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OP-ED: The Xinjiang dilemma

  • Published at 02:34 pm June 28th, 2020
China Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng
Workers walk by the perimeter of a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng REUTERS

China’s claim to upholding national diversity is undermined by the treatment meted out to its Muslim population

The People’s Republic of China is home to a significant Muslim minority. Chinese Muslims make up 2.85% of the population. 10 out of 55 official Chinese ethnicities are predominantly Muslim. These ethno-religious groups include the Hui, Uyghur, Kazakh, and Dongxiang, among others. 

The Islamic heritage of China spans centuries. Tradition holds that the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) professed Islam in China during the first millennium. During the Ming dynasty, the Chinese Muslim admiral Zheng He commanded naval voyages to Asian and African states. One of those voyages brought a Chinese embassy to Islamic Bengal in the 15th century. Chinese Muslims continued to play an important role in modern republican China. 

Cai Congyan, author of the book The Rise of China and International Law: Taking Chinese Exceptionalism Seriously, describes China’s modern foreign policy as one “characterized by partnership based on state sovereignty, pacifism based on common security, and inclusionism based on national diversities.” Tom Ginsburg, who teaches law at the University of Chicago, considers this approach to be a “kinder, gentler Westphalia.” 

The doctrine of Westphalia emphasizes non-interference in sovereign states. 

In reality, China exercises leverage over many nations through debt, the overseas activities of its state-owned enterprises, demanding strict adherence to the One China policy, discouraging support for dissidents, and the supply of restrictive surveillance technology. 

On common security, China plays with a double-edged sword. Despite its UN peacekeeping commitments, it has been unable to persuade Myanmar to repatriate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh till date; it turns a blind eye to the disarmament of North Korea; and it continues to militarize the South China Sea dispute in Southeast Asia. 

China’s claim to upholding national diversity is undermined by the treatment meted out to its Muslim population in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. 

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination estimates that 2 million Uyghur, Kazakh, and other minorities are being held in so-called “re-education camps” where they face Communist brainwashing. Freedom of religion in Xinjiang is under severe strain with growing restrictions on religious expression. 

Reactions in the Muslim world

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), with 57 member states and being the second largest intergovernmental organization after the UN, has a unique role to play in safeguarding Muslim rights. However, China’s trade and strategic links in the Muslim world have held back criticism. 

The Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) of the OIC emphasizes “constructive engagement” with China on the matter of Uyghur human rights.  

In Turkey, where the plight of Turkic peoples such as the Uyghurs arouses public support, the government called on China to close the concentration camps. Turkey has described the arbitrary internment of more than a million Uyghurs as a “great cause of shame for humanity.” 

Nevertheless, the response from the Muslim world has been highly subdued. The OIC needs to use its mechanisms effectively and be true to its motto as a “collective voice of the Muslim world.” A multilateral response from the OIC is imperative when Muslim minorities face persecution. 

In 2018, the 45th OIC Council of Foreign Ministers in Dhaka discussed the issue of OIC reform. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh aptly stated: “There is a need to build bridges with those non-OIC countries, so that a large number of Muslim populations do not remain untouched by the good work of OIC. That is why, reforms and re-structure is critical for OIC.” 

He went on to state: “As the world is changing in many ways infringing upon every area of a peaceful society, life, development, we cannot do business as usual. 

We need to rethink our work, method, and process of functioning to cater to the needs of the current era and beyond.” 

The OIC may need to think out of the box and develop a multilateral response to the Xinjiang dilemma.

Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.

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