackdown on Xinjiang comes as Xi is promoting his signature trade policy, theBelt and Road Initiative, which relies on Xinjiang as a core land route. Countries expecting to benefit from increased development along the route should be aware of the potentially destabilising effects of China’s crackdown in the region.

Under Xi, China has shed the foreign policy constraints dictated by former leaders and deliberately stepped forward to play a leading role in global affairs. A responsible, rules-based stakeholder would be welcome to play a prominent role in international governance, but the Chinese government is intent on changing the rules to suit its brand of rule by one-party iron fist.

However, as China tries to step into this leadership role, it is still susceptible to public opinion and international criticism. That is why the government felt compelled to launch a propaganda campaign in recent weeks, abruptly changing its tactic of denying the existence of re-education camps to rebranding them as “humane” job training centres. But the Chinese government must never be allowed to normalise mass extrajudicial internment of an ethnic minority. Governments need to push back and seize the unique moment the UPR offers to make a stand.

The goal of the UPR is ultimately to improve the human rights situation in all countries. For that to actually happen, powerful countries need to be held accountable. Tuesday’s meeting provides an opportunity to shine the spotlight on Xinjiang and collectively tell China enough is enough. UN member states taking part, especially those along the Belt and Road path and Muslim nations, should all individually raise Xinjiang and make clear, unequivocal calls for China to end its abusive policies. The Chinese government needs to hear from its peers that it cannot commit ethnic cleansing.

What’s happening to Uighurs and Muslim minorities in Xinjiang is about the future of China and the wider world. Some of the policies and technologies used in Xinjiang won’t stay there. They’ll spread east across China and eventually find their way overseas.

Frances Eve is a researcher with the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders

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