Why is the world silent on China’s Uyghur Muslims?

Reuben James Barrete, Ekraj Sabur

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Why is the world silent on China’s Uyghur Muslims?
Protesting against China over the treatment of its minority is, in the eyes of Muslim leaders, presumably not worth the loss of economic privilege and security alliance

In the age of information technology, the atrocious reality of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China’s autonomous region of Xinjiang has been fed to the palms and appears before the eyes of the global citizens with frequent leaked images and reports on the mainstream and social media. 

However, the global responses from individuals and states seem far less significant compared to the outrage expressed over human rights violations in Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Myanmar, and elsewhere. Perhaps, information overload in the world filled with violence might be one of the reasons which puzzles and hinders the world conscience that ultimately influences and determines their action or lack thereof.

Despite the fact that the West, spearheaded by the United States, the European Union, and Australia have become vocal in their condemnation of China over the plight of Uyghur, not much voice of complaint or protest is heard from the leaders in the Muslim world. There is more to the information surplus which explains the inaction and insufficient responses to the crisis.

This article analyzes the factors which cause such inaction and silence on the plight of Uyghur minority in China’s Xinjiang.

China policy

Beijing’s iron fist control and surveillance make China a land of mystery, where truth acquisition is uneasy and challenging.

The absence of well-established truth is the key obstruction to raise global awareness and mobilize collective international solidarity to protect the rights of China’s Turkic speaking Muslim minority of Central Asian origin. Despite the evidence and oral testimonies of the Uyghur surviving witnesses fleeing their motherland into exile, their first-hand account of the mass ethno-religious violence seems insufficient to convince leaders of the Muslim world.

The well-established yet unresolved crisis is yielding adverse spillover effects on the internal affairs of Muslim states such as Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the Daesh wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and Myanmar’s Rohingya exodus. 

Intertwined with China’s image as an emerging power to wrestle the warmongering American hegemony led many ordinary citizens to doubt the authenticity of both the content and intention of the Western affiliated pro-human rights groups and even the media.

The Chinese government’s divide-and-rule policy is effective that the Chinese Muslim populace is deeply polarized.

Unlike the Uyghur who strongly inherit Central Asian culture and Muslim heritage, the Hui Muslims residing across the country are considered by the government as moderate and assimilative to the Han dominant Chinese society. The latter enjoy more freedom and do not challenge the Chinese state’s unitary policy.

And the presence of a rigid, state-controlled media propaganda and severe censorship not only disallowed the cries of the Uyghur to be heard by their brethren but has also led to a kind of social endorsement of a heavy-handed approach to suppress them.

Restricted civil society

Since China’s political leadership believes that issues concerning social services and other basic rights should be solely awarded to government, the roles of the civil society are then limited.

One infamous NGO law has set legal and regulatory mechanisms on how domestic and international non-government organizations should operate in the country. It is seen to be restricted to issues concerning individual and minority rights.

The brazen classification of civil society still stands among organizations – the ones that function with a bottom-up or grassroots approach are considered the “NGOs,” while those that work closely with government are called Government Organized NGO (GONGO).

The concept of civil society is totally in contrast to what a typical civil society is defined in some democratic and developing nations, where groups are permitted within a legal framework to have a meaningful and democratic participation to raise, and openly discuss potential solutions on issues calling for government support. Most often than not, the latter receives enormous constraint from the government when it is perceived a threat to Beijing’s Reform Agenda.

In a speech delivered by Xi Jinping at the Central Conference on Ethnic Affairs in September 2014, he emphasized that the correct and Chinese way to solve ethnic issues must follow these principles: upholding the leadership of the Party; persevering in the socialist part with Chinese characteristics; safeguarding the unity of the country; mainstreaming and improving the regional ethnic autonomy system; and practicing the rule of law.

These restricting laws were also paralleled with state propaganda to be extremely cautious with foreign organizations and individuals instructing its people how to identify if a foreigner is a spy. The insistent argument of Beijing that its legal structure for civil society opens trust-building process among domestic and international NGOs looks different from what it promised. The broad categorization of NGOs in China is highly concerted with its national security law that confines international NGOs from the West due to security concerns paranoia.

The absence of a robust civil society in China provides a vivid image to the question why its people are silent on the oppression of Uyghur minority within its borders; a manifestation of how an authoritarian regime creates a climate of fear; and a repressed population for dissent.

From unipolar to multipolar new world order 

The decline of the American hegemony due to its failed domestic and international capitalist policies, particularly the Iraq war in 2003, marks the end of the unipolar world order.

The electoral victory of President Donald Trump and his nationalist/socialist-like economic policies such as America First, with less global hegemonic ambition, resonates with the sentiment of many angry and frustrated working middle-class Americans. It also reaffirms the failure of American capitalist system.

Subsequently, the world began to observe the new regional dynamics with the new era of multipolarity where nation-states are freely partnering with other emerging powers. China as a rising global power has formed economic and security alliance with several countries both in the pro and anti-American camps across the world.

The Chinese global project of the Belt and the Road Initiative (BRI), financed by its international financial institution, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), has conditioned countries from Asia to Africa to be part of the global value chain which primarily serves the interest of Chinese investors and, of course, the elites in the host countries. Some of the investments include the US$210-million Suez Canal Economic Zone in Egypt, the $53-billion trade deal with United Arab Emirate, and the $65-billion oil deal with Saudi Arabia, while boosting its investment in Israel and sustaining strong trade partnership with Iran.

Aside from its close tie with the US allies in the Middle East, China continues strengthening its geopolitical-economic interests through Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an economic and security alliance membered by mostly Eurasian nations, most of whom are considered illiberal in their governance.

China and Russia attempt to orient SCO to supersede NATO and EU.  The aforementioned reality reflects both new balance of power and the rise of Chinese imperialism that has the influenced other countries regardless of their economic orientations. With economic strength, China managed to become the second largest funder to the United Nations, and together with Russia, it attempts to weaken the United Nation’s human rights protection apparatus by defunding human rights posts.

Global Muslim leadership in crisis

It’s an undeniable truth that most of the Muslim countries share authoritarian characteristics where subjugation of their own people is common.

The condemnation and protest against China on the plight of its Muslim minority would be then counterproductive. Not only would the act be seen as interference to China’s internal affairs, but the protesting states that have no credibility to speak for human rights may also face the backlash for their internal malfeasance. 

This is also true with Turkey. Its President, Recap Tayyip Erdogan, is praised by many Muslims across the world for his strong support of the Muslim minorities in the non-Muslim majority countries including the Uyghur. Given their shared ethno-religious and linguistic identities, the Uyghur gained more sympathy and solidarity from the Turkish society where they were granted an asylum.

Nonetheless, there are multiple factors which undermine Turkey’s role in addressing the humanitarian crisis of Uyghur.

First, the Turkish government’s massive crackdown on the domestic political opponents has disqualified Turkey as the credible human rights defender.

Second, the Uyghur minority is not only the Turkic speaking minority group facing suppression. Turkey is often expected to extend hand to the Turkic speaking minorities in Eurasia and Caucasus. Its support of Azeri in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with the Armenian has jeopardized its relationship with Russia. It has become more careful in its international role, particularly in avoiding the confrontation with its few remaining allies. This reflects in Turkey’s less vocal intervention over Nagorno-Karabakh upon the normalization of Russia and Turkey diplomatic tie. Lastly, China, like Russia is a few remaining friends of Turkey; having conflict with China over Uyghur would cause more harm to Turkey’s present international standing. The recent political stance of Turkey with China has been compromising as manifested in the crackdown on the pro-Uyghur media and movements in Turkey.

These developments perhaps explain the silence and inaction of the Muslim world on the Uyghur. Protesting against China on the treatment of its minority at this moment, in the eyes of Muslim leaders including Turkey, is presumably not worth the loss of losing economic privilege and security alliance.

While China is a big power which is uneasy to deal with, its escalating global strength is seen as the alternative to leverage against the US when it is in the weakest position than ever. – Rappler.com


(Ekraj Sabur is the Director of the International Institute of Peace and Development Studies (IIPDS) and a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Global Studies, Doshisha University, Japan. Reuben James Barrete is a Senior Program Officer at the International Center for Innovation, Transformation, and Excellence in Governance, and a Graduate Student of International Studies at the University of the Philippines with a special focus on democracy, gender, and security. The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own.)

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