On his last day as US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo declared China’s human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region constituted “genocide” against ethnic Uighur Muslims. This outrageous declaration was the last of many that Pompeo has issued in a deliberate attempt to destroy relations with China on his way out of office.
Immediately after Pompeo issued this statement, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state Antony Blinken told the U.S. Senate that in his judgment Pompeo’s verdict of “genocide” was correct. He also made it clear that he was not about to try and repair relations with China. Speaking of Trump’s China policy, he said “I disagree very much with the way he went about it in a number of ways, but the basic principle was the right one and I think that’s very helpful to our foreign policy.” It’s about the only major area where he agreed with Trump’s policy.
China’s approach has two very different prongs. It wants to keep the door open for an eventual reset of relations with the Biden Administration, but is going out of its way to excoriate Trump’s. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “a new window of hope” was opening with the inauguration of Biden as president.
On the other hand, Chinese spokespeople have been extremely scathing concerning the outgoing Trump Administration. On 16 January a Xinhua commentary shouted “good riddance” to Trump and accused “certain U.S. politicians” of being without limit in their ignorance and prejudice against China’s successful development.
Immediately after the inauguration, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement sanctioning Pompeo and 27 others, including Stephen Bannon, Peter Navarro and John Bolton, all China hawks. It said: “These individuals and their immediate family members are prohibited from entering the mainland, Hong Kong, and Macao of China. They and companies and institutions associated with them are also restricted from doing business with China.”
The Ministry used strong language to justify this decision. It said that for years these 28 people had “planned, promoted and executed a series of crazy moves which have gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs, undermined China’s interests, offended the Chinese people, and seriously disrupted China-U.S. relations.” Incendiary perhaps, but accurate nonetheless!
In a press conference just after Pompeo issued his statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying went all out in attacking Pompeo. In response to questions from CNN, she described him as a “notorious liar and cheater” who is making himself “a doomed clown and a joke of the century with his show of lies and madness just before the curtain falls”. She also said his declaration on Xinjiang was “nothing more than a piece of waste paper”.
These are provocative words. But, to be fair to Hua, she also added quite a bit of concrete information that I would consider relevant to the question of genocide and human rights. She claimed, for instance, that Xinjiang’s life expectancy had gone up over the last 60 years or so from 30 to 72 and that, from 2010 to 2018, the Uighur population of Xinjiang had increased by 25.04 per cent as against 13.99 per cent for the whole of Xinjiang, and 2 per cent for the Han majority ethnic group. She said that the languages and traditional cultures of the ethnic minorities had been well protected. And she repeated the standard line that the camps so often called concentration camps in the Western media are in fact places of education aimed at lawful counter-terrorism and de-radicalization, “which effectively protected Xinjiang’s security and stability and residents’ safety”.
My own view is that China is right to promote de-radicalization. China has overreacted greatly in dealing with this issue, but considering the number of terrorist attacks that occurred since 1990 and especially over the years following major rioting in 2009 that killed about 200 people, Pompeo and his cohorts have also greatly exaggerated the situation in a way that suits their anti-China agenda. The advance in the standard of living among Uyghurs, which I have witnessed over quite a few visits to Xinjiang ranging in time from 1985 to 2018 I believe is indeed relevant to human rights.
And to call it “genocide” is completely ridiculous. There is a United Nations definition of genocide in a Convention of 1948. This definition is quite extensive, but the nub of it is specified acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” There is no such intent in any Chinese policy document, and the higher rate of growth in the Uighur population, as compared to the overall Xinjiang population, suggests that what is happening is anything but genocide.
Among the scholars to write the most damaging work on the situation in Xinjiang since 2017 is the German Adrian Zenz, whom Hua Chunying cites and castigates. She also brings in Australia, because several scholars in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, notably Vicky Xu, have written extensively on Xinjiang as well. Their work is extremely hostile to China, and Hua made a point of attacking them. Since ASPI is frequently mentioned in Pearls and Irritations, it is hardly necessary for me to point out that its funding comes from a range of sources, many military, many non-Australian and all of them extremely hostile to China. At a forum I attended recently, Vicky Xu spoke with pride about the American government research grants she had obtained.
The American, British and Australian governments have used human rights abuses and slave labour as excuses for sanctioning anything to do with Xinjiang. My view is that we do ourselves and the people of Xinjiang great damage if we go down that path. It will increase tensions and hatreds and achieve nothing.
I’d like to draw attention, with only minimal further comment, to two ironies. One is that on 21 January, the Chinese representative at the United Nations Human Rights Council attacked Australia on five grounds, the first being racism, hate speech and failure to protect the rights of ethnic minorities. This kind of argument about human rights abuses cuts more than one way. The second is that Twitter locked the account of China’s embassy in the United States for a tweet that defended China’s policy towards Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. The reason given was the tweet on Xinjiang violated Twitter’s stand against “dehumanizing” people. The Chinese Embassy suffered the same treatment as Donald Trump since his last days as president.
Certainly, the Biden Administration has a lot on its plate, including dismantling many of the most harmful of Trump’s initiatives. But it should expand cooperation with China and reset relations. As for Australia, it is against our interests as well as against common sense and realities to follow (hopefully) spent politicians like Pompeo.