In a recent statement to the United Nations, 37 countries came together to defend China, commending the country’s human rights record and denying rampant allegations of its persecution of Uighur Muslims. Of this list, close to half of the signatories came from Muslim nations.
China has simply “undertaken a series of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang,” the letter claims. The re-education camps, which has garnered media coverage in recent years, were referred to as “vocational education and training centers.” The letter rounded off its argument by citing the lack of terrorist attacks in the region over the past three years, according to Reuters.
On July 15, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said that China appreciates these countries in their fair assessment of the situation.
The letter prompts a number questions. Above all, it has left many wondering: why are certain Muslim-majority countries defending China?
The Uighurs have been subjected to a number of atrocities in the city of Xinjiang, where the Turkish minority have lived for centuries. Children and adults alike have been taken from their homes, sent to re-education camps and stripped of many facets of their religion. Some reports have described Uighurs being forced to eat pork, which is strictly forbidden in Islam. Others have outlined the horror of families being split up and children being taught to lose their Muslim identities.
The answer perhaps lies not only in China’s worldwide influence but also in the political and economic ties that it has forged with many of these nations.
Take Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is still facing a global backlash over journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, which occurred in October 2018. Despite this, Beijing pulled out all the stops during Bin Salman’s trip to China’s capital this February.
During their meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Salman, “China is a good friend and partner to Saudi Arabia. The special nature of our bilateral relationship reflects the efforts you have made.”
Subsequently, Saudi Arabia signed economic agreements with China amounting to $28 billion.
In her analysis for CNN, producer Tamara Qiblawi primarily cites that countries such as Saudi Arabia are looking to protect their own futures.
“China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest trading partner. Seen through an economic lens, the Crown Prince’s backing of Beijing amid his own PR quagmire—even if China is indeed systematically abusing the human rights of Muslims in its country—is perhaps not surprising,” Qiblawi stated.
China is currently Saudi Arabia’s biggest trade partner. Countries like Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, who also supported China in the UN letter, likewise depend on Chinese trade for economic uplifting.
“Economic interests reign supreme… Ideological differences proved no barrier to doing business,” Qiblwai wrote. The obvious need for strong economic relations with the superpower that is China has seemingly trumped “religious differences.”
Leaders of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan either have power to gain from China’s friendship, or they have value to lose in condemning the Chinese government. Azeem Ibrahim, a director at the Center for Global Policy, alleges that condemning China is taboo in Pakistan. Ibrahmin further believes that China is “very convenient for [these countries] politically.”
As critics like Qiblawi and Ibrahmin have pointed out, these countries seem to be operating under political motivations. These Muslim countries’ exoneration and denial of China’s human rights violation appear to be politically driven, more so than being representative of the Muslim majority.
Over a dozen African states were also present on the list supporting China. As reported by Quartz Africa, each of these countries economically shares a symbiotic relationship with China.
Angola and Nigeria, for instance, have reportedly been given billions of dollars by China, for infrastructure projects. Egypt and Nigeria were amongst the largest buyers of Chinese goods in 2017, according to John Hopkin University's China-Africa Research Initiative. The Observatory of Economic Complexity reports that 95 percent of South Sudan’s exports in 2017 went to China.
Quartz also noted that many of the countries on the list are responsible for respective internal conflicts. In Egypt, President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi has been condemned worldwide for an oppressive rule and for silencing the media. In South Sudan, a political crisis led by the military has left much of the country in outrage.
The defense China has received from these countries—Muslim or not— reveals a greater reality: the convenience of supporting China will benefit several countries at significant socioeconomic and political levels. This, apparently, outweighs the plight of the Uighurs.