By Charlotte Paule, Msc Politics of Asia
During the socially-distanced Foreign Affairs Select Committee on 5 October, Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP was the witness. When asked by Conservative MP Alicia Kearns about whether or not Britain should reconsider attending the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, Foreign Secretary Rabb retorted that ‘generally speaking… sport [should be separate] from diplomacy and politics, but there comes a point when that may not be possible.’. This was in light of intel that has surfaced in regards to human rights abuses by the Chinese State against its Uyghur ethnic minority, of which Raab claimed the UK needed to ‘hold China to account.’.
This is in response to the situation in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, where international observers believe over a million Muslim Uyghurs are being detained in concentration-style camps. Since 2018, the international community has made several calls for China to cease its abuses against the Uyghur community, without any concrete results. Last week, the UK was also among 39 countries to express concerns in the United Nations (UN) about the human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong.
Human Rights Watch claim in its 2020 World Report that over a million Turkic Muslims are believed to be detained in camps in Xinjiang – wherein they are subject to what the Chinese state dubs as ‘political re-education’. While some international observers have been allowed in the region, including journalists and UN representatives, their access has been limited and heavily controlled by the Chinese authorities.
The UK, along with the rest of the European Union member states and the US, has repeatedly condemned the Chinese state in the UN Human Rights Council, as well as in joint EU-China communications. However, these statements remain carefully worded, and no concrete action has been taken since the arms embargo put in place after the Tiananmen square protests in 1989. China is, however, one of the largest economies in the world – second only to the US. It is also the EU’s second largest trading partner, a fact which analysts have alluded to as preventing the international community from taking further measures against this economic powerhouse.
The Chinese state has repeatedly denied accusations of human rights abuses, asserting the harsh rules in Xinjiang as being part of its national de-radicalisation and counter-terrorism strategy. Xinjiang was an area once independent of China during the 1940s. Since being subsequently under Chinese control after 1949, the country has faced separatist attacks by Uyghur extremists. China has since then targeted its Uyghur minority en-masse to prevent further potential attacks with a heavy military presence in Xinjiang.
Chinese ambassadors abroad, including those in the UK and France, have repeatedly denounced the international community for trying to interfere in Chinese domestic affairs. However, observers, including Andre Vitchek of Global Research, have claimed the situation in Xinjiang was orchestrated by the West. Vitchek explains this was to prevent China from building its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a project to connect Europe and Asia by land and sea. Others have also pointed out that letters condemning China were never adopted in the UN, with Muslim-majority countries such as Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine, and Nigeria voting against the Western bloc.
In early September, a coalition of human rights groups wrote a letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) demanding it ‘reverse its mistake in awarding Beijing the honour of hosting the Winter Olympic Games in 2022’. They listed the abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the inner Mongolia region, surveillance in Tibet, and the intimidation of Taiwan as being grounds for the decision to be revoked. Meanwhile, Britain’s allies have also debated whether to boycott the upcoming Chinese Games. Richard Colbeck, Australia’s Sports Minister, said that the government would not force athletes to attend.
“While a unified international boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games could spell a very public humiliation for China, this does not guarantee substantial change in its treatment of its Uyghurs.”
Back in 2008 when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympic Games, the IOC had hoped hosting the event would improve China’s human rights record. However, since then, Xi Xinping and his regime has tightened their grip on power and their control over the Chinese population. In addition to the issues in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong – Human Rights Watch also calls out China’s mass surveillance, lack of freedom of expression and religion, and it’s treatment of human rights defenders. While a unified international boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games could spell a very public humiliation for China, this does not guarantee substantial change in its treatment of its Uyghurs. It may possibly, however, represent one of the first concrete actions taken by the international community against its regime, just as it is set to obtain a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
Photo Caption: Banner against the Beijing Summer Olympics of 2008 at the start of the Human Rights Torch Relay of August 2007, in Athens, Greece. Credit: longtrekhome/Flickr.