Few governments send ambassadors to China to be brave about human rights. Envoys to Beijing are scholars of realism, their fine minds applied to a delicate task: managing profitable relations with a deep-pocketed, unapologetic dictatorship.
It is, therefore, a big deal that at least 14 ambassadors from Western countries, led by Canada, have come together to confront China over its mass detentions of Muslims in the far-western region of Xinjiang, most of them ethnic Uighurs. Officials say the purpose is to stamp out extremism. In a letter leaked to Reuters, a news agency, the ambassadors have asked to meet Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party’s boss in Xinjiang. A hardliner transferred from Tibet, Mr Chen oversees a gulag into which perhaps a million Uighurs have been sent for “transformation-through-education”, many for indefinite periods without trial.
Millions more endure surveillance by facial-recognition cameras, smartphone scanners and police patrols at every turn. Some must host officials as houseguests, sent to assess their loyalties. China calls these measures vital after terrorist attacks carried out in recent years by Uighur fanatics.
It is revealing that China seems startled to find itself under ambassadorial scrutiny. It has some reason to be. Chinese officials cynically believe—and will say in private—that Western leaders and envoys raise human rights out of a sense of reluctant obligation, in order to placate activists and public opinion back home. This time, however, the charge is being led by ambassadors, not the public. Envoys in Beijing admit that most people in their countries have never heard of Xinjiang or the Uighurs. They also concede that some folk back home might have mixed feelings were they to learn that the Uighurs stand accused of terrorist leanings.
Xinjiang’s agonies are hardly a vital national interest for the first countries to sign the draft letter—Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, joined by the European Union. Instead, a Western diplomat sees a stark test of principle, asking: if we do not protest when a million people are detained without trial, when will we speak out? [Continue reading…]