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Why Aren’t More Countries Confronting China over Xinjiang?

Over the past three years, the Chinese government has implemented a highly repressive series of policies against Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority native to the country’s Xinjiang region. Uighurs live under unprecedented surveillance, their every move tracked through cameras and spyware-riddled mobile phones. The government strictly monitors them for signs of religious devotion, such as wearing a beard or veil, avoiding cigarettes and alcohol, or refusing to eat pork. Ancient mosques have been razed and schools are prohibited from teaching the Uighur language. More than one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are estimated to be detained in euphemistically-named “re-education facilities,” in which some have reportedly been tortured. Hundreds of thousands of Uighur families in the region have been forced to open their homes to Han Chinese volunteers who surveil their “host” families as they oversee their “patriotic re-education.” The Chinese government has subjected even Uighurs living outside of China to harassment and pressure, often preventing them from keeping in contact with relatives still in Xinjiang.

China has justified its actions as a response to a series of terror attacks attributed to Uighurs, including a 2014 knife attack at the railway station in Kunming that led to 35 deaths. But the measures Chinese authorities have employed in Xinjiang have attracted international condemnation. In July, the United Nations representatives of 22 mostly European countries released a letter to the UN Human Rights Council calling on China to “refrain from the arbitrary detention and restriction on freedom of movement on Uighurs and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang.”

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Reaction to the letter was swift. Four days later, in a highly unusual move, 37 different countries signed a letter to the same council that rejected the message of the first. “We commend China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights,” said the signatories, who added that “safety and security have returned to Xinjiang.”

A close look at the two letters reveals, to a remarkable degree, China’s growing global influence.

The list of countries defending Beijing includes Pakistan, whose economic future rests increasingly on the U.S.$62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The list also includes countries like Saudi Arabia, whose de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, said that China “has the right to take anti-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security” during a visit to Beijing in February.

The list of countries condemning China, meanwhile, is notable for who is missing. It does not include Italy, which signed an MoU in March to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). And it does not include the United States, which withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council last June.

The countries that have publicly criticized China’s actions in Xinjiang are “well-protected,” as Rian Thum, a Loyala University historian of Islam and China, characterized them. “It’s almost all countries that are within the European Union. These are countries that are pretty safe from Chinese retribution.”

China’s ambitions as a global economic power have expanded under President Xi Jinping, who took office in 2013 and is widely considered the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Xi’s signature economic program is the BRI, a program that sews together infrastructure projects worth in excess of U.S.$1 trillion across more than 60 countries.

For the recipients, the BRI has the potential to transform their economies, linking them to global markets more effectively than before. But the initiative has not been without controversy. Critics have assailed some of these projects for failing to adhere to international standards, for imposing high environmental and societal costs, and for burdening developing countries with unsustainable debt.

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But the BRI is almost certainly paying diplomatic dividends for China. Pakistan’s economic corridor deal with China includes the construction of the strategically important (for both countries) port complex at Gwadar. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed ignorance of the Uighurs’ plight when pressed by a Financial Times reporter in March. In Kazakhstan, whose economy is closely linked to China, government officials have said the country “understands and supports measures taken [in] China’s Xinjiang region,” even as hundreds of ethnic Kazakhs have been among those rounded up and detained in Xinjiang. Turkey, a country that shares cultural and linguistic characteristics with Uighurs and is hosting thousands of them, recently reversed its earlier criticism of China’s Xinjiang policy. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s longtime leader and a strong supporter of the BRI, warned against those attempting to “exploit” the “Uighur issue” to weaken China-Turkey relations.

“The BRI definitely has a huge sway on a lot of countries in Asia and the Middle East,” says Mobahsra Tazawal, a senior research fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Institute. “It has bought the silence, and by extension the approval, of Muslim-majority countries.”

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The relative global silence on the fate of the Uighurs reflects more than just a reliance on China’s largesse. The list of countries to support Beijing’s hardline policy in Xinjiang includes states beyond the Asian power’s traditional sphere of influence. What draws them together with the others is simpler: authoritarianism. According to Freedom House, each of the countries that in July vouched for China’s treatment of Uighurs rate as “not free” or “partially free,” while the 22 countries signed on to the letter criticizing China are all liberal democracies.

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This discrepancy is hardly a coincidence. China’s professed longstanding policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs appeals to countries with their own history of domestic repression. “A lot of the states that signed onto this don’t like the idea that an international outcry can influence the security policy in a state like theirs,” said Thum.

Consider Saudi Arabia, a major oil exporter routinely ranked as one of the most authoritarian societies on earth. The country’s longstanding alliance with the United States came under intense scrutiny last fall following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi living in Virginia, at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Although the Trump administration has maintained its close relationship with the Saudi government, whose Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is widely thought to have ordered the execution, outrage in the United States over the incident has threatened the long-term health of the relationship. But China, for its part, has shown no such reticence toward the brash young Saudi leader. “Mohammad bin Salman, persona non grata in the United States, can go on a splashy trip to Beijing and stand next to Xi Jinping and say he supported China’s human rights program,” said James Millward, a China and Central Asia historian at Georgetown University.

In fact, Saudi Arabia is part of an important geopolitical trend: China’s increased economic engagement with the Middle East.

After decades of relatively little involvement, by 2016 China was the largest foreign investor in the region, pledging U.S.$29.5 billion in contracts and loans to Arab countries—more than four times as much as the U.S. pledged. Last year, Xi became the first Chinese leader in 29 years to visit the United Arab Emirates, a country where China has invested significant sums into Emirati special economic zones.

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These economic relationships are only part of the picture. China has established stronger defense and what it calls “people-to-people” ties with countries across the Middle East, strengthening relationships in a crucial part of the world. “As China’s economic interests stretch out globally, they realize it gives them strategic and military imperatives as well,” said Lindsey Ford, David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institute. The UAE, along with Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, were among the nations sticking up for China at the UN.

China has proven adept in how it frames its policies regarding Uighurs. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, the Chinese government capitalized on the U.S.-led “global war on terror” to justify a crackdown on Uighurs. But Beijing was careful to place Uighur unrest in a domestic context. “A lot of Chinese messaging paints the Uighurs as separatists, not Muslims,” said Ford. “They paint them through the lens of extremism, so it doesn’t come across as an anti-Muslim thing.”

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Adding to China’s ability to shape the message has been the relative abdication of the United States as the chief global protector of human rights. Top U.S. officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have condemned China’s actions in Xinjiang, and last month the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill calling on President Trump to sanction senior Chinese officials responsible for Xinjiang policy. But the Trump administration—perhaps wary of disrupting high-profile trade negotiations with China—has refrained from going any further.

Regardless of policy decisions by the United States, China’s power on the international stage is only likely to grow. The relative inaction over the treatment of Uighurs then might serve as a preview of a possible future in which China’s perspectives on non-interference, economic patronage, and an indifference to human rights compete on a more level playing field than the current U.S.-led international order.

Even a sustained pressure campaign from a fully engaged United States may not be sufficient in deterring China from pursuing its policy in Xinjiang. But Thum argues that even a minor deviation from the current atmosphere of impunity could have a significant effect. “Things could get even worse,” he said. “And it may be that outside attention has prevented things from getting as bad as they could be. A strong negative reaction may do something to lighten the suffering of the Uighurs, even if it’s minimal.”

Could the new decade bring such a reaction? A report from the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China published in early January argues for applying sanctions on China due to, in part, human rights abuses in Xinjiang. But, Millward said, bilateral economic ties remain so crucial to Washington that its incentives for pressuring China on human rights remain limited. “The problem is, and this is a long-term problem, human rights have always been a sidebar issue in U.S.-China relations.”