Muslim Uighurs in China: Does Economic Power Absolve the Need for Social Accountability?

By Ming Lee

The 1989 Democracy Protests in Tiananmen square and the recent alleged abuse of Uighur Muslims in detention camps in Xinjiang are both significant events that have highlighted the lack of democracy and human rights in China, and they are ones which have also sparked global outrage. However, the China witnessed by the world in these two time periods are unrecognisable and incomparable. In the past three decades, China’s economy has been one of the fastest growing in the world, growing on average by 10% per year, and now has the world’s second highest GDP.

Despite both the Tiananmen square incident and the abuse of Uighur Muslims garnering the world’s attention, the response by countries to these two events have been vastly distinct. In the past, Western countries immediately denounced China for its use of military force and imposed sanctions which led to a 3.9% shrink of the Chinese economy. However, now in a similar situation, countries fear for their relations with China being tarnished.

Using an AI-based selection system, Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang who show a strong attachment to their religion and faith are deemed to be suspicious and detained in camps. The China Cables, a leaked CCP telegram which details the functioning of the detention camps, show that there are shocking human rights violations within the camps holding an estimated one million Uighur Muslims. The content within the telegram include the instruction of camp workers to prevent escapes and also details methods of forced indoctrination. Detainees would also be unable to freely meet with their families and would be detained for a minimum of one year.

These allegations are damning against the Chinese government, but even though the camps have existed since 2017, why have we only recently begun to hear about them, and why isn’t more being done by other countries to hold China accountable to their actions?

The Chinese government have denied the claims surrounding the existence of detention camps, with representatives of China’s UK embassy stating, “First, there are no so-called ‘detention camps’ in Xinjiang. Vocational education and training centres have been established for the prevention of terrorism.” The Chinese government has further perpetuated this idea by allowing select journalists and diplomats to visit the centres. The reports from these select individuals were highly biased and were contradictory to the allegations. One of the reports that were never published was one of a Malaysian-diplomats, which raised concern about the conditions and intentions of the detention camps. What is important to note is that Malaysia highly relies on trade with China which amounts to a whopping $100 billion which also includes its large exports of palm oil.

The Chinese have successfully integrated and continue to integrate themselves into global supply chains via huge international investment. One of the major ways China is planning to dominate international trade is via the country’s new Silk Road infrastructure project named the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Over sixty countries that account for two thirds of the world’s population have expressed interest in participating in the project stretching from Asia through to Europe.

This trillion-dollar investment is a fitting example of how their economic power has influenced foreign policies and global sentiments in favour of China. For example, a decade ago, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed the Uighurs suffered from “simply put, genocide” at the hands of the Chinese government. Now after China has helped Turkey in securing a $3.6 billion loan for energy and transportation, President Erdoğan welcomed a relationship with China and visited Beijing in Summer 2019 to discuss the Belt and Road initiative.

Despite rising tensions between the US and China, the rest of the western world don’t seem to be following the America’s footsteps anymore.

Whilst trying to please both the US and China, the EU has struggled to decide on a foreign policy strategy regarding the two countries’ power struggle. With China being Germany’s largest trading partner, and many other European countries seeking Chinese investment, it has been a troublesome dilemma to balance both the economic and social standards of the EU while constructing a unified economic strategy.

Even the response from the UK regarding China’s recent issues have been rather tepid. Responding to the enactment of a  draconian National Security Law in Hong Kong, a past British colony, the UK have offered up to three million Hong Kong citizens citizenship in the UK. However, this seems to be the extent of the UK’s response, showing no signs of imposing sanctions, with the UK prime minister stating that despite China’s concerning domestic policy, the UK will “continue to engage” with China and that “China is a giant factor of geopolitics”. Historically, foreign policy decisions have always been made with the basis of pleasing the US, but this new tide of policies regarding China show a change in the times.

Even in the US, with the Trump administration’s strong anti-China sentiments and policymaking, the US is still finding it hard to cut ties with China or influence it in a meaningful way. Despite the multiple sanctions imposed on China by the US, the harsh policies haven’t had any significant effects on China’s economy and have actually led to higher deadweight losses for US firms. Additionally, despite the US government’s advisement and sanctions to firms to cut ties with any Xinjiang related suppliers, China’s domination in global supply chains have made this nearly impossible. For example, with Xinjiang supplying nearly all (84%) of China’s cotton, US clothing companies are finding it difficult to conform to the social and economic standards.

The responses and foreign policy actions of many countries towards China’s alleged abuse of Uighur Muslims and crushing of pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong reflect that economic power shields a country from its socially irresponsible actions. But China isn’t the only major country that hasn’t been held accountable for its irresponsible actions. In the UK, Boris Johnson’s infamous nickname of “letterboxes” for Muslim women in traditional Islamic clothing lead to a 375% increase in anti-Muslim attacks the following week, and in the US, the government has had very little to answer for the country’s record of police brutality and systemic racism. In our society and economic climate where a high GDP leads to unignorable influence, are morals and social responsibility even a factor of policy making?  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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