Why Are Some African Governments Shielding China Over Xinjiang?

Africans have endured more than their fair share of atrocities where the perpetrators got off scot-free, a history that has helped inspire a commitment to global solidarity for human rights and justice. As prominent Tanzanian jurist Fatma Karume said, “Those who suggest that there is a democracy for the West and one for Africa, have failed to understand the universality of the human condition.” This was eloquently demonstrated by Gambia’s spirited effort to draw international attention to the plight of the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar.

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Photo from a recent conference in Beijing with African and Chinese government officials. 
© Twitter @WuPeng_MFAChina

So why are some African leaders helping the Chinese government cover up serious human rights violations against Turkic Muslims in the northwest Xinjiang region of China? 

This March, the ambassadors to China from Burkina Faso, the Republic of Congo, and Sudan spoke in Beijing at an event entitled “Xinjiang in the Eyes of African Ambassadors to China.” They extolled Chinese authorities’ success in raising the standard of living in the region and dismissed Western criticism of China as driven by ulterior motives.

There is little evidence that the ambassadors discussed Beijing’s strategy of mass arbitrary detentions, which have seen around one million Turkic Muslims detained simply based on their identity. 

The event might be routine diplomacy, but African governments’ willingness to remain silent on Beijing’s suppression of rights has real-world consequences. Some have helped defend China’s Xinjiang policies at the United Nations Human Rights Council, where Burkina Faso and Sudan are members, while introducing a resolution to bring systemic racism in the US and around the world under international scrutiny.

African leaders should try seeing Xinjiang through the eyes of the Turkic Muslim population that has  endured torture, enforced disappearances and cultural persecution. African governments have often justifiably decried other countries’ indifference to their plight and sought global solidarity with human suffering. Yet, the economic benefits gained from China appear to be undermining that resolve and bring into question African governments’ commitment to international assistance and cooperation. They should refocus and reflect on the principles, norms and values of freedom and equality laid out in the African Union Charter.

Only then will they be able to show their support without appearing to endorse Beijing’s oppression.