China’s crackdown on its Uyghur citizens, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority, has faced international scrutiny in recent months. This, though, is not enough, Arslan Hidayet, the General Secretary of the Uyghur Revival Association, has insisted.
Hidayet also exposed the inconsistency in support for the Uyghurs and the unquestionable obligation that the Muslim world has to defend those who are trapped along with Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uzbek Muslim minorities. Many Muslim-majority countries aren’t speaking out because they don’t want to jeopardise their economic relationships in China, he explained.
The exception is Turkey, which has condemned China on the issue of human rights abuses in Xinjiang Province, the former East Turkestan. However, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s priority has changed with his government bidding for a key role in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is intended to develop a trade and infrastructure network to connect Asia with Europe and Africa along ancient trade routes, many of them passing through the Middle East.
When Erdogan visited Beijing last year, he hailed the new “Silk Road” bridging Asia and Europe and welcomed Chinese investments to boost his beleaguered economy.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia depends on Chinese capital to finance the privatisation of its oil industry. China is the UAE’s second-largest trading partner and its number one source of imports. Indeed, Beijing has signed BRI cooperation agreements with eighteen Arab countries, and Chinese companies have signed contracts worth $35.6 billion, $1.2 billion of which is directed towards local energy and manufacturing sectors. Trade between China and the Arab world was valued at $244.3 billion last year.
“Just before the crackdown and opening of the camps, which was about the beginning of 2017, China had already established a relationship with the Middle East, especially in the Gulf region, between 2011 and 2014,” explained Hidayet. “They were making trade deals with the BRI, which goes through many of these Gulf countries. So we’re talking about billions, if not trillions of dollars of infrastructure and money at play.” All of these countries are trying to get their extra 10 or 15 per cent in trade deals, he added. “If it wasn’t for the United States, we would have more bloodshed, the numbers would be on the rise.”
Not lost in the equation is the fact that Saudi Arabia and other states in the Gulf have themselves faced strong criticism from the West on human rights grounds, the activist pointed out. This didn’t stop the US-brokered normalisation agreement between Israel and the UAE, though, and the fact that other US-backed Gulf States might follow.
Abu Dhabi claimed that the deal was an effort to stave off Israel’s planned annexation of the occupied West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, said that annexation is not off the table, but has simply been postponed.
“We have to look at those Muslim countries themselves,” said Hidayet. “Recently, we’ve seen how certain Gulf countries treat the Palestinians with the deals that they’ve done with Israel. How do they treat their own minorities? They’ve already got plenty of human rights issues in their own backyard to deal with.”
Moreover, hundreds, if not thousands of black African migrants are locked up in squalid conditions in Saudi Arabian coronavirus detention centres, reminiscent of Libya’s slave camps, according to an investigation published last week by Britain’s Sunday Telegraph. Images taken by migrants on their mobile phones and published by the newspaper show hundreds of emaciated men lying in rows inside small rooms with barred windows. Many of the detainees are stripped down to their undergarments.
Most are said to be Ethiopians who went to Saudi Arabia in an effort to escape poverty at home, although some arrived after being recruited by Saudi agents or human traffickers. Tens of thousands have made their way over the past decade, the report says.
This lack of sympathy and action is what China has been using as a “propaganda tool”, noted Hidayet. “[The Chinese] say, ‘Well if there really was oppression against the Uyghurs, then how come these Muslim-majority countries support these concentration camps?’.”
The evidence of China’s barbaric abuse of Uyghur Muslims is now undeniable, though. “Former detainees have told us that people are dying in these camps. One former detainee told us that while she was there for three months, nine people died in front of her.”
He explained that there are an estimated 500 to 1,000 camps. “If nine people die from one cell in a three month period that equals hundreds of thousands of deaths, and that’s the most conservative estimate. People are being tortured and indoctrinated, and women as well as men are being gang raped.”
Tellingly, Hidayet is critical of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “It’s disgusting to see the current leader of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, also supporting China’s policies of oppression against the Uyghurs, despite what the Palestinians are going through.” The PA leader also chose to support China in its repressive measures against the residents of Hong Kong, who have been protesting against plans to allow extradition to mainland China.
“Ironically, it’s the United States leading the way for the Uyghurs, regardless of what [Washington’s] agenda is.” Earlier this year, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on multiple officials from China, alleging a connection with human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Hidayet believes that there is both a positive and a negative to the US leading the way. “The negative is to wonder how genuine the US is because it has bombed the Middle East back into the Stone Age, and suddenly it is sticking up for Muslims in China.”
He noted, however, that if it was not for the US, the camps would include “gas chambers” and there would be a repeat of what happened in World War Two.
Born and raised in Australia, Arslan Hidayet visited East Turkestan every three to four years and eventually married there. He is the son-in-law of internationally renowned Uyghur comic Adil Mijit who is being detained by the Chinese authorities.
“China has been doing its very best, not just over the past three or four years with the concentration camps, but also over the past 71 years of oppression, whether it be during the Cultural Revolution, or by trying to ban and change our language from the Arabic script to the Latin script, to produce generations of illiterate people.”
This is not about “uplifting” the Uyghurs, as China claims. “It’s quite the opposite. Economically, the Chinese always tried to keep the Uyghurs poor, uneducated and ignorant. And we’ve seen various massacres every five or 10 years, with thousands dying and thousands disappearing. Don’t buy into Chinese propaganda.”