Is China buying Middle Eastern silence over the treatment of Uyghurs?

Anet McClintock | Middle East and North Africa Fellow


In early 2017, Egyptian Interior Minister Magdy Abd al-Ghaffar and Chinese Deputy Public Security Minister Chen Zhimin met to discuss ‘extremist organisations’. A month later, 30 Uyghur students were arrested in Cairo, destined for deportation to China. That same year, Egypt signed a US$1.2 billion (AUD $1.72 billion) deal with two Chinese state owned companies to build a light rail around Cairo.

Egypt is considered one of the key countries at the heart of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Not only does the country possess key locations on international trade routes, such as Port Said and the Suez Canal, but the country holds historical significance as one of the countries along the old ‘Silk Road’.

But China’s ambitions with its ‘Belt and Road’, the one trillion dollar undertaking involving more than 138 countries, has particular significance in the Middle East. The region lies at the heart of the European, Asian and African continents, and is a crucial link for China’s overland Silk Road Economic Belt.

This has translated to significant investment by China in Middle Eastern countries. Most countries, with the exception of Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, have signed documents relating to the BRI. There has been a notable uptick in trade between MENA countries and China since the start of the BRI in the early 2010’s.

One example of this increased investment is in Egyptian infrastructure projects. The two countries signed a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ in 2014, one of only five countries to have such a high-level agreement. China has also established its infamous Confucius Institute in Egypt to promote Chinese language and learning.

During the 2010s, the decade that China shifted its Middle East and North Africa (MENA) policy to engage key countries to support the BRI, it also became clear that China was launching a campaign of oppression against its Uyghur Muslim population. The first half of the 2010s saw a fierce crackdown on Uyghur communities, under the guise of national security.

The measures became increasingly tyrannical, as China confiscated the passports of Uyghur people, and banned long beards and veils, deeply significant cultural and religious signifiers for the Muslim community in China. In 2018, it became clear to the international community that China was holding as many as one million Uyghurs in ‘re-education’ camps. More than thirty countries, including the US, Germany and Canada have condemned the imprisonment of China’s Uyghurs, many of whom are kept there illegally and without charge, with some being used as forced labour for major international fashion labels. MENA countries, have been inexplicably silent however.

One alternative explanation for the uncomfortable silence from MENA countries, is their desire to avoid shining a light on their own human rights violations. In its annual report, Human Rights Watch outlined a host of human rights infringements by MENA countries, most notably the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the continued restrictions of freedom for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

While this may certainly be a contributing factor, MENA countries are not afraid to criticise human rights abuses in countries like America and Israel, when it suits their political and economic objectives. It is for this same reason that the argument, that Muslims in Xinjiang are just too culturally and ethnically different to Muslims in MENA for these countries to care, does not hold much water. An example is the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation calling for United Nations intervention in the genocide against Muslims in Myanmar in 2017, but has ‘spoken positively’ about China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims.

Perhaps no other country exemplifies the compelled silence under China’s economic fist as well as Turkey. Under pressure from Turkey’s large Uyghur community, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been very vocal about China’s treatment of its Uyghur population. In early 2019, Turkey’s foreign ministry even went as far to call China’s policy “a great cause of shame for humanity”.

However, in 2019, under diplomatic pressure from China on one side, and fiscal pressure from a crumbling domestic economy on the other, Erdogan went back on his previous statements, and provided tacit support for China’s policy. It was also around this time that Turkey began to push for a ‘Middle Corridor’ on the Belt and Road that would connect Asia and Europe, and would pump millions of dollars into the Turkish economy through infrastructure projects and trade routes.

An important distinction also has to be made – that silence from the top levels of government in MENA countries does not mean the citizens in these countries are not deeply concerned about what has been happening in Xinjiang. In December 2019, thousands marched through Ankara in support of the plight of Uyghur communities in China. But these protests are becoming increasingly rare as China extends its economic grip over MENA countries.

As many countries are starting to rethink their dependence on China, the governments of MENA countries need to ask themselves if they are willing to stay silent regarding horrific human rights abuses against Muslims in return for economic benefits. While MENA countries have the right to respect what occurs in the sovereign borders of a foreign nation, MENA countries have shown on multiple occasions that they are willing to highlight abuses being committed against Muslims. China’s wolf warrior diplomacy and economic bullying should not prevent MENA countries from speaking out this time either.


Anet McClintock is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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