Why Muslim nations remain silent as China sends ethnic minorities to re-education camps

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Beijing’s crackdown on its ethnic Muslim-minority Uyghurs has been met with international condemnation, however some very significant voices have remained silent — those of Muslim nations.

Key points:

  • Muslim nations fear diplomatic and economic retaliation from China, experts say
  • Beijing has refrained from intervening in other countries’ domestic issues
  • Crackdown on Uyghurs and others have not deterred Muslim tourists visiting China

The United Nations estimates that up to 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other minorities have allegedly been detained in China’s northwest Xinjiang autonomous territory since 2017.

Experts say Muslim nations cannot be lumped into one category, however, there are a number of key similarities behind much of their silence — political, economic and foreign policy considerations.

China’s war on religion

China's war on religion

Banned bibles, burnt crosses, and re-education camps — denomination aside, religion is a dangerous pursuit in Xi Jinping’s China in 2018.

China policy expert Michael Clarke, from the Australian National University, told the ABC that China’s economic power and the fear of retaliation was a big factor in Muslim politics.

“You’re dealing with one of the most powerful states in the world,” Dr Clarke said.

“It’s ultimately a very unfortunate situation the Uyghur people find themselves in.”

In contrast, countries including Australia and the United States have publicly denounced Beijing’s actions in the region.

The Turkic-speaking ethnic minorities have been detained in ‘re-education’ camps and subjected to political indoctrination, including being forced to learn a different language and give up their faith.

Recent research reveals that the 28 detention facilities have expanded by more than 2 million square metres since the beginning of last yearand detainees have been forced to sew clothes for export to a US sportswear company.

A deafening silence

Two satellite images side-by-side from February and October 2018, showing buildings appearing.

Governments of Muslim-majority nations including Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia have avoided raising the matter publicly.

Pakistan has gone even further by defending China, saying the reporting on the Uyghurs’ situation has been “sensationalised” by Western media.

China’s frontier of fear

Satellite imagery lifts the lid on the size and spread of China’s internment camps, used to indoctrinate vast numbers of the Xinjiang region’s Muslim population.

The Indonesian Government has remained quiet on the topic until last week when the issue was brought up in parliament.

“Of course, we reject or [want to] prevent any human rights violations,” Jusuf Kalla, Vice-President of Indonesia, told local journalists on Monday.

“However, we don’t want to intervene in the domestic affairs of another country,” he said.

The statement is in stark contrast to the stance of Indonesia on other Muslim issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and the plight of the ethnic minority Rohingya in Myanmar.

However, the Foreign Ministry has now conveyed its concerns to China’s ambassador to Indonesia, amid growing pressure by domestic Islamic groups.

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, Malaysia and others have also repeatedly condemned the persecution of Rohingya Muslims and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

An economy 180 times bigger

A child stands near a large screen showing photos of Chinese President Xi in China's Xinjiang region.

Dr Clarke said China’s economy is 180 times bigger than that of a country such as Myanmar, making the latter a far safer target for criticism.

‘Like lambs waiting to be killed’

'Like lambs waiting to be killed'

Since last spring, several hundred thousand and possibly more than a million ethnic minorities — mostly Uyghur — in Xinjiang have been interned in mass detention facilities.

“In Myanmar, you’re dealing with a much weaker regional state which is much more open to pressure and international criticism,” he said.

Chinese investments and contracts in the Middle East and North Africa from 2005 until this year amount to $144.8 billion.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, it is $121.6 billion over the same period, according to think tank American Enterprise Institute.

Beijing has heavily invested in state-owned oil and gas industries in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and promises continued investments across Asia, Africa and the Middle East with its Belt and Road initiative.

“It [seems] to act as a break on any of those states from openly criticising Beijing,” Dr Clarke said.

A Chinese police officer stands in front of an armoured police vehicle.

Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups has not deterred Muslim tourists from travelling to China.

Muslim travellers spent more than $US8 billion($11.3 billion) in China this year, a figure that is expected to increase by $US1 billion ($1.4 billion) annually, according to a recent report from market research company Salam Standard.

China’s non-intervention stance pays off

Students from ethnic minorities give the Young Pioneer's salute to their teacher in a classroom.

Beijing’s policy of “non-intervention”, whereby it avoids becoming involved in the domestic affairs of other nations, has long been a key part of its foreign policy agenda.

But analysts say it is now paying off with Muslim countries reciprocating the favour.

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China has gone as so far as to repeatedly abstain from votes or use its veto power in UN security council meetings on many international interventions, such as proposed sanctions in Syria and in Myanmar.

“Many [Muslim nations] have their own internal issues whether its religious or ethnic minorities … so they are very loathe to criticise Beijing for its handling of its own problems given they have their own problems to deal with,” Dr Clarke said.

This case can be made for Turkey, which has spoken out against China on Xinjiang — a move Beijing has not forgotten.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the events in the restive province as “a kind of genocide” while Turkey also provided asylum for Uyghurs fleeing the region.

Beijing had extended an offer of support during this year’s economic crisis in Turkey, on the provision that Ankara didn’t release any “irresponsible remarks” related to Uyghurs or ethnic policy in Xinjiang — and no comments on the matter have been publicly made since.

“Unfortunately, it all comes down to the calculation of [whether] it’s of any benefit to us and our relationships with others more broadly,” Dr Clarke said

The Indonesian Government did not respond to requests for comment.

A map of Xinjiang and surrounding regions.