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As China bows to global solidarity over coronavirus, it’s time for action on the Uyghur genocide

Demonstrators take part in a demonstration against human rights violations of China on 27 December 2019 [Abdulhamid Hoşbaş/Anadolu Agency]
People gather to stage a demonstration in support of Uyghurs and against the human rights violations of China on 27 December 2019 [Abdulhamid Hoşbaş/Anadolu Agency]

The spread of the coronavirus — Covid-19 — has now reached epidemic proportions, with cases in dozens of countries around the world, and growing alarm at the epicentre in China where drastic quarantine and containment measures are in place.

The epidemic has thrown the international spotlight on China, and the regime in Beijing has reacted swiftly by introducing total lockdowns in some towns and cities to contain the virus. That’s good to see, but imagine if there had been similar global solidarity over China’s scandalous genocide of the ethnic Uyghur Muslims, more than one million of whom are being held in so-called “re-education” — for which read “brainwashing” — detention camps. Would or could Beijing have resisted such international pressure, which might have saved many thousands of people from a hellish situation?

Despite the crackdown by the Chinese authorities on efforts to provide information about the Uyghurs, survivors of the genocidal round-up have related stories of rape, brutality and torture, with families being destroyed as children are taken away from their parents. Yet while the international community has been pressing China to act over the coronavirus epidemic, it has remained more or less silent on Beijing’s ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide of the Uyghur Muslims.

Recent leaks in the media of highly classified Chinese government documents have revealed the operations manual for running the detention camps in Xinjiang, exposing the sinister mechanics of the region’s Orwellian mass surveillance and “predictive policing”. The “China Cables”, obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, show top secret lists of guidelines, approved personally by the region’s security chief, for the operation of the camps now holding hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other minorities. The leak also features previously undisclosed intelligence briefings that reveal, in the government’s own words, how Chinese police are guided by a massive data collection and analysis system that uses artificial intelligence to select entire categories of Xinjiang residents for detention.

READ: Uyghurs starving as China imposes draconian coronavirus measures

Despite these revelations and other, equally horrific, stories in the media, the international community has remained passive or silent because of the many vested interests in the Chinese economy. The Trump administration did admit to being “deeply troubled” by the treatment of Uyghur Muslims towards the end of last year, but like equally “troubled” other Western countries, the US government did not go beyond words.

So far, only Qatar and Turkey appear to be prepared to take a stand over China’s repression of the Uyghur population, and yet imagine what could happen if the rest of the world joined in and demanded action. Just a few days ago, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that China should not label all ethnic Uyghur Muslims as terrorists. He made his comments following talks with his Chinese counterpart in Germany.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Istanbul, Turkey on 11 January 2020. [Fatih Aktaş - Anadolu Agency]

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Istanbul, Turkey on 11 January 2020 [Fatih Aktaş/Anadolu Agency]

“Whether Turk, Uyghur Turk, Han Chinese, Buddhist or Christian… it is not right to call all Uyghur Turks terrorists just because one or two terrorists came from a certain ethnic group,” Cavusoglu told journalists. “And it is not [right] to target all Uyghurs because of their beliefs and ethnicity.”

The tiny but influential State of Qatar broke ranks with the rest of the Arab world last year by reversing its decision to sign a multilateral letter in support of China’s actions against the Muslim minority in Xinjiang province.

If the spread of the virus has proved anything, it is that nations are prepared to stand up to China, not least if they sense that their own interests are going to be affected by Beijing’s policies. Perhaps more surprisingly, the authorities in the Chinese capital have reacted by displaying a willingness to respond to such pressure. When you consider the economic clout that China wields over global brands, especially in technology, such a response is amazing.

READ: Myanmar, China and now India: Is Muslim dignity so cheap? 

The growth rate for China’s imports and exports is expected to decline sharply in the January-February period. There has already been a 92 per cent drop in car sales in China in the first half of February, which gives the first real indicator of the economic impact of the virus. Li Xingqian, the head of foreign trade at the Ministry of Commerce, confirmed that the growth rate for China’s imports and exports will fall as a result of the collapse in logistics and the delayed return to work after the traditional Chinese New Year holidays.

A chronic shortage of certain goods is already being reported in the West. Scenes of empty shelves and panic buying are doing the rounds on social media. Manufacturing companies, meanwhile, have reported shortages of spare parts and other goods which are grinding production lines to a halt.

Citizens wear masks to defend against new viruses in Pekin, China on 23 January, 2020 [Fuat Kabakcı/Anadolu Agency]

Citizens wear masks to defend against new viruses in Pekin, China on 23 January, 2020 [Fuat Kabakcı/Anadolu Agency]

We need to see the international community, via the United Nations, adopting an equally robust humanitarian approach to force Beijing to change course in its treatment of the Uyghur Muslims. If the world is prepared to adopt a strong position over the coronavirus, then it should do the same for the Uyghurs, and bring an end to the repression, mass torture and indoctrination being forced upon them.

The sheer scale of the oppression of China’s minority Muslim population, including children, is breathtaking, but it could all end tomorrow if the UN stands up and twists Beijing’s arm. The irony is sweet: the UN has the opportunity to address humanity’s greatest challenges by harnessing and using the global solidarity which has emerged to combat the dreaded coronavirus that has no respect for nationality, race, faith or influence. Now it’s time for the UN to step up to the mark, and make that call to Beijing.

READ: Uyghurs in Saudi Arabia facing an impossible choice

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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