THE drone footage showed hundreds of men, shaved, blindfolded, shackled. Western countries saw this as evidence of what is being termed as ‘genocide’ against Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in China. For China and its allies, this was fake news, another example of Western hypocrisy.
Efforts to hold China to account for its treatment of Uighurs are gaining momentum. The US has imposed targeted sanctions against party officials implicated in rights abuses. The UK’s foreign secretary has accused China of “egregious” human rights abuses. France wants international observers to be permitted access to Xinjiang.
China is allegedly detaining between one and two million Uighurs and other minorities in ‘re-education’ camps. There are reports of torture and forced sterilisation of women. Uighurs are subject to constant surveillance and restrictions on their religious beliefs, cultural practices and movement. China denies allegations of rights abuses, instead arguing for the need to protect national security. It says the camps are vocational training centres established under a CT programme.
The timing of Western outrage against Uighur oppression — of which evidence has been mounting in recent years — will justifiably raise eyebrows. It is a barometer of the rapid deterioration of relationships between the US and its Western allies and China.
This deterioration has less to do with human rights and more to do with China’s growing political and security assertiveness, most recently manifest in the imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong. The Uighur card is being deployed as tensions mount over trade deals, the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and cybersecurity concerns linked to Huawei’s capture of the global telecoms market and Chinese espionage.
Western countries want more targeted sanctions and increased pressure on international companies to ensure their supply chains are not exposed to China’s enforced labour programmes. The latter is no small ask. Take the fashion industry, for example: one in five cotton garments sold globally contains materials from Xinjiang. Given the challenges of assessing supply chains, corporations are likely to opt out of sourcing from China.
Pakistan will, of course, remain silent as this issue intensifies. This is not surprising; as Prime Minister Imran Khan has himself said, China has aided Pakistan when it has been at “rock bottom”, so Islamabad will not publicly shame Beijing on its Uighur track record (though he implied concerns may be raised privately).
A similar approach is likely across many Muslim-majority countries and others seeking investment under the Belt and Road Initiative. Pakistan in July last year was joined by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE among other Muslim countries to block a UN motion calling for international observers to visit Xinjiang.
But Pakistan’s refusal to publicly acknowledge the Uighur issue means that it must control public discourse on this topic too. This will increase the impetus for Pakistan’s censorship regime, already in overdrive. The establishment had already discouraged critique of CPEC; it will hardly exert much energy in maintaining an unspoken ban on raising Uighurs’ plight.
This is not to say that Pakistan’s growing culture of censorship is entirely attributable to increasing Chinese influence; the powers that be have long desired to control national narratives. But free speech opponents will be grateful for a patron that shares their disdain for dissent.
Silence on Uighurs will also cost Pakistan credibility on the Kashmir issue. Khan has previously argued that the scale of the two issues is different. But this argument will not be enough if Pakistan wants to be perceived as a genuine champion of Muslims’ and human rights when speaking on Kashmir. Given that the audience for pleas for Kashmiri rights is in the West, and not China, Pakistan will face pressure to be consistent.
There are also future security implications. We have previously aided China’s crackdown on Uighur separatists and terrorists, including by ensuring that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement could not establish bases in north-western Pakistan. If the Uighur situation worsens, there is potential for regional militant groups that are ideologically committed to protecting Muslims to further ally with the Uighur cause. Pakistan may then face retaliation.
More broadly, China’s growing tensions with the West herald what is being described as the next cold war, one defined by a fragmentation of global cyber infrastructure and supply chains, and marked by a divide between authoritarianism and populist democratic politics. As this polarisation deepens, Pakistan is on track to side with China.
Ironically, we are further along on this journey than we realise; there is no space to debate whether this is the best course for Pakistan.