Since several months, China is facing growing global political criticism over what some call a ‘’genocide’’ of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority of 11 million people living mostly in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang province.
Reports say that the Chinese authorities has detained up to a million Uighurs over the past few years in what the state defines as “re-education camps”.
Beijing has denied the existence of the camps, before claiming they were ”a necessary measure against separatist terrorism” in Xinjiang.
At the end of last year, in an address to the European Parliament, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell mentioned that the EU has repeatedly spoken about the situation in Xinjiang, both in multilateral fora and with the Chinese authorities.
The human rights situation in the region appears to have worsened during the last three or four years. But, according to Roberta Bonazzi, President of the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD), a Brussels-based policy institute, Europe needs to understand the role that China is playing not only in persecuting the Uighurs but also in hiding or disguising the problem and seeking to control and silence any criticism abroad.
‘’Interference, intimidation, disinformation, propaganda, political and economic pressure: these are all strategies used by the Chinese Communist Party in Belgium, Europe and beyond in order to advance Beijing’s “objective reality” and hegemonic agenda across areas such as research, think tanks and worldwide media,’’ said Bonazzi during a webinar discussion organized on this issue by the EFD in cooperation with the US Embassy to Belgium and the EU.
‘’The Chinese Communist party has aggressively launched a huge and intensive propaganda campaign in Europe, North America and elsewhere to lay out their narrative on what is happening with the Uighurs,’’ said Zumretay Arkin from the World Uyghur Congress. She stressed that she has received no news from her family in the province.
Her advocacy group has been working to make the public aware of this issue by providing information and engaging with policymakers, NGOs, members of parliaments….
‘’I think years of advocacy have resulted in the fact that people know about the existence of the Uyghurs and the human rights violations committed by China. At European level, there has also been a campaign and there is now talk of sanctions. So I think that within the next year I would expect more to come but change doesn’t come overnight and it take a lot of different actors, civil societies, organisations, witnesses, policymakers, to achieve that change.’’
‘’China fails to give evidence of the existence of our families….They are portraying us as Muslim terrorists, extremists…who need to be educated. If you look at their narrative, it is inconsistent and the evidence is that there is a genocide despite their denial. We have now evidence of labor camps.’’
Lukas Andriukatis, Associate Director of Atlantic Council’s Dirigial Forensic Research, which is tracking how China is using disinformation methods and how they are spreading their narratives in the world, pointed to many fake accounts on social media and to flourishing China friendship groups trying to improve relations with various countries.
Samuel Cogolati, a Belgian Green MP who is very active on the Uighurs issue by raising attention, denouncing the ‘’very grave human rights violations’’ and Chinese disinformation and practices, believes that it’s not enough for European countries to raise serious concern. ‘’We have seen in the past that this is not sufficient and we can observe that China has not been affected by the various calls of European countries for dealing with the human rights situation. So I believe that we must go further and take concrete steps to make voices of Uighur people heard.’’
He noted however that ‘’there was an opening’’ during the last EU-China summit in September when China said that independent observers were welcome on the field in China. ‘’I think we should response as EU member states that we accept this invitation and that we go on the field not only with members of parliaments but also with independent experts, academics… who know the situation very well and the persecutions suffered by the Uighurs,’’ Cogolati, who is a member of the Belgian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said.
He gave the example of a family of Uighurs who have received a visa to come to Belgium but are under surveillance there and forced not to leave the country.
”When I ask parliamentary questions about the situation for this family, the response I receive is ‘’everything is going fine, this is an internal affair.” We should stop that rhetoric and be very clear that human rights norms are basically universal, that the genocide convention and the norms against discrimination are also binding for a country like China,’’ Cogolati added.
‘’We should at least try to send independent observers on the field,’’ he said.
The Belgian MP also suggested several other measures of political action in Europe, including economic sanctions against Chinese officials who are clearly responsible for human rights violations, on the model of what has been done in the US House of Representatives. ‘’ We have done so with grave human rights violations in Belarus. There is no reason we should not do the same with China when we know that millions of Uighurs have been detained in concentration camps,’’ he noted.
He also mentioned blacklisting Chinese organisations and companies who are actually benefiting from slavery in the Xijing province, bringing the issue before the International Criminal Court in The Hague (although China is not a signatory of the ICC statutes). ‘’But the court can have jurisdiction when crimes are committed. There is a legal path for action against the persecution committed against the Uighur people.’’