22 August 2018
China tends to do everything on a grand scale – building huge high-speed rail networks, say, or globe-spanning trade routes – and this has extended to its vast abuse of human rights.
Earlier this month, a United Nations committee reported that more than a million people have been detained and another two million forced to attend indoctrination centres across the western Xinjiang region. Gay McDougall, a UN committee member, said the mass crackdown on local Muslims had turned the region into “something that resembles a massive internship camp that is shrouded in secrecy”.
Few details have emerged about the camps, partly because former prisoners fear that talking will prompt retribution against them and their families. A Kazakh Muslim detainee named Omir Bekali spoke out in May after authorities detained his sister, then his mother, then his father. He described being forced to stand at a wall for five-hour stretches as guards ordered him to renounce his beliefs and to chant, “Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland! Thank President Xi!”
“The psychological pressure is enormous when you have to criticize yourself, denounce your thinking – your own ethnic group,” Bekali told Associated Press. “I still think about it every night … The thoughts are with me all the time.”
China denies the claims of mass incarceration, asserting that “re-education” is limited to religious extremists and criminals. The nationalist Global Times newspaper stated that the security crackdown in Xinjiang had ensured stability and that there was “no room for destructive Western public opinions”, which it said had undermined other countries.
“It’s a phase that Xinjiang has to go through in rebuilding peace and prosperity,” the newspaper said.
Publicly, at least, Canberra’s criticisms have been muted or non-existent. Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, told The Australian this week that “the government shares concerns expressed by the international community on the situation in Xinjiang”. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) stated earlier this year that it had raised concerns with China.
But Canberra’s willingness to confront Beijing over human rights violations appears to have lessened as China’s economic and trade ties have strengthened. Beijing has become less receptive, and Canberra, less assertive.
Back in 1997, when China was only the world’s seventh-largest economy (it is now second or first, depending on the measurement used), Australia began conducting a human rights dialogue with China. The dialogue, initiated by Australia, was held regularly in each country and discussed cases of concern. It also allowed for addresses by rights groups and discussion of specific human rights projects in China in which Australia could participate. According to DFAT statements, Australia raised topics such as the rights of women, children, the disabled and ethnic minorities, as well as issues surrounding freedom of speech and religious practice.
The fifteenth such meeting was held in Beijing in February 2014. Later that year, Australia began proposing arrangements for the sixteenth – to no avail, as China proposed downgrading the talks. So there has been no dialogue in more than four years.
DFAT has apparently not given up entirely, stating on its website: “Australia engages in bilateral dialogues with China, Vietnam and Laos.”
But many observers say the dialogue was itself a step down from previous efforts by Australia and other nations to raise human rights issues with China.
During the early 1990s, when China was the tenth- or eleventh-largest economy, Australia and other countries led numerous parliamentary human rights delegations to China. These efforts, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, led to formal intervention and UN oversight of human rights in the nation.
By 1997 China began to object to this scrutiny, and threatened potential trade and diplomatic payback against countries that acted against it in international forums. In place of parliamentary delegations, it agreed to low-level dialogues with countries such as Australia that expressed concerns over human rights. But this approach, to which Australia and several other nations consented, weakened the concerted global pressure on China.
Today, international efforts to confront China on its human rights record have further waned, despite its continued mistreatment of minorities and curbs on civil rights. Donald Trump has largely been silent on rights abuses – in China or in any other country – except when Americans have been victims. Earlier this year he pressured North Korea to release three Americans and imposed sanctions on Turkey following its detention of an American pastor. Some figures in the United States have been more vocal. Marco Rubio, a Republican senator who ran against Trump, has proposed placing sanctions on the officials behind the campaign in Xinjiang.
Such measures would likely lead to harsh responses from China, particularly against countries such as Australia, which lack the trade and military clout of the United States. But China’s rights abuses – along with its economic miracles and its success in lifting millions out of poverty – should be part of the conversation that leaders in Australia and elsewhere have with Beijing. The lack of a formal dialogue should not be replaced by silence.
Australia is doing very well from its relationship with China, but should consider those at whose expense the Communist Party makes its strides. Bekali and his million-plus fellow detainees are a grim reminder: whatever gratitude is due to China for contributing to global prosperity, no one should be forced to thank the Motherland – or to ignore its transgressions.