The triumph of economic growth over human rights

Author: Margaret Buzan

 

 

In an age where information can travel from one end of the globe to the other
in a matter of seconds, it remains fascinating that so many gross human rights
violations remain relatively unheard of. There are many such cases, but within
this article I will focus on the plight of the Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province.
This Muslim ethnic minority, mainly concentrated in the Western region of
China, has fallen victim to recent repressive policies, including indoctrination in
re-education camps. This is not a new phenomenon; the Chinese government
has actively sought to repress this community for centuries. Although the
strategies undertaken by Beijing in order to control the region are certainly new
and state of the art, the ideology behind them is not. They echo a longtime
paranoia about Xinjiang and a deep suspicion of its non-Han population.
China’s efforts are a means to achieve the end of retaining Xinjiang and forcing
it to assimilate to Beijing’s version of what China should be.
In recent years, the discourse surrounding this oppression has centered
around two key areas: stability and extremism. This has become the umbrella
framework which encompasses China’s policies towards and within the
region.

This discourse is evidenced through speeches
and statements given by leading Chinese
pol i t icians , including Foreign Mini s t r y
spokesman Lu Kang, who defended recent
measures by claiming that ‘taking measures to
prevent and crack down on terrorism and
extremism have helped to preserve stability, as
well as the life and livelihood of people of all
ethnicities in Xinjiang.’ Again, note the use of
the words stability and extremism in this
statement. In order to reaffirm this belief
nationally and internationally, the government’s
main approach to unrest in the region has been
to shift the blame, largely to separatist and
extremist groups, despite the fact that the size
and resources available to these extremist
groups could never provide a true challenge to
the central government. To a large extent, it has
succeeded in doing so by utilizing the same
tactics as the United States in outlining terrorism
as a national security threat, further justifying a
‘global war on terror’. The Chinese government
has never acknowledged, however, that its own
policies could be to blame for decades of ethnoreligious
unrest in the region.

I could dedicate an entire article to analyzing the
discourse surrounding these policies, but instead
of doing so, I ask that you trust this brief analysis
and allow me to focus on more pressing issues
regarding the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. The
increasing importance of the region to China’s
global aspirations is likely a major reason why
Beijing is tightening its grip. Therefore, this
article will expand on the two main reasons for
why the Chinese government has dedicated
massive amounts of resources in an attempt to
control this region in order to make it comply
with the wishes of the country’s political
architects in Beijing.
The first reason for why the Chinese government
has focused its attention on the region is the fact
that it contains some of the country’s largest oil
and other natural resource reserves. Xinjiang is
expected to produce 35 million tons of crude oil
by 2020, it contains roughly 40% of the country’s
coal reserves, and it holds China’s largest natural
gas reserves. From the perspective of Beijing, it
is highly important that the region views the
government favorably or, at least, is unable to
represent its anger at the government’s invasion
of the region.

The second, and perhaps largest reason for why the
Chinese government is particularly invested in ensuring
‘stability’ in the region is due to its One Belt One Road
(OBOR) Initiative. To briefly explain, this initiative aims to
develop infrastructure and increase investments in 152
countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America,
and Africa, and aims at enhancing regional connectivity.
But how does this link back to Xinjiang? Why is the
Uyghur population so important in this project? The
answer is quite simple. The major belt corridors (overland
routes for road and rail transportation) run straight
through Xinjiang province. If the region remains a ‘center
of unrest’, the initiative could fail, causing the
government to ‘lose face’ as well as economic growth
potential.
China has implemented several policies aimed at
increasing stability in and control over the region in order
to advance the two interests just elaborated upon. For
decades, the Chinese government has implemented and
promoted policies with the aim of enhancing the Han
Chinese population in Xinjiang. It has done so by
granting those moving to the region with favorable
conditions, including housing and better job
opportunities than natives. This demographic shift
coupled with an obvious power struggle has inflamed
ethnic tensions in the region. Despite the massive scale
on which these policies have been implemented, they
have been largely unsuccessful in increasing stability in
the region. Thus, the Chinese government has now
moved to imprisoning large portions of the Uyghur
population in internment camps where they are forced to
renounce Islam, study communist propaganda, and give
thanks to President Xi Jinping. Extreme forms of torture
are also commonplace. It is now being estimated that
more than 1 million people are being held in such camps.

 

So, what are other countries and international bodies
doing? To put it bluntly: nothing. Apart from some critical
statements, rather ironically given by Turkey, there have
been no concrete actions taken again the Chinese
government. Why is this the case? Why is it possible for
such massive human rights violations to take place in
2019? The answer, again, is short: our economies. The
majority of the world’s countries are trading partners with
China, so doing anything more than issuing a critical
statement could have devastating consequences. This is
the world we live in. A world where economic growth
prevails over human rights. A world where bullies are
able to control their victims. At what point do we
acknowledge that economic growth should not dictate
political decisions? Change is necessary. So, where do we
begin?