Arab nations praise China’s Uyghur policies: Society is ‘harmonious,’ religion free

Muslim-majority nations reject Uyghurs in favor of national interests.
by Jewlan and Jilil Kashgary for RFA
2023.06.23
Arab nations praise China’s Uyghur policies: Society is ‘harmonious,’ religion free A delegation of diplomats and officials from the Arab League and its Secretariat visit a workshop making traditional ethnic musical instruments in Kashgar, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, May 31, 2023.
Credit: Gao Han/Xinhua via Getty Images

In showcasing two recent official visits to the Uyghur Region, China sent a chilling message to Uyghurs and their allies: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s oppressive policies are correct, and Arab countries support them. 

In a May 22-24 inspection visit to Kashgar and Urumqi, top policy advisor Wang Huning exhorted local officials to “completely and accurately implement” Xi’s Xinjiang policies, according to state-run Xinhua News

Those policies have included more than six years of mass detentions, long prison sentences and forced labor. They have been condemned by the United States as genocide, and by the United Nations as potential crimes against humanity. 

Shortly after Wang’s inspection, a delegation from the Arab League, a 22-member body of Arab nations that coordinate on regional issues, visited Xinjiang from May 30 to June 2. 

According to China’s Foreign Ministry, “members of the delegation said that Xinjiang’s society is harmonious, the economy is prosperous and Muslims freely exercise their ethnic and religious rights in accordance with the law.” 

The group visited Kashgar’s Id Kah Mosque, which has been open to tourists but largely off-limits to Muslim worshippers for years, as well as Kashgar’s Old Town, which the government has largely demolished in the name of earthquake prevention.

National interests 

The visits dismayed overseas Uyghurs and human rights activists, who said they underlined China’s confidence in its course of repression, and the eagerness of much of the world, including many Muslim nations, to cheer China on.

“It’s disappointing to see Muslim leaders from Islamic countries allow China to use them to hide [the] genocide of Turkic Muslims and other minorities,” said Robert McCaw, Government Affairs Department Director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

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The Arab League delegation visited Kashgar’s Id Kah Mosque, which has been open to tourists but largely off-limits to Muslim worshippers for years. Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images file photo

Siding with China – and remaining silent on the government persecution of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs – is apparently more in their national interests.

“Every country operates in their perceived best interest," McCaw said. “Right now, Muslim countries are covering for China because they think it’s in their economic interests.”

The Arab League did not respond to requests for comment. 

Setting the tone

Wang Huning is a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top political body, as well as chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Analysts have long viewed him as a close advisor and confidant to Xi Jinping. This was his first visit to the Uyghur region since taking direct charge of Xinjiang policy, as head of the Chinese government's Central Xinjiang Coordination Group. 

Wang emphasized to local officials that Xinjiang policies were “part of Central Party strategy, centered around Comrade Xi Jinping,” according to Xinhua. 

Wang added that Xinjiang’s stability and public order is of paramount importance, employing an idiom which literally means “heavier than Mount Tai,” a sacred peak in Shandong Province. He also told officials to “steadfastly advance the normalization and legal institutionalization of counterterrorism and stability maintenance,” Xinhua reported.

“What Wang Huning says is compatible with the fact that the regime is trying to portray a normalization on the surface, and a reduction of security on the surface,” said Adrian Zenz, senior fellow and director in China studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. “But underneath, the emphasis on total security is very much upheld.”

Wang also called the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a state-run paramilitary conglomerate sanctioned by the United States for rights abuses, “an important strategic force in achieving the overall goals of [the Party’s] Xinjiang work” whose functions should be given “full play.” 

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Wang Huning attends a session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 10, 2023.Credit: Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

According to researchers at Sheffield Hallam University, those functions have included extrajudicial internment and imprisonment, land expropriation, forcible migration of people, repressive, preemptive policing, social engineering, religious persecution and forced labor. 

Wang’s visit demonstrated both the confidence and the rigidity of the Communist Party’s Xinjiang campaign, according to David Tobin, lecturer in East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield.

“The Party-State now sees itself in command and is now acting more confidently,” Tobin said. “However, the fact that they have to send leaders to remind regional leaders to implement policy shows they are aware that this balance, this current peace, is precarious and potentially temporary because the problems the arbitrary detention system has created are massive”.

Cheering China on

The Arab League’s delegation to Xinjiang comprised 34 members from 16 countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. 

“The Xinjiang they saw was completely different from the portrayals of Western Media, [and] discourses like so-called ‘genocide’ and ‘religious repression’ are complete lies,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. 

Arab nations have long endorsed China’s repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. Non-Arab Muslim countries, meanwhile, have a more mixed record in speaking out for Uyghurs. 

Analysts peg this support largely to economics as well as authoritarian leadership. 

“We respect and support China’s rights to take counter-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said during a 2019 visit to China. 

China is the top importer of Saudi crude petroleum. It has also stepped up investments in the Middle East and North Africa under its Belt & Road Initiative.

Earlier support has faded

Earlier in China’s economic development, however, adherents of Salafism – the conservative school of Sunni Islam which predominates in Saudi Arabia – sought to build ties with Muslims in China. 

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Saudis financed mosque construction in China and encouraged Chinese Muslims to join in the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. 

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A delegation of diplomats and officials from the Arab League and its Secretariat visit the old town of Kashgar in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, May 31, 2023. Credit: Gao Han/Xinhua via Getty Images

Some Uyghurs took advantage of new access to the Muslim world, and relatively laissez-faire Chinese policies, to deepen their practice of Islam. But when China changed course, and started imprisoning Uyghurs for the religious practices Saudis and others had encouraged, Arab governments at best stayed silent, and at worst collaborated with China’s oppression.

At least six Arab governments – Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates – have detained or extradited an estimated 292 Uyghurs at China’s behest, according to a joint 2022 study by the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the Oxus Society for Asian Affairs. 

In July 2017, Egypt arrested more than 200 Uyghur residents, mostly students at the Islamic Al-Azhar University, and deported some to China. 

The Arab League delegation visited “an exhibition on Xinjiang’s anti-terrorism and deradicalization work” and praised “Xinjiang’s remarkable achievements in respecting and safeguarding human rights,” according to Xinhua

During his visit to Beijing last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas voiced support for China’s Uyghur policies. A joint statement issued by Xi and Abbas declared that “Xinjiang-related issues are not human rights issues at all, but anti-violent terrorism, de-radicalization and anti-separatism.” 

Translated and edited by Nadir; edited by Malcolm Foster.

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