Why the West Shares Blame in China’s Oppression of Uighur Muslims

At the end of May, a woman and her four children were forcibly removed from the Belgian embassy in Beijing, China. She’d been trying to complete the paperwork necessary to rejoin her husband in Ghent, Belgium. Given the fear that she and her children were Uighur Muslims originating from the Xinjiang province of China, it’s feared they’ve been transported back to Xinjiang, where a growing number of reports have indicated that the Chinese government is running inhumane and oppressive internment camps.

Current estimates suggest that more than a million Uighur individuals are currently being subjected to what authorities euphemistically refer to as ‘re-education.’ Reports from the BBC, the UN and various media outlets talk of bullying and brainwashing, but while much of the global public has been appalled by such reports, the recent episode in the Belgian embassy yields an indication of how other states have been complicit in China’s persecution of its 11 million-strong Uighur population.

Up until recently, European nations such as Germany and Sweden have been deporting Uighurs back to China. In August 2018, the German government suspended deportations of Uighurs until further notice, a decision that came four months after Bavarian authorities ‘accidentally’ expelled a Uighur man back to China. In March, Sweden finally granted refugee status to Uighur asylum seekers. The period between 2013 and 2018 saw between 45 and 77 Chinese adults come to the Scandinavian country each year to seek asylum.

Even with these welcome moves, Human Rights Watch issued an open letter to the EU in December, in which it called on EU ministers and all other member states to follow the examples set by Germany and Sweden. “We urge your government to not forcibly return ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, or other Turkic Muslims to China without providing a full and fair individualized examination of their risk of being persecuted,” declared the letter’s authors, Lotte Leicht and Sophie Richardson.

At time of writing, no other EU nation has granted refugee status to Uighur communities or declared an end to deportations, and as Human Rights Watch’s letter indicates, few countries outside Europe fare better. “We have documented instances of forced returns of ethnic Uyghurs to China from Cambodia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Thailand, among others,” it writes. In highlighting these returns, HRW also offers a hint of one of the most regrettable features of the Uighur persecution crisis, which is that it has been met mostly with silence from many Muslim nations.

In June, the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, publicly stated that he was “disappointed” by the lack of response of governments in the Islamic world. Impartial or not, Brownback’s criticism isn’t without substance. In March, the Organisation of Islam Cooperation – an association of 57 Muslim states – issued a report on Muslim minorities in non-OIC states, in which it concluded that it “commends the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens; and looks forward to further cooperation between the OIC and the People’s Republic of China.”

Other commentators have pointed out that many Muslim-majority states are scared of alienating China and losing economic access to its Belt Road Initiative. While the US may be justified in calling out the likes of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it needs to be remembered that America has arguably been the biggest enabler of China’s industrialised abuse of Uighur Muslims.

By launching a “war” against (Islamic) terrorism, the United States cultivated the narrative and political climate through which China has been able to maintain the fiction that Uighur Muslims represent a distinct terrorism threat. Only a few months after 9/11, 22 Uighur Muslims were extralegally incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, with the US government and the Joint Task Force Guantanamo claiming that they belonged to a terrorist group referred to by Chinese authorities as “the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.” This claim was never actually proven, but the remaining three members of the initial 22 weren’t released from Guantánamo until December 2013, by which point the Chinese government had been able to repeat the terms “Al-Qaeda” and “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” routinely enough to make its depiction of Uighurs seem vaguely credible.

This explains June’s visit of the UN’s counterterrorism chief to Xinjiang province, rather than a human rights rapporteur. Even after all of the negative attention, this is admittedly a depressing turn of events. A the very least, there are signs that the tide is incrementally turning. European nations including Canada and Australia began putting diplomatic pressure on Beijing at the end of last year by demanding a meeting with Xinjiang’s highest official, while the United States has been openly criticising China in recent months and has also considered imposing sanctions. Sadly, this has been kicked into the long grass as the US tries to push for a more favorable trade deal with China, but assuming that such a deal is reached, the congenitally hopeful among us might be forgiven for believing that political pressure could reemerge once again.