At any other time or in any other country, the incarceration of as many as 2m people on the basis of their religion would be a global scandal of epic proportions. But the relative indifference of the world to the plight of the Uighur ethnic minority and other Muslims in the western Chinese territory of Xinjiang is a sign of Beijing’s rising power and its ability to control global discourse well beyond its borders.
In recent interviews with the Financial Times, the leaders of Indonesia and Pakistan, the two most populous Muslim-majority countries, feigned total ignorance of the situation in Xinjiang. In both countries there have been public protests over Xinjiang and government ministers have publicly condemned the situation there. But Joko Widodo, the recently re-elected president of Indonesia, and Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, used strikingly similar language to deflect questions and avoid even oblique criticism of the Chinese government’s treatment of Muslims.
“I don’t know about Xinjiang . . . I don’t have the imagination for that,” the Indonesian president told me recently.
“I don’t know much about that . . . If I had enough knowledge I would speak about it,” Mr Khan told my colleague in late March. Both leaders chose instead to slam Myanmar for its treatment of minority Rohingya Muslims.
The UN has held multiple hearings on Xinjiang and the US has issued scathing reports that estimate between 800,000 and 2m Muslims have been incarcerated in a vast archipelago of re-education camps. Even the Chinese government, after initial denials, now publicly acknowledges the programme, describing the facilities as “ vocational training centres”, where people “infected with ideological illness” are sent to be cured while learning useful skills.
Beijing has been extraordinarily successful at neutralising most criticism of its Xinjiang policies through a combination of threats and inducements. In December, the human rights commission of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, a 57-country grouping that describes itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world”, criticised China’s treatment of Xinjiang Muslims on Twitter. But then, in March, the OIC reversed this position, issuing a report “commending the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens”.
The same report “reaffirmed its commitment to Muslim communities and minorities living in non-OIC” countries and expressed alarm at the discrimination, repression and persecution Muslims face in places such as Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Bulgaria and Greece.
It is not just Muslim countries that have been cowed into silence. In the aftermath of the horrific mosque shootings in Christchurch in March, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, earned great praise throughout the Islamic world for her sensitive and empathetic response to the tragedy. But on a trip to Beijing barely two weeks later, Ms Ardern refused to mention the situation in Xinjiang, despite public calls from Muslim and human rights groups to do so.
Turkey, which shares deep linguistic and cultural ties with the Uighurs, is the only Muslim majority country to have openly called China out on this issue. In February, the Turkish foreign ministry described the policies in Xinjiang as a “great shame for humanity” and the re-education camps as “concentration centres and prisons”.
China’s response to this outburst makes clear why greed and fear have secured the silence of so many countries. “Criticising your friend publicly everywhere is not a constructive approach,” the Chinese ambassador to Ankara said in an interview with Reuters. “If you choose a non-constructive path, it will negatively affect mutual trust and understanding and will be reflected in commercial and economic relations.”
This was not an idle threat. A long list of countries, from Norway to South Korea to the Philippines to the UK, Australia and many others, have found themselves on the receiving end of unofficial Chinese economic sanctions as punishment for transgressions ranging from meeting the Dalai Lama to installing American missile defence systems.
Because of the size of its economy, and the unique nature of its authoritarian political system, China today is a punitive power in a way that no other country can be. The US is still able to punish countries by restricting or blocking access to global financial markets, but the range of issues that can land a country on an American blacklist is tiny compared with China’s list of grievances.
Put it this way: mocking Donald Trump and his administration or criticising American policy will not trigger US sanctions. Countries, companies or, indeed, newspapers that attempt the same with Xi Jinping and China do so at their peril.