On July 8, 2019, a group of 22 predominantly Western countries issued a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning China for their oppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Days later, 37 developing countries, many of which are Muslim-majority, came together and wrote a different letter to the UNHRC, “commend[ing] China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights,” in reference to their policies in Xinjiang. While it’s initially shocking to see how so many (especially Muslim) countries are coming to China’s defense over their egregious violation of Uyghur human rights, it cannot be divorced from China’s burgeoning global influence.

The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority group in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang. They are culturally, religiously, and linguistically similar to their Central Asian neighbours, and many are geographically located closer to Baghdad than they are to Beijing. For decades, they have wished for independence, pushing the East Turkestan independence movement. The movement has often taken the place of violent uprisings and revolts, notoriously the 2014 terrorist knife attack at the Kunming Railway Station, which left 31 dead. 

Bolstered by the global “War on Terror” following the September 11, 2001 attack in the United States, China engaged in a crackdown on perceived terrorism. In reality, Muslims across the country were used as a scapegoat for growing unrest and the Chinese Communist Party took advantage of this opportunity to assert their power and quash dissent. 

In recent years, the CCP campaign against the Uyghurs has ramped up, with widespread surveillance, the stripping of religious freedoms, and mass incarceration. To date, it’s estimated that more than one million Uyghurs have been detained in concentration camps, which China calls “re-education centers.” In the camps, they are subjected to torture, sexual abuse, and forced labour – the largest mass internment of an ethno-religious group since World War II. 

Of the 37 countries that expressed their support for China’s Uyghur policies, 14 are Muslim-majority, including Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and the United Arab Emirates. This is highly inconsistent with the trend of global Islamic solidarity we’ve observed throughout history, from Palestine to Kosovo to Myanmar. 

Since 1969, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has existed as the embodiment of pan-Islamism, founded on the principle of ummah, a central tenet of Islam that advocates for the unity of Muslims across the world. However, not only has the OIC failed to condemn China, they have actually offered explicit praise and support. A November 2019, OIC resolution reads that the OIC “commends the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens; and looks forward to further cooperation between the OIC and the People’s Republic of China.”

In recent years, China has pumped the equivalent of billions of U.S. dollars into the economies of many Muslim-majority countries across the world through the Belt and Road Initiative. China has fixed its eyes on the Middle East in order to secure access to the region’s energy sources since the mid-1990s. By 2016, China was the biggest investor in the region, pledging $29.5 billion worth of loans and contracts to Arab countries. 

In a world where China’s power is exponentially growing, it’s simply too expensive to condemn or criticize their actions – especially in the realm of human rights. When conducting trade with China, it seems that their only major requirement is to stay out of their business, and in turn, they’ll stay out of yours. For many of the poorer Muslim countries, the prospect of trading with China and receive potentially billions of dollars in investment is an enormous opportunity to climb up the global hierarchy. So, religious, cultural, and human rights imperatives have taken the back burner. 

Pakistan, for instance, has long maintained close ties with China, and often positions itself as a champion of global Muslim struggles. Pakistan has received massive amounts of funding from China and its economic future rests increasingly in the $62 billion USD China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Criticizing China has become a taboo in Pakistan, and Prime Minister Imran Khan has refused to address China’s treatment of the Uyghurs while simultaneously referring to the treatment of Muslims in India’s Jammu and Kashmir as an “impending genocide.”

It is evident that countries are growing increasingly willing to abandon long-standing religious and cultural bonds in order to receive billions of dollars in trade and investment from China. The fact that so many Muslim countries have offered support for China’s oppression of the Uyghurs certainly sets a frightening precedent for what the future of international affairs and alliances will look like as China’s economic and political power continues to grow and permeate global markets. 


Sign a Stop Genocide petition to encourage the U.S. Congress to pressure the CCP to put an end to Uyghur concentration camps. Sign here

Donate to the the World Uyghur Congress to promote the preservation of Uyghur culture. Donate here

Dorothy Settles

Dorothy’s work focuses on social movements, climate change, and conflict across Turtle Island and Southeast Asia. Originally from Arizona, she currently lives in Paris, where she is pursuing a master's...

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