Arsenal footballer Mesut Ozil triggered an international stand-off when he criticised Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims on social media, prompting China’s state broadcaster to drop his club’s latest game in one of the Premier League’s biggest markets.
“Korans are being burnt. Mosques are being shut down. Muslim schools are being banned. Religious scholars are being killed one by one,” the Turkish-German player wrote on Twitter. “Despite all this, Muslims stay quiet.”
Muslim leaders are not the only ones to have refrained from condemning Beijing’s internment of more than 1m Muslim Uighurs in so-called re-education camps in western China.
Around the world many countries have held back from criticising China, fearful of offending Beijing and suffering the wrath of the rising power.
The Financial Times takes stock of who has spoken up and who has stayed silent on the issue.
Turkey is one of the only Muslim majority countries to have criticised China
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has cast himself as a champion of oppressed Muslims around the world. The president is also a personal friend of Ozil.
In February 2019, Turkey’s foreign ministry described Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims as a “great shame for humanity” and called on Beijing to close its mass internment camps.
But since those comments, which sparked a row with Beijing, Ankara has been more reticent. Mr Erdogan, who is seeking to attract foreign investment from China, drew criticism from Uighur activists for failing to raise the issue publicly on a visit to Beijing in July.
Most Gulf leaders have remained quiet . . .
Many Arab leaders have refused to condemn the treatment of Uighurs, although some media, especially those based in Qatar, have highlighted regional powers for failing to stand up for their Muslim compatriots.
Heavyweight voices in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have voiced backing for crackdowns on terrorists — Beijing’s justification for the camps — while on state visits to China.
“China has the right to take antiterrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security,” said Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, during a visit to China this year, according to Chinese state media.
Qatar, initially a signatory of a letter from 37 nations supporting China’s actions, withdrew its name in August. The government says it has now adopted a “neutral stance”.
. . . as have leaders of Muslim majority countries in Asia
President Joko Widodo of Indonesia leads the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and recently won re-election with the nation’s most powerful Muslim cleric as his vice-president.
In an interview with the FT, however, he claimed not to know about the incarceration of Muslims in western China.
“I don’t have the imagination for that. I don’t know the facts there so I don’t want to comment,” he said.
In December 2018, Indonesia’s foreign minister met China’s ambassador to discuss “concerns of Indonesian Muslims about the plight of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang”. Afterwards, the Indonesian government said it did not want to intervene in China’s domestic affairs.
Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s prime minister, similarly refused to criticise China over its policies in Xinjiang, pointing instead to the plight of the Rohingya, the Muslim minority group driven out of Myanmar after a military crackdown, as “a much bigger problem than the Uighurs”.
Imran Khan of Pakistan, for his part, has claimed not to have heard of the issue. “Frankly, I don’t know much about that,” he told the FT.
In the Philippines, which has a sizeable Muslim minority and a government keenly pursuing closer economic ties with China, President Rodrigo Duterte was more forthright.
“I cannot fight China. It would be a war which I can never win,” he said in a speech in Moscow in October, according to media.
Western democracies have been more critical . . .
Although the US administration of Donald Trump has been selective in its approach to human rights, it has been vocal in its condemnation of China’s crackdown on Uighurs.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, has met representatives of the Uighur community and survivors of internment camps. In March, he called for the end to “repression” and the release of all those who had been “arbitrarily” detained.
“The world cannot afford China’s shameful hypocrisy toward Muslims,” he said on Twitter.
In December, the House passed a bill calling for sanctions on China.
The EU has criticised China’s actions in Xinjiang. “The restriction of fundamental rights in Xinjiang is unacceptable,” Virginie Battu-Henriksson, an EU spokesperson, said.
President Emmanuel Macron of France has been silent on the issue. Other leaders have hedged their comments.
“Of course we must criticise when we hear these reports about the Uighurs,” Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, told politicians in November.
However, “China is a different social system, a completely different one . . . I don’t know if the response to this competition — we know this from the cold war — should be to cut ourselves off”.
. . . though fear of economic repercussions appears to have moderated the outcry
It is not just Muslim countries that have been subdued. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, refused to mention the situation in Xinjiang during a trip to Beijing in April.
New Zealand has developed deep ties with China over the past two decades, and Ms Ardern’s trip came as Wellington was pushing to upgrade its trade agreement with Beijing and exploring participating in China’s Belt and Road infrastructure programme.
Asked whether it was right for German companies to continue to invest in Xinjiang given the scale of human rights abuses, Steffen Seibert, Ms Merkel’s spokesman, said: “In a situation where there are no sanctions or other legal regulations which would forbid that, then it’s essentially a business decision . . . I am not here to give advice to German companies.”
Reported by Laura Pitel in Ankara; Simeon Kerr in Dubai; Jamil Anderlini and Joe Leahy in Hong Kong; Stefania Palma in Singapore; Guy Chazan in Berlin; Stephanie Findlay in New Delhi; Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad; Michael Peel in Brussels; and John Reed in Bangkok