Is China’s Human Rights Diplomacy Backfiring?

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Uyghur Muslims walk under an arch with security cameras after prayers at the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang region, during a government-organized trip for foreign journalists, April 19, 2021.
© 2021 Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo

As international support builds for an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity in the northwest region of Xinjiang, the Chinese government’s insistence that “national sovereignty” should shield it from scrutiny seems increasingly desperate.

The government’s repressive policies against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim communities have accelerated in recent years, resulting in killings, torture, mass arbitrary detention, and family separations. Evidence of these crimes, compiled from survivor interviews, satellite images, government detention records, and leaked documents, has piled up, leading to growing international pressure for investigations. Statements from 50 United Nations human rights experts and hundreds of civil society groups have supported these findings.

Chinese officials have fought hard to keep this issue out of the United Nations. Not only have they recruited other highly abusive governments to back their efforts, they have also bought and bullied other states to support them. Beijing’s tactics range from “vaccine diplomacy” to shamelessly signing governments on to official statements, daring other states – often ones in desperate need of foreign aid – to opt out and risk China’s wrath.

And while no government is above hypocrisy, China’s may have reached a new low. Lashing out at its critics, Beijing recently called for an inquiry into racism in Canada and the United States, while relentlessly seeking to quash even the suggestion that its own rights record should be subject to international scrutiny. (By contrast, the US recognized that it needed to address systemic racism, and Canada acknowledged its history of “assimilationist policies and practices” towards Indigenous peoples and pledged to do better.)

In 2019, 25 countries issued a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council calling for an independent investigation into Chinese government abuses in Xinjiang. In October 2020, 39 states made a similar effort at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee. Last week the number rose to 44, bolstered by a statement of concern from Turkey.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet should heed these calls and urgently report to the Human Rights Council on the situation in Xinjiang. For nearly three years her office has sought unfettered access to Xinjiang – for which there is no evidence Chinese authorities would ever allow. She should take strength from growing international support and announce an inquiry conducted from outside China. People across Xinjiang should not have to wait a day longer for justice.