MIKE SCRAFTON. Uighurs and glass houses

The West’s modern sensibility is rightly offended by the scale of Uighur incarcerations in Xinjiang the and the ruthlessness with which the Chinese government is pursuing the extermination of Uighur culture, language, and religion. To the contemporary mind these acts are repugnant. This notwithstanding, the darker episodes in European and American history nonetheless should be kept in mind when crafting condemnations of China.

The criticism of China’s Uighur policies from the political leadership of the Western democracies has been muted, only becoming audible since the recent leaking of the trove of documents. Shamefully, it has taken wide media coverage of this public confirmation of China’s transgressions to prompt Western leaders to condemn the treatment of the Uighurs. This criticism should have been quicker and clearer and uncompromising but any sense of intrinsic moral superiority or assertions that similarly malign acts cannot occur in a democracy should have been avoided.

The understanding of individual human rights and the valuing of the autonomy and dignity of human beings that were articulated and written into the UN Declaration of Human Rights were there at the insistence of the victorious Allies. Outside of Europe and North America these values received only nominal acceptance and perhaps to the majority of the world’s population were contrary to their accepted norms, beliefs, and standards. China does not recognise them.

Given the persistence of Jim Crow laws in the US and the ongoing wars of the Europeans to retain their colonies in Algeria, Vietnam, Southern Africa, the Congo, and Indonesia at the time there was a tinge of hypocrisy in this. These were the last remnants of two Western practices which were far more injurious to far more people than the present Chinese crimes; colonisation and slavery.

It is now quite shocking to read the US Congressional debates pertaining to slavery or to explore the dispossession, deculturisation, and extermination of native Americans. Not less than the Chinese today I suspect, many nineteenth and twentieth century American leaders, officials and legislators adhered to an ideology that justified outrageous acts against fellow human beings. It was an ideology based on racial notions that held white people as the superior race and as the carriers of a superior white ‘civilization’; notions that saw millions of Africans reduced to chattel status and a cultural genocide perpetrated on indigenous tribes.

The Chinese treatment of the Uighurs is, according to highly credible reports, cruel and inhumane, and is undeniably an assault on, and denial of, their liberty, autonomy and dignity. But it’s not comparable to the abominable institution of slavery. Slave-holders and believers in the reality of the natural racial hierarchy, and this included prominent politicians, clergy, philosophers, and scientists, denied Africans were fully human or that they possessed the innate intellectual or moral capacities to ever be equal with whites.

For most of the advocates of slavery even a forced re-education program for Africans along the lines of the Chinese in Xinjiang would have been futile. Even with the abolition of slavery a virulent strain of racism continued to infuse US public life. The ideas of racial superiority that bolstered slavery in the antebellum democracy have persisted in sections of American society beyond slavery’s abolition to find expression in segregationist policies, anti-miscegenation legislation, and today in white supremacist and white nationalist movements. It was only in 1967 that the US Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation legislation to be unconstitutional.

In December 1817 the US Secretary for War forwarded to the House of Congress a report on ‘the progress which has been made in the civilisation of the Indian tribes’. He advised that the Indians ‘must be brought gradually under our authority and laws, or they will insensibly waste away in vice and misery’. ‘It is impossible’, the Secretary declared, ‘with their customs, that they should exist as independent communities, in the midst of civilised society’. He recommended that they ‘should be taken under our guardianship; and our opinion, and not theirs, ought to prevail, in measures intended for their civilization and happiness’. Conclusions that would resonate with Xi Jiang’s attitude to the Uighurs.

First through removals, then reservations, the US government adopted ‘a strategy which sought to change Indian tribes politically, socially, and economically’. Like the Chinese approach to the ‘Uighur problem’, the US saw re-education and assimilation as the solution to the ‘Indian problem’. The ‘civilisation’ of the native Americans and the relentless colonisation of the American frontier saw their numbers decimated.

It would be possible to add to these past and unpardonable breaches of contemporary standards by adding an inventory of the transgressions of the European colonial powers as they sought to convert their pagan subject peoples around the world by stamping out cultural, social, and religious practises with which they disagreed. The harms from these policies persist.

Events across time in different nations and under differing circumstances are not directly comparable. However, some equivalence can be recognised in the nature and the scale of the harms suffered by the victims and the role played by intolerance for other ethnicities, cultures, and religions or by ideological views on racial or civilizational superiority. These are things that have yet to be fully expunged from western democracies and seem in fact to be growing.

The Uighurs do not deserve what the Chinese are doing to them any more than the Africans and native Americans did, or the millions and millions of colonial peoples. Our disapproval of the events in Xinjiang should be made clear. This should happen in a context where western nations are consistent in accepting their own difficult and uncertain journeys to recognition of human rights and one humanity. It should happen in a context where criticism is consistent and predictable in calling out wrong doing everywhere. Because if it’s selective for whatever reason it is meaningless and patently hypocritical.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.


Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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6 Responses to MIKE SCRAFTON. Uighurs and glass houses

  1. What “highly credible reports” of “the scale of Uighur incarcerations in Xinjiang the and the ruthlessness with which the Chinese government is pursuing the extermination of Uighur culture, language, and religion”? The New York Times? It outright lied in its headline that Xi declared “no mercy” against Muslims, when it was against terrorism. And it downplayed the horrific wave of terrorist attacks Xinjiang has suffered for decades. This article also ignores that 54 countries, many Muslim, which have inspected Xinjiang approve of China’s methods. China may be heavy-handed, as it is an authoritarian country, but to call it extermination is not just false, it is bizarre. For the decades the One Child Policy was in effect, China always exempted Uighur Muslims, to encourage them to maintain and increase their population. Do yourself a favour and watch China’s new documentary, Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang, which details the terrorism scourge China is trying to stop. https://youtu.be/BjgSOYRZqIo

  2. Malcolm Crout says:

    If there is no real comparison between eras then why make a comparison at all?
    If we want to play tit for tat, as European colonialization was in full force, the various Chinese regions were embarking on their own colonisation of peoples in Mongolia and Tibet, not to mention whittling away at the Pakistan border or the seizure of Japanese islands and vast areas along the Russian side of the fragile border. Nanking was the result of pushback after centuries of the Japanese being regarded as monkeys by the Chinese ruling class. No excuse, but there it is. At the time, these things were lawful according to various Governments, so the comparison is lost on me.
    To article seems to seek to temper Western voices about Chinese genocide in the 21st century. Am I missing something here? This view is abhorrent and should never have been raised.
    Genocide is genocide.

  3. Robin Wingrove says:

    One of the aspects of the treatment of the Uighars which has not had any mention is that there appears to be credible evidence that members of the Taliban from Afghanistan are being moved northward to infiltrate the Uighars and thus causing security concerns to the Chinese. Also, given that full sanctions were imposed on Iran against the wishes of both the EU and Russia after they had fully complied with the nuclear deal gives rise to the thought that now, with a weakened Iran and a near anarchist Afghanistan the means of attacking both Russia and China by the exporting of terrorists northwards could be greatly facilitated. In fact one of Putin’s concerns was with the spread of Islamic terrorism from the south and we don’t need reminding of the brutal suppression of the rise of terrorism in the Chechnen conflict that occurred within the boundaries of the old USSR. As such, I wonder if this too is another example of the west exporting terrorism to its adversaries, much like what has happened in Syria.

    Doing so would admirably suit the desires of those who oppose the Silk Road and the joining of Russia and China in a security matrix and the hope would be to weaken the positions of both countries to such an extent as to destroy the rise of these countries, thus enabling the continuance of the economic piracy currently being practised both within and without the Western alliance.

    Mind you, I am not at all condoning the treatment reportedly being meted out to the Uighars but I certainly agree with the tone of this article that by our own actions we are proving our hypocrisy once again (Medivac anyone?).

  4. Kien Choong says:

    It’s hard to understand why so little attention is given to the wellbeing of Palestinians, especially when there is so much the West can do to alleviate the injustice experienced by the Palestinians. The unwillingness to actually address the plight of the Palestinians undermines the moral force of any Western critique of how China treats its minorities.

  5. Chris Mills says:

    Australia might start with a recognition of the effects on the First Nations People of the Frontier Wars, contagious and lethal diseases and land dispossession post 1788 colonisation.

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