How China is Wooing the Muslim World
Beijing is turning up the charm (and the development funds) to escape blame for its treatment of the Uighurs.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the largest multilateral body claiming to represent the global Ummah, hosted a virtual meeting in honor of Kashmir Solidarity Day last Friday. In it, representatives from Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Niger and Azerbaija expressed their “unwavering” support for movements for Muslim self-determination in the Himalayan region where four of the most populous regions out of the six are disputed by India and Pakistan.
Somehow, they neglected to denounce the government of China. Beijing is responsible for the administration of Kashmir’s easternmost provinces and is currently busy interning over three million Uyghurs in concentration camps.
When it comes to the pertinent issue of China’s extreme policies toward Uyghur Muslims, now designated as a genocide by the U.S. administration, the OIC regularly offers direct praise and deference to the state responsible. In fact, in a July 2019 statement, over a dozen OIC member states co-signed a letter which “commended China’s achievements in the field of human rights.” Yet Uyghur exiles are being arrested and deported across the Middle East, and Turkey is currently waiting to finalize the extradition treaty it struck with China in December, which would put its 100,000 Uyghur diaspora at high risk of deportation and death.
It’s easy to spot one factor behind the OIC’s dangerous double standards: money. The “Belt and Road’’ Initiative (of which the attempt to decimate and subjugate the Uyghurs is an unofficial component) is set to invest over $8 billion in a transcontinental “belt” of overland economic corridors. This “belt” and its corresponding maritime “road” will incorporate a vast chunk of the world’s Muslim-majority nations from Sudan to Indonesia. With the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic brewing, paired with long-term political instability and patchy development throughout the Muslim world, many states are predictably eager to get their share of the BRI pie, no matter the moral cost.
Financial gain, however, is only one part of the story. Just as dictatorships like Russia, Cuba, and North Korea coordinate with China on the international stage in order to normalize authoritarianism at large, administrations across the Muslim world likewise seek to derive the same benefits. While the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s adventures in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have often involved attempts at implementing democracy and regime change, China shares no such ambition. If anything, the Middle Kingdom’s quasi-colonialism is serving to fortify the hardline regimes which dominate the Islamic world, rather than to compromise them. Beijing is now the biggest foreign investor in the Gulf region and only Bahrain remains as a potential for strategic partnership. By keeping largely out of the proxy wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, China has been able to play the long game and incorporate bitter rivals such as Iran and Saudi Arabia into its BRI empire. These states are more than willing to oblige Beijing’s “hands off” diplomacy while the development money continues to flow.
Cunning employment of moral relativism is at the heart of this arrangement. When engaging with western-style democracies, OIC representatives are, of course, happy to use the language of liberal human rights. When negotiating with other autocracies and administering to domestic issues, however, these principles are conspicuously absent. Hence Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s aggressive rebuke of French President Macron’s plans to tackle Islamic radicalism, compared with his consistent refusal to acknowledge the Uyghur plight, not to mention his own country’s highly problematic internal affairs. Likewise, Erdogan’s condemnation of Chinese policy was abandoned once it offered Turkey a $1 billion bailout in 2019.
Yet, this cynical state of affairs surely has an expiration date. An Asia Times report from December revealed how extensive inefficiency and corruption have forced Chinese financial authorities to cut down their cash flows to Pakistan, nor is this a rare mishap in Beijing’s initiatives at home and abroad. Moreover, Bloomberg’s recent reports that Pakistan has informally discussed easing repayment terms on a series of power plants, suggesting that China is willing to hemorrhage its own balance sheet for the sake of a long-term return on investment in the region. China itself is changing too. Many experts perceive its vast network of repression and forced labor as a response to growing wage demands that threaten its competitive edge in low-cost manufacturing. But this implies that the situation of minorities in China is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Washington’s acknowledgement of genocide in Xinjiang is a start, but it’s meaningless without any follow-up. There will be opportunities soon: the expanded G7 summit in June, which South Korea, Australia and India will also attend, would be the perfect place to launch a core alliance of democracies willing to cooperate on these issues. Furthermore, the United States and its allies are still the primary bankrollers of both the World Bank and the United Nations. Alongside domestic investigations into corporate complicity, it must be made clear that there will no longer be any direct or indirect funding of China’s human rights abuses via global institutions. But these maneuvers will only be credible if they are underscored by the expression of equal concern and action regarding all global human rights abuses, whether or not this causes tension in America’s relationships with OIC states such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The OIC has made clear its interests, and only by pursuing financial strategies and owning its alternative vision of human rights can Washington credibly approach China’s moral failures.
Georgia Leatherdale-Gilholy is an associate writer for Foundation for Uyghur Freedom and a Young Voices contributor.