In response to China’s clampdown on the former province Britain has embraced Hong Kongers, offering a path to UK citizenship for 3 million residents of the territory in the biggest humanitarian gesture by the country since 1972. But we must not forget the more numerous and more vulnerable Chinese mainland victims of Beijing’s authoritarianism: the Uighurs.
Through my humanitarian work with the UN and through my organisation, Charity Right, I’ve worked with refugees and the destitute around the world. But few communities are in as dire a situation as the inhabitants of China’s Xinjiang province, which they themselves often call East Turkestan owing to their Turkic (rather than Han Chinese) ethnicity. Working with Uighur refugee families on the ground in Turkey has shown me not only the tragedy of their situation, but the potential scope of its effects on Britain and Europe.
If we do not swiftly improve conditions for the persecuted Muslim minority, we should expect another refugee crisis in Europe, far larger than the crisis of 2014-2015.
Embracing Hong Kong, while continuing tacitly to accept mistreatment of Xinjiang’s Uighurs, is understandable. There are 3 million current or prior holders of Hong Kong BNO passports, but given that there are perhaps 25 million Uighurs there is no country or bloc in the world that could feasibly offer them sanctuary.
And Hong Kong is a relatively wealthy territory. Hong Kongers have been described by conservative commentators like Daniel Hannan as ‘enterprising’ – not an adjective commonly used with the Uighurs who are socially, economically and culturally boycotted by Beijing.
It’s inevitable that Western capitals would prefer that condemnation of China focused on Hong Kong not Xinjiang, because their efforts so far have exposed their impotence. In October, the UK and 22 other countries condemned China for its treatment of the Uighurs. The next day, 37 countries – almost half of which are Muslim-majority states – jumped to Beijing’s defence.
On the world stage money talks, and China is shouting. The second largest economy in the world is unlikely to take kindly to slaps on the wrist, in the same way that the US reacted indignantly at China’s criticism of its racist past. It is also time for Britain to stop moralising – no doubt China views Bloody Sunday in the same way that Britain views Tiananmen Square.
Rather than indulging in gesture politics, the West should understand Beijing’s position in the disputed region and engage with it to improve conditions.
The Bloody Sunday comparison is relevant, because China has been grappling with security issues in Xinjiang for many years. Separatist movements, with some having links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, have emerged.
China is an aggressively collectivist nation, built on notions of Confucian harmony and conformity, not the Enlightenment values of individualism and freedom. Being forced to sing the national anthem and speak Mandarin is, rightly or wrongly, par for the course in China, and it is perfectly possible that many Chinese officials genuinely see the Uighur internment camps as ‘re-education camps’.
Rationalising Beijing’s behaviour is not the same as justifying it – we must focus on the former, whilst avoiding the latter. The severity of the Uighurs’ mistreatment make it all the more essential that we engage with, rather than alienate, China.
As well as being in line with human rights and the values of freedom and pluralism that are often championed in European and North American capitals, this engagement is also in our self-interest.
It is a matter of time, on the current trajectory, until there is a mass exodus of Uighurs from China to Europe and North America. Just as the Syrian Regime was happy to see millions of their Sunni opponents outcast to the West, Beijing would likely not oppose the vacating of resource rich Xinjiang, allowing the Belt and Road Initiative to proceed through the region unhindered and ending by default international scrutiny of its behaviour in the province.
Already many Uighurs have sought asylum in Europe after entering via student or visit visas, or human traffickers.
The route to Europe is relatively straightforward: 74 countries offer visa-free or visa on arrival entry to Chinese nationals. All a Uighur refugee must do is book a ticket to an African nation with a transit in Europe, or to a Latin American country with a stopover in the US. While transiting, presenting oneself for asylum is relatively straightforward, and the well-documented treatment of Uighurs makes the likely success of these asylum claims high.
The only bottleneck in this is access to Chinese passports, the issuing of which in Xinjiang has been limited in recent years. All Beijing needs to do is reopen the passport offices, and their problem will quickly become Berlin’s, London’s or Washington’s.
Many in those capitals may hope that, as with the last crisis, it will become not their problem but Ankara’s. Turkey already hosts more refugees per capita than any other country, but we should not assume that Turkey will again act as the West’s humanitarian buffer.
Charity Right acts on the ground in Turkey, where 50,000 Uighur refugees currently reside. We are committed to providing food security and Turkish lessons to newly arrived refugees, many of whom are women and unaccompanied children. As well as the toll this takes on them, I have seen first hand the strains on Turkey’s economy, politics and society that comes with hosting the world’s largest refugee population.
To secure Uighur rights, create a new relationship with Beijing and protect Europe and North America from the toll of another migrant crisis, we need to keep the tragedy in Xinjiang a top priority in our dealings with the Chinese state. Hong Kong may be an easier nut to crack, but Xinjiang will be the defining factor in this generation of Western-Chinese relations.