Foreign Affairs

NZ looks for ways to raise concerns over Xinjiang

Last week, imprisoned Uighur activist Ilham Tohti was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought and the defence of human rights. Laura Walters reports on how New Zealand has responded to the human rights abuses in Xinjiang and asks why the Chinese Government had not invited Kiwi diplomats on one of its controlled tours.

In July, New Zealand joined 21 other countries in co-signing a letter to the head of the United Nations Human Rights, criticising the treatment and detention of Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang Province.

The letter came off the back of mounting concerns about the detention of at least one million Muslims in internment camps, which the Chinese Government refers to as “re-education” or “vocational education” centres.

The document, which was delivered to the head of the UNHRC in July, said the signatories were concerned about credible reports of arbitrary detention in large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions on Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.

“We call on China to uphold its national law and international obligations and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

New Zealand’s decision to join the international rebuke (which now includes the names of 24 countries) also came amid growing pressure for the Government to publicly denounce China’s actions in Xinjiang.

Ahead of this, there had been criticism of Jacinda Ardern’s lack of public reprimand of China’s mass detention of Muslim minority groups.

However, official documents show foreign affairs officials and diplomats have long been discussing concerns behind the scenes and actively looking for ways to raise the issue through bilateral and multilateral channels.

Ahead of the letter, the prime minister directly raised the issue in Wellington in September 2018, with visiting Politburo member and Guangdong Province Party Secretary Li Xi, then in November with Premier Li Keqiang during a bilateral at the East Asia Summit, and again in April with President Xi Jinping, upon her trip to China. New Zealand also spoke about its concerns during China’s periodic review at the UN in November 2018, which China immediately pushed back against, saying other countries should stay out of its domestic affairs.

One MFAT briefing said New Zealand public concern regarding the treatment of Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities was refocused and heightened by the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch, which occurred just two weeks ahead of Ardern’s inaugural visit to China.

Briefing notes included media talking points for the prime minister, which covered familiar territory, including that New Zealand was concerned about reports the situation on the ground in Xinjiang remained unchanged.

“China’s ‘Strike Hard’ campaign in Xinjiang continues, despite sustained global condemnation and media coverage regarding human rights abuses in the region.

“Reports continue to estimate that over one million of the 12 million-strong population of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have been detained at some point, with the US government recently suggesting that the figure was as high as three million.”

They emphasised New Zealand strongly supported human rights mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council, and made the point that officials and the Government would continue to raise its concerns directly with China.

“As we have discussed on many occasions, our relationship is mature enough that we can manage differences constructively and in a mutually respectful manner.”

These points were in line with what had been said publicly by Ardern on numerous occasions, and couched in diplomatic niceties.

But other internal briefing notes took a more direct line. One from June said:

“China’s ‘Strike Hard’ campaign in Xinjiang continues, despite sustained global condemnation and media coverage regarding human rights abuses in the region.

“Reports continue to estimate that over one million of the 12 million-strong population of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have been detained at some point, with the US government recently suggesting that the figure was as high as three million.”

It was clear New Zealand officials put more weight on the torture, surveillance and detention reports from the US Government, than the Chinese Government line.

China pushes back

While New Zealand had been raising the issue behind closed doors for some time, the public nature of the letter resulted in a two-pronged pushback from the Chinese Government.

On the one side, China hit back at the letter, aiming to discredit what it called a “Western bias”.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party also scaled up its information campaign through engaging with media, and running official visits to Xinjiang for media and diplomats.

In response to the letter, a China Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said “certain countries wantonly criticised and smeared China in total disregard of the truth”.

While this statement did not specifically name countries, subsequent reports by state media did single out some of the signatories, including New Zealand.

The MFAT briefing documents referred to the article in the “harder-line state tabloid” the Global Times, which took a similar line on “Western bias”, and then quoted an academic who used the Christchurch terror attack as an example to back up China’s so-called de-radicalisation and anti-terrorism approach in Xinjiang.

Image: Satellite picture of Xinjiang camps taken from Google Earth

“Recent terrorist attacks that happened in developed countries, including a gun rampage in New Zealand in March, in which a right-wing gunman attacked two mosques and killed 51, showed that some developed countries are facing problems in dealing with immigrants and [coping] with terrorism threats in their own countries," [the academic] said.

The article also included the quote: “Instead of focusing on solving their own problems, they criticise China's policies in Xinjiang, which has helped bring stability and peace to the region and effectively protect local residents' rights to safe life and development.”

This was not the first time Chinese state media had used the Christchurch attacks to try and justify the CCP’s actions in Xinjiang.

As part of the CCP’s efforts to communicate its stance on Xinjiang, it had also taken diplomats on controlled state-funded trips to Xinjiang.

However, these special invitation trips have not included New Zealand.

“The Embassy has not been invited on the government’s recent series of officially organised Xinjiang ‘invitation tours’," MFAT noted.

However, in a statement to Newsroom, an MFAT spokesperson said officials have periodically visited Xinjiang, and last visited in 2017.

The charm offensive

About two weeks after New Zealand put its name to the public letter, the political attaché from the Chinese Embassy in Wellington invited a group of journalists to lunch, where he and a colleague disseminated printed propaganda on China’s human rights record in the region.

The booklets, named 'The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang and Human Rights Record of the United States in 2018', are printed by Chinese Communist Party publishers China Intercontinental Press and Foreign Language Press.

The material includes information on religious extremism, the history of Xinjiang, and China’s “constructive attempt for the international community in countering terrorism and eradicating extremism, while balancing human rights considerations”.

It sticks to the Chinese Government line that the camps are actually “voluntary vocational education centres”, which enable those affected by extremist thought to realise “life can be so colourful”.

It says all de-radicalisation efforts have been legal, while removing an environment that bred extremism.

The books spoke about teaching people Mandarin, as well as Chinese history, culture and legal principles, in order to cultivate trainees’ awareness of “nation, citizenship and the rule of law”.

China said the centres were effective, and “best practice”, because there had been no violent attacks in the past 21 months.

New Zealand journalists were also offered a Chinese state-funded trip to Xinjiang during the lunch.

The material given to Wellington-based journalists by Chinese government officials in New Zealand. Photo: Laura Walters

Similar trips have been offered to global media, and while Chinese state media had published extensive reports in line with the Government’s line.

But as outlined in the MFAT briefing documents, international media remained highly critical of the Chinese Government’s actions, “with increasing evidence contradicting China’s official narrative”.

Over recent months, there has been a steady flow of news stories condemning China’s mass imprisonment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the autonomous region.

These include reports of torture, backed up by military procurement documents that reportedly included tasers, stun guns and spiked clubs.

There was also growing concern about the sterilisation of women.

And recent reports of companies and countries turning away imported clothing manufactured at the camps, has drawn attention to forced labour.

In a statement to Newsroom, MFAT reiterated many of the talking points and positions in the briefing documents, including how and when officials and the Government had raised concerns with China.

"New Zealand regularly raises human rights issues with China, including through dedicated human rights discussions. We use these opportunities to explain the importance that New Zealand attaches to human rights standards.

"We continue to emphasise our strong support for religious freedom and our long-standing opposition to arbitrary detention. We will continue to urge greater transparency and access for independent international observers, and raise our concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang with the Chinese Government at all levels," the statement said.

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