Bad news about China’s persecution of the Uighurs has been coming thick and fast.
In October, the Citizen Power Institute released a report on the use of forced labor. The report finds that up to 1 million imprisoned Uighurs and members of other Muslim ethnic groups have been made to work in China’s cotton value chain, which produces cotton, textiles, and apparel. In November, the New York Times released more than 400 pages of internal Chinese government documents that exposed how China organizes the mass detention of Uighurs.
On July, 22 countries issued a joint statement criticizing China for "disturbing reports of large-scale arbitrary detentions" and "widespread surveillance and restrictions" of Uighurs and other minorities in the country's Xinjiang region. The next day, 37 countries, nearly half of them Muslim-majority and none of them democracies, defended China's human rights record and dismissed the reported detention of up to 2 million Muslims.
Azeem Ibrahim of the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute has pointed out that the acquiescence of Muslim-majority countries illustrates “’Muslim solidarity’ is a convenient and effective slogan to be thrown at domestic audiences” but, when push comes to a shove from China, you can “forget about the umma.”
This is a serious issue, not a provocation like Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. Why are leaders in the Islamic world refusing to take a stand?
Two reasons stand out immediately. First, faith leaders in the Islamic world probably reckon it is futile to chastise the Communist Party of China for actions taken against a non-Han people practicing what the Party sees as an “illegal superstition”. China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, isn’t some Danish cartoonist -- there would be consequences for speaking out.
Continuing in that pragmatic vein, the Saudi Aramco IPO is looking parlous and oil prices are below the $65-per-barrel price Aramco uses to builds its financial assumptions. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, known as MbS, needs money to complete Saudi Vision 2030, but he would prefer that money to have no strings attached to concerns about human rights -- so, enter the dragon. China has stepped up as a source of capital as the kingdom tries to shift its economy away from energy exports. Xi recently said China was taking a “strategic high view and long-term perspective,” meaning let’s agree not to talk about Uighurs or Jamal Khashoggi. MbS reciprocated by endorsing China’s policies: “We respect and support China’s rights to take counter-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security.”
And it’s not just the Saudis. “Nobody knows nothin’” seems to be the operating principle when someone says “Uighur”.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially criticized Beijing, but recently muted his comments. With economic relations stalled with the United States and the European Union, the economy weak, and the U.S. Congress threatening sanctions for Russian defense purchases and Turkey’s incursion into Syria, Turkey will continue its turn east. In June, China’s central bank gave Istanbul a $1 billion cash injection, and in August the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China provided a $3.6 billion loan package for Turkey’s energy and transportation sectors.
Pakistan’s normally voluble Prime Minister Imran Khan could only say “[f]rankly, I don’t know much about that” when asked about the plight of the Uighurs, but that may be because of China’s planned investment of $62 billion in ports, infrastructure, industry and energy-generation facilities in Pakistan. And while Pakistan’s Islamist militants as a rule are always ready to raise the issue of persecuted Sunnis, on the issue of Xinjiang’s Uighurs all we get is a “deafening silence.”
Money matters, but it isn’t all about cash. The governments friendly to Beijing know that supporting human rights for Uighurs will lead their own citizens -- even worse, their countries’ religious minorities -- to demand human rights of their own.
China-friendly governments may be successfully dealing with some short- or medium-term cash-flow problems, but they are eroding their legitimacy as defenders of the faith. Into the breach may step groups like the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which may inspire youth, radicals, and the devout.
ETIM was designated a terrorist organization in 2002 by the United States and the United Nations. The U.S. designation might have come in exchange for China’s support for the U.S. attack on Iraq. China’s actions have been ETIM’s best recruiting sergeant. If ETIM narrows its target list to Chinese officials and installations, it may find blind eyes being turned as it takes the fight to its enemies in China and ignores the governments in Central and South Asia.
Uighurs with combat experience in Syria and Afghanistan will want another mission, and fighting is more fun than farming. These new mujahedeen will be ready to fight a Communist regime that suppresses their religion and culture.
What are some lessons for Washington?
First, if the United States thinks a foreign-policy initiative makes sense, despite disapproval from some Muslim countries, press ahead. The Trump administration may be testing this idea by moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and reversing the U.S. position on the illegality of Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
And, if China wants troublemakers like Pakistan as allies, let Beijing have them.
What should the U.S. do?
First, sincerely warn China of the trouble that lies ahead if a serious terrorist campaign is kicked off by ETIM or a likeminded group. Remind them that their policies may lead to a situation wherein nearby countries offer only perfunctory responses to Chinese demands for counter-terrorism assistance, especially if the terrorists only hit Chinese targets. China will ignore any warnings by the Americans, but Washington will know that it tried.
Provide political support for Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan for refusing to return fleeing Uighurs to China, but follow their lead on how much publicity to give the effort. (Use your “inside voice,” America.) If China cancels investments in Central Asian countries as retaliation, support offsetting development assistance from the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Asian Development Bank, and the Islamic Development Bank.
Then, consider allowing the 22 Uighurs who were held at the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp but found to be "no longer enemy combatants" to settle in the United States. It’s likely the Chinese snookered the Americans in the aftermath of 9-11 by portraying all Uighur activists as terrorists, which landed 22 of them in Gitmo for over a decade. In 2009, Congress opposed President Barack Obama’s plan to resettle two Uighurs in the United States. Ten years later, it’s time for Congress to show that its concern for the Uighurs is more than press-release deep.
Highlight that the United States continues to be the world’s leading advocate of religious freedom for all, even as the Organization for Islamic Cooperation bent to China’s will and commended it for “providing care to its Muslim citizens”.
Last, continue work on a trade deal with China, while continuing to sanction Chinese entities that use forced Muslim labor. Then, deal or not, on November 4, 2020, increase the pressure even more.
James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. The views expressed are the author's own.