Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 6 October 2020


Western Allies Rebuke China at UN Over Xinjiang, Hong Kong

Updated on 
  • German envoy cites reports of forced labor, sterilization
  • China’s ambassador says it’s fighting terrorism in Xinjiang
Uighurs protest the 71st anniversary of the People's Republic of China in front of the White House on Oct. 1, 2020. 
Uighurs protest the 71st anniversary of the People's Republic of China in front of the White House on Oct. 1, 2020.  Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

A group of 39 countries including Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. stepped up criticism of China’s human rights record, denouncing Beijing at the United Nations for its treatment of ethnic minorities and for curtailing freedoms in Hong Kong.

“Widespread surveillance disproportionately continues to target Uighurs and other minorities, and more reports are emerging of forced labor and forced birth control including sterilization,” Germany’s ambassador to the UN, Christoph Heusgen, said Tuesday in a statement on behalf of the group at the UN General Assembly’s human rights committee.

On Hong Kong, he expressed “deep concerns” over cases being transferred for prosecution in mainland China, and urged authorities to guarantee rights including “freedoms of speech, the press and assembly.”

The international community has piled pressure on China over its treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, where the UN estimates hundreds of thousands of members of the ethnic minority have been held in “re-education camps.” Beijing has defended the camps as “vocational education centers” intended to “purge ideological diseases,” including terrorism and religious extremism.

A watchtower is seen on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, in Xinjiang, China, in 2019. Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

China’s allies at the UN shot back. Pakistan read out a statement on behalf of 55 countries, opposing interference “in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of Hong Kong” and expressing support for “China’s implementation of ‘one country, two systems.’” Cuba presented a statement on behalf of 45 countries “supporting China’s counterterrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang.”

“The Xinjiang issue is not a human rights issue, it’s not a religious issue or an ethnic issue,” China’s ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, said in a briefing on Monday. “The nature of the issue is counterterrorism.”

China is open to inviting independent observers so long as “they’re not there to prove China has done something wrong,” he said. “It should not be prejudged that China has violated human rights.”

European officials said countries came under immense pressure from China not to sign on to the statement on human rights violations.

“Countries do report to us a significant amount of pressure including significant amount of economic pressure,” Acting U.K. Ambassador to the UN Jonathan Allen said in a press briefing.

The Trump administration has already sanctioned several dozen companies and high-ranking officials over China’s forced detentions of Muslim Uighurs. Current and former suppliers to major international clothing brands including Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Nike have been hit by sanctions, while the Walt Disney Co. has faced boycott calls for filming part of its live-action “Mulan” film in Xinjiang.

The participating nations called Tuesday for China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and her office,” to refrain “from the arbitrary detention of Uighurs and members of other minorities,” and to “uphold autonomy, rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.”

“These countries took a stand despite China’s persistent threats and intimidation tactics against those who speak out,” said Louis Charbonneau, the UN director for Human Rights Watch. “Their growing outrage signals the urgent need for the UN leadership to create an international mechanism to monitor and report on the increasingly dire rights situation across China.”

The criticism comes as China’s ties with the West are at their worst in decades, with U.S. President Donald Trump making a tough stance on Beijing a key theme of his re-election campaign against former Vice President Joe Biden. China’s national security laws on Hong Kong have also outraged many in Europe for what they see as an attack on democracy.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Tuesday called on three other Indo-Pacific democracies to band together against coercion from China, in a bid to keep pressure on Beijing amid the coronavirus crisis rocking Washington. The so-called Quad -- also including Australia, India and Japan -- held its second ministerial-level meeting in Tokyo Tuesday, in an event expected to help firm up New Delhi’s participation in the group.

(Updates with Secretary of State Pompeo in last paragraph.)

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