Uighur are natives of Xinjiang province of China who are Muslims and regard themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations. Xinjiang province has been under the control of China since it was annexed in 1949 and many Uighurs still identify their homeland by its previous name, East Turkestan. There are around 11 million Uighurs in Xinjiang and China claims that Uighurs hold extremist views that are a threat to national security.
In 2017, the Xinjiang government passed a law prohibiting men from growing long beards and women from wearing veils and dozens of mosques were also demolished.
As per the report of UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Descrimination, the Chinese government has detained at least one million Uighurs in the detention camps in Xinjiang, China. After denying the existence of the camps for a long time, when the photos of the camps emerged, the Chinese government called them “re-education centres'' for Uighurs though the former detainees said they were detained, interrogated and beaten because of their religion, and not “re-educated.”
In July 2019 to the U.N. Human Right Council, 22 countries, mainly European countries, responded to “disturbing reports of large scale arbitrary detentions of Uighurs” and condemned the Chinese leadership.
Four days later, 37 countries, defended China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights” by protecting the country from “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.” The list of the 37 countries also included Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Qatar etc.
At the end of October 2019, 23 countries including France, the United Kingdom, United States denounced the repression of the Uighurs at the UN Committee on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs. Nevertheless, Beijing won the support of 54 countries, who praised the Communist Party’s management of Xinjiang.
In February 2019, Saudi Arabia showed their “respect” for Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader before they signed major commercial contracts with China. Egypt wants Beijing to finance its infrastructure and hence allowed the Chinese police to interrogate Uighur exiles on its soil in 2017. Pakistan, who has talked about the mistreatment of Rohingyas, has been silent on Uighurs since the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is going on in the country.
Even Iran, who issues occasional criticism wants support from China and hence keeps the criticism coded. “There is a lot of sympathy for the Uighurs in Turkey, but the reality is that Erdogan needs China as an ally for economic reasons and to counteract the West’s diplomatic pressure on issues like Syria,” said Rémi Castets, a political scientist.
In 2017, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation responded very differently to the Rohingya Crisis (Myanmar’s military crackdown on the country’s Rohingyas), where countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey defended the rights of the Muslim minority group in Myanmar and actively condemned the treatment of Rohingyas in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The question here arises is that contrary to the sentiments of their citizens, why do Muslim states stay silent over China’s abuse of the Uighurs?
Sophie Richardson, the director of China at Human Rights Watch, has a short and simple answer — there is less solidarity for Uighur than Rohingyas or Palestinians because China has managed to win these countries’ support due to its economic might.
Only time will tell how long these countries will continue to give preference to the economic interests over the anti-China sentiments of the citizens.