China Rejects Growing Int’l Criticism Over its Treatment of Uighurs

James Carstensen | November 13, 2018 | 10:54pm EST
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German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, left, meets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, second right, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on November 13, 2018 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Jason Lee - Pool/Getty Images)

Berlin ( – Democracies’ dismay over the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in its far-western Xinjiang region was evident during a recent peer review of China at the U.N. Human Rights Council, but Beijing was unrepentant.

During last week’s review in Geneva – every U.N. member states is periodically evaluated by the HRC – the U.S., Canada, Germany and Japan all challenged China over its mass detention without trial of Uighurs. Among Islamic countries taking part in the review, only Turkey joined the criticism.

China has historically justified its strict surveillance and other measures in Xinjiang as necessary to combat extremist groups, which it blames for violence and a series of terrorist attacks in the area since 2009.

Concern over the centers was heightened when China revised regulations, including the use of “education centers” as part of broadly-termed counter-extremism rules.

After officials initially denied the allegations of mass detentions, Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir last month acknowledged the existence of what he called “vocational centers.”

At around ten million, Uighurs constitute less than one percent of China’s population. The Turkic ethnic group tasted autonomy as East Turkestan in the 1930s and 40s, before the area fell under communist Chinese rule in 1949.

During the HRC review, U.S. Ambassador Mark Cassayre called on China to release the “hundreds of thousands and potentially millions of people immediately.”

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, leading China’s delegation, retorted that his government “will not accept the politically driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases.”

China’s handling of the Uighurs also drew criticism from German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas during a visit to Beijing.

After meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing on Monday, Maas called on China to be more transparent.

“We cannot accept re-education camps,” he said. “We need transparency in order to properly judge what is happening there.”

Wang rejected the comments, telling Chinese media people should not listen to “gossip.”

“The Xinjiang regional government, of course, understands the situation in Xinjiang best, and not some other people or organizations,” he said after meeting with Maas. Wang added that China’s actions were “completely in line” with the global fight against terrorism.

Maas raised the criticism in defiance of an earlier warning from the Chinese Embassy in Berlin against meddling in Chinese politics. The mission had also called a German parliamentary debate about Xinjiang “blatant interference in internal affairs.”

The parliamentary human rights spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, Michael Brand, criticized the embassy’s warning, saying parliament “cannot be threatened and certainly not dictated to on what it has to discuss or otherwise.”

Last month the European Union condemned “the deteriorating human rights situation in Xinjiang” and called on China to respect freedom of religion.

China is the E.U.’s second largest trade partner – behind the U.S. – importing 198.2 billion euros ($223.7 billion) worth of goods in 2017, according to E.U. Commission figures.

“China's ever-increasing influence throughout Central Asia, and even as far as eastern Europe and the Balkans, make it hard for the E.U. to do anything meaningful,” Joshua Stowell, editor of Global Security Review, said in an email.

“Chinese state media openly discusses these, for-all-intents-and-purposes, concentration camps as vocational education facilities,” he said. “The longer the major democracies of the world go without making a meaningful response, the likelier it is that this will become a status quo.”

Foreign policy expert and former U.S. diplomat Armand Cucciniello said unless the West unifies as a bloc and stops all commerce with countries with poor human rights records, not much will change.

“The U.N.'s HRC has always been something of a farce. Iraq, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela are just some of the countries with abysmal human rights records that have held, or currently hold, seats on the council,” he said.

The U.S. withdrew from the council last June, calling it “a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.”

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