For Australia, the big news from the United Nations General Assembly last week was not that Donald Trump, the leader of our main strategic ally, was laughed at by his peers but that China continues its mission to divide and conquer Australia by buying its silence.
Despite being the umpteenth government in a row that has failed to map out a credible whole-of-government China policy, the Turnbull government was at least brave enough to speak truth to the regional power — sometimes.
Yes, Australia — via the now-departed Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, in one of the very scattered highlights of her five-year tenure as foreign minister — was prepared to stand up to China on its encroachment on the East and South China Seas, as well its pernicious rising “sharp power” influence in politics, universities and more.
Yet Australia — as well as the rest of the world — continues to look away from an active campaign of large-scale repression in China’s north-west Xinjiang province, home to at least 10 million Muslim Uyghur people.
Resource-rich and strategically important, Xinjiang borders eight other mainly Muslim countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan, the war-torn Jammu and Kashmir state of India — a country with which China has two longstanding territorial disputes — as well as three Muslim central Asian nations and Russia. The city closest to the border is the Uyghur’s spiritual home, Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road trading hub whose old city was razed on instructions by Beijing.
Xinjiang is critical to China’s ambitious, multi-pronged belt and road initiative (BRI) that aims to build an array of land and sea links. The apogee, so far at least, of the BRI is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; Xinjiang is the only Chinese province that shares a border with Pakistan.
So far, China has pledged US$57 billion to build power stations, highways, railways and ports in Pakistan, giving it long-desired access to President Xi Jinping’s BRI plan to further tie China to Eurasia.
Since 2009, China’s totalitarian Communist Party has unleashed an ongoing campaign it styles “strike hard”, instituted after ethnic violence resulted in the deaths of almost 200 people. Hundreds more have been injured.
One the features of the Communist Party’s Orwellian doublespeak is that when a region like the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (to give the province its full name) is called “autonomous”, in truth it is quite the opposite.
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Since then, there has been a program of systematic cultural destruction that has seen many Muslim dress practices and the growing of beards banned, thousands of mainly working-age men have been disappeared or thrown in jail, sentenced during stadium trials, vivid throwbacks to Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution.
That campaign has further escalated in the past couple of years under the iron fist of Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who was shifted in 2016 from Tibet.
He has deployed more cadres and security forces across the province’s Uyghur-heavy south, and — according to a growing range of human rights organisations, most recently Amnesty International, and the United Nations — put up to 1 million people into reduction camps, sending children to orphanages and tearing families apart.
Beijing has the world cowed on its human rights record generally. Pretty much every country in the world wants China’s import orders or investment dollars. So they stay mute, Australia included.
China made a point of freezing out Norway, which handed the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo who would later die in prison.
An illustration of how much silence there has been from the international community on Xinjiang in particular, look no further that the incredibly muted response from Muslim nations.
A rare exception was a recent berating from Malaysian prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim, who said: “This has gone out into the mainstream media as an issue, and I believe we should use a proper forum to start highlighting these issues and seek this understanding from the Chinese authorities.”
Australia, and indeed most other countries, will not even go that far.
For almost 30 years there has been the unspoken “three Ts” that governments who want to deal with China can’t touch: Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen. Unfortunately for China’s 10 million Uyghurs, Xinjiang has now joined that list.