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China In Eurasia

An ethnic Uyghur woman walks in front of a giant screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping in the main square in the city of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. (file photo)

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held their first formal talks on November 15 in a virtual summit, where tensions over Taiwan were a central issue.

While mentioned in the readout of the summit, Xinjiang -- where Beijing is accused of running mass internment camps against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities -- received minimal attention, feeding growing frustration from activists and the broader Uyghur community over a lack of action to hold China accountable for alleged abuses in the region.

Finding Perspective: From trade to climate change to Hong Kong, there’s no shortage of issues for Biden and Xi to discuss, and both leaders are looking to lower the temperature in the U.S.-China relationship as tensions reach new heights.

But for the Uyghur diaspora and those working closely on Xinjiang, there is a growing fear that governments could be looking to back away from pushing China too hard over its alleged atrocities there, which range from forced labor to mass sterilization of women to torture.

That feeling of frustration over a lack of action against Beijing was felt loudly when I was at the World Uyghur Congress in Prague, which was held from November 11-14. You can read my full report from the gathering here.

The U.S. government and some Western parliaments have declared that Beijing’s policies against the Uyghurs amount to genocide and crimes against humanity. Washington and the European Union have also enacted varying levels of sanctions against Chinese officials over Xinjiang.

But the level of response is still seen as lacking, given the scale and severity of the abuses that have allegedly been committed.

I spoke with members of the Uyghur community, former camp detainees, researchers, and activists, and they all mentioned a loss of hope that the international community would hold China to account for its treatment of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other groups in Xinjiang, despite an overwhelming amount of available evidence.

Police officers patrol the square in front of the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, on May 3.
Police officers patrol the square in front of the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, on May 3.

Why It Matters: As Rian Thum, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham, told me at the congress: “We’ve never had this level of documentation for an atrocity in real time.”

More so, a large chunk of the evidence comes from leaked or publicly available documents from the Chinese government itself.

Still, the pace of action against China over Xinjiang is slowing, and that tension between mounting evidence and minimal action -- which has mostly come from Western countries -- could grow even further.

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  • Hosting the World Uyghur Congress this year in Prague was partly the initiative of Zdenek Hrib, the city’s mayor, who is no stranger to angering Beijing after having built warm ties with Taipei in the past. Unsurprisingly, the mayor and the Czech capital were called out by the local Chinese Embassy and by China’s state-run press for hosting the Uyghur event.
  • My colleague Manshuk Asautay from RFE/RL Kazakh Service recently profiled Smayil Abilkasym, an ethnic Uyghur Chinese citizen who could face deportation from Kazakhstan back to China.
  • The White House is expected to announce by the end of the month that neither Biden nor any other U.S. government officials will attend the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics as part of a diplomatic boycott, according to Josh Rogin of The Washington Post.

Expert Corner: What’s Next For Europe And China?

Readers asked: “New governments in the Czech Republic and Germany have signaled a harder line toward China. How is the mood changing across Europe and what should we watch for next?”

To find out more, I asked Martin Hala, an expert at Charles University in Prague and the director of Sinopsis, a project that tracks China in Europe:

“Germany often sets the tone for other EU members, and its relationship with [Beijing] is much more complex. Unlike the Czech Republic, it has a massive economic relationship with China. The relationship has not been shaken by an incident on par with those in Sweden or the Czech Republic, yet even here the old Merkel-style mollification seems no longer feasible.

“Europe is going through a similar process like other regions, namely Australia and the United States, of waking up to some uncomfortable facts in their relationships with [Beijing], and searching for the right responses. The difference is that the EU is 27 countries, and all of Europe is 44, and they all have different risk perceptions and different experiences with China. So, the reckoning is more fractured, more stopgap, and less predictable.

“As much as many in Europe would like to stay on the sidelines of what the United States terms a 'Great-Power Competition,' sooner or later they will find out that they need to defend their own basic values. Eventually, they will be dragged out of their complacency, kicking and screaming.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Energy Ripples Continue To Spread

An accelerating energy crisis taking hold across Europe and Asia can already be felt in a variety of ways, from blackouts in Tajikistan to rising electricity costs across the Balkans to short-term profits for state companies in Russia, as I reported here.

The Details: With winter approaching, the sudden energy crunch hitting the world is threatening already stressed supply chains, stirring geopolitical tensions, and raising questions about how ready the world is for a transition to greener forms of energy.

Locked Up In China: The Plight Of Xinjiang's Muslims

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is partnering with its sister organization, Radio Free Asia, to highlight the plight of Muslims living in China's western province of Xinjiang.

Europe and Asia are essentially facing pressure on two fronts that could continue to create large ripple effects around the world.

On one side, the current crisis first emerged in China as global demand for its products suddenly and unexpectedly shot upward this year as part of a post-pandemic economic surge.

But coal stocks were low and the country faced an electricity deficit due climate policies being adopted in China.

In need of energy, Chinese power companies turned to buying up coal around the world and also to the natural-gas market, leading to purchases at an even faster rate than traders in Europe had been anticipating, causing prices to soar.

This, in turn, sparked rising prices across Europe and raised the prospect of supply shortages in several countries.

While things continue to develop, one early winner is Moscow.

Chinese imports of coal from Russia have tripled compared to last year. The rising cost of natural gas has also given Moscow and Gazprom, its state-run gas company, additional leverage over Brussels as it pushes for final approvals for its new and controversial Baltic Sea gas pipeline to Germany, Nord Stream 2, which will bypass Ukraine.

2. Brussels Shifts Gears On China

The EU is slowly becoming more hard-nosed when it comes to dealing with China, and the 27-country bloc has a slew of new moves in the pipeline to keep that momentum moving forward.

More Eyes On Beijing: For starters, the EU is expected to roll out its Global Gateway strategy: 40 billion euros ($45.9 billion) in technology and infrastructure spending that is slated to be a vital component of the West’s response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The strategy was set to be unveiled on November 17 but has since been pushed back to December 1, in large part due to Brussels' need to shift its attention to a migrant crisis on the border with Poland and Belarus.

The European External Action Service (EEAS), the bloc’s diplomatic corps, also unveiled a draft of its Strategic Compass on November 15. The document draws up how the EU sees itself in the world in terms of strategy and security going forward, with some interesting lines on China.

The draft continues with the standard view from Brussels that China is “a partner, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival,” but goes further in taking focus on the Indo-Pacific, which the EU is increasingly viewing as the key geopolitical theater of the 21st century.

While the document highlights EU hopes for cooperation with Beijing on climate change, it has some critical passages on China:

“China gains advantages through our divisions, tends to limit access to its market, and seeks to promote globally its own standards. It pursues its policies including through its growing presence at sea, in space, and online. China’s development and integration into its region, and the world at large, will mark the rest of this century. We need to ensure that this happens in a way that will contribute to greater global security.”

3. 'This Is A Robbery!'

A new system proposed by the Kyrgyz government to kick-start trade between China and Kyrgyzstan has truck drivers who make their living ferrying cargo across the border worried that prohibitive added costs could leave them financially squeezed, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported (also available in Russian).

What You Need To Know: For more than 18 months, pandemic-related restrictions introduced by China along its border with Kyrgyzstan have seen cross-border commerce dwindle and left the truckers and businesses who rely on the shuttle trade desperate for a financial lifeline.

But a new proposal to reignite trade has sparked a backlash, with protests from truckers near the border taking place on November 8.

Trade with China makes up a crucial portion of the Kyrgyz economy, but since the start of the pandemic in 2020 imports from China to Kyrgyzstan have fallen by 57.5 percent, with the number of trucks crossing with cargo declining tenfold.

This has left Bishkek desperate to raise trade back to pre-pandemic levels, but the current proposal to do so is a complicated and costly scheme involving carriers from a state-run enterprise ferrying goods back and forth to truckers across a neutral zone on the border and charging a fee ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 per truck.

For drivers in Kyrgyzstan, this added cost could be debilitating to business.

Across The Supercontinent

'Gray' Miners: Kazakhstan is facing rolling blackouts in some areas after the country welcomed an influx of cryptocurrency miners following a crackdown in neighboring China, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reports.

Cracks In The Road: Action for Social Justice, a Montenegro-based NGO, issued a recent report saying that the government’s new and controversial Chinese-funded highway is already starting to face construction quality issues.

Montenegrin government officials denied the claims from the report to my colleagues at RFE/RL’s Balkan Service and said that they would be issuing their own findings on the matter at a later date.

New Rules: China has suggested a radical change to the way the Internet works to the UN, which many Western countries fear could lead to more control for state-run Internet services around the globe, the Financial Times reports.

'I’m Sick All The Time': A joint Kazakh-Chinese industrial project in southern Kazakhstan is under fire for pollution and environmental damage, with many local residents complaining about health problems to RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service.

Bases And Bombs: The Pentagon released its annual report on China’s military.

While the biggest news was about China’s growing nuclear arsenal, the report also focused on China’s expanding security footprint in Central Asia, in particular in Tajikistan, which has been the focus of several recent reports here at RFE/RL.

One Thing To Watch

China's Xi further cemented his power at a key meeting of the Communist Party elite, overseeing the passing of a landmark resolution that paved the way for him to secure a third term in office.

The resolution puts Xi on the same pedestal as Mao Zedong and reformist leader Deng Xiaoping.

Expect Xi to continue to consolidate his hold on power and smooth his path toward next year's 20th Party Congress, where he is expected to extend his rule for another five-year term.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your in-box on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

Security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang region. (file photo)

PRAGUE -- Four years after Beijing launched a brutal crackdown that swept more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in detention camps and prisons in its western Xinjiang Province, members of the Uyghur diaspora and activists are frustrated over a lack of international recognition for alleged atrocities committed by the Chinese government.

Chinese authorities have been accused of imposing forced labor, mass internment, forced birth control, erasing Uyghur cultural and religious identity, and separating children from incarcerated parents.

These actions have drawn accusations of genocide from international rights groups and several Western governments that have resulted in sanctions on some top Chinese officials in Xinjiang.

Despite such moves and a growing body of evidence documenting such abuses, members of the Uyghur community and researchers focused on the issue say there has not been enough international political or legal action and called for greater global pressure at a November 11-14 meeting in Prague by the World Uyghur Congress, an international organization of the ethnic group’s diaspora spread across 25 countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America.

“On the whole the international response has been abysmal and utterly shameful. It has been extremely inadequate given the scope of the atrocities,” Adrian Zenz, an expert on China’s ethnic policies who has published detailed evidence of Beijing’s alleged abuses against Uyghurs, told RFE/RL on the sidelines of the event.

Though the focus of the meeting was to elect the organization’s leadership for a three-year term, the gathering also featured panels with legal experts, human rights groups, and survivors of China’s camp system -- all of whom expressed disappointment over what they described as a lagging international response given the scale and severity of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang.

World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa (center) and top WUC leaders at a news conference following the announcement of his reelection in Prague on November 14.
World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa (center) and top WUC leaders at a news conference following the announcement of his reelection in Prague on November 14.

“The Uyghurs are becoming hopeless because the world is letting them down,” said Zenz. “In 2019, they were more hopeful because there was a feeling that more evidence would lead to action, but nothing has changed. People and governments are not acting on the evidence that is out.”

'Unprecedented' Level Of Evidence

A German academic who works for the Victims of Communism, a U.S.-based research organization, Zenz has been at the forefront of the effort to gather and publish evidence about the mass detention and repression of Uyghurs as well as ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other groups from Xinjiang that have also been caught up in the Chinese dragnet.

His investigations have helped reveal the scale of Beijing's security buildup in Xinjiang, showing billions of dollars spent toward building internment camps and high-tech surveillance networks, as well as a large-scale recruitment drive for police officers and officials to run them. Other research by Zenz documented forced sterilizations among Uyghur women, which has led international rights groups to accuse the Chinese government of genocide in pointing to plunging birthrates and mass detentions.

Chinese officials have rejected the genocide and rights abuse allegations as groundless and characterized the camps as vocational training centers to teach the Chinese language, give job training, and help combat radicalism. China saw a wave of Xinjiang-related terror attacks through 2016.

Foreign journalists take photos and video outside the location of a suspected internment facility for Uyghurs and other groups in Xinjiang on April 22, 2021.
Foreign journalists take photos and video outside the location of a suspected internment facility for Uyghurs and other groups in Xinjiang on April 22, 2021.

But some of the strongest evidence showing the full scale of Beijing’s policies towards Xinjiang, researchers say, have come from China itself. In 2019, The New York Times disclosed more than 400 leaked internal Chinese government documents that outlined detailed policies for how to repress Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities -- and placing Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the center of the decision to do so.

“We’ve never had this level of documentation for an atrocity in real time. It’s unprecedented,” Rian Thum, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham and an expert on Xinjiang, told RFE/RL. “We continue to learn more as new information is revealed, but there isn’t any scarcity of evidence. In fact, most of what we do know comes from the Chinese government’s own documents.”

China has long struggled to integrate Uyghurs, a historically Muslim group of 13 million people with close linguistic, ethnic, and cultural ties to Turkey and Central Asia. Policy in Xinjiang has swung back and forth for decades, but took a harsher direction under Xi that culminated in the crackdown and camp system that took hold in 2017.

Beijing has also silenced Uyghurs living abroad, monitoring the diaspora and locking up and abusing relatives in China of members of the community who speak out.

The scale of this effort was documented in a series of reports released in 2021 by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, a Washington-based research organization, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

In addition to showing the scope of intimidation toward the global Uyghur community, the reports also showed how Beijing has co-opted governments in Central and South Asia -- such as Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan -- to help in its efforts to silence discussion over the camps and extradite Uyghurs from the region back to China.

Tajikistan is also the subject of a recent filing by Uyghur groups to the International Criminal Court alleging that the Central Asian government has allowed Chinese officials to operate on its territory in order to deport Uyghurs back to China and to coerce them into becoming informants.

The new evidence alleges that due to these efforts the Uyghur population in Tajikistan decreased by more than 85 percent and in Kyrgyzstan by 87 percent.

First-hand testimony from those who have been interned or forced to work at the camps have also played a central role in raising awareness over alleged atrocities in Xinjiang.

Kazakhstan, which shares a lengthy border with Western China, became an unexpected flashpoint of activism on the issue due to family connections between Kazakhs and Xinjiang’s ethnic Kazakh minority, with several former detainees publishing testimonies after fleeing China for the Central Asian country.

“We are giving the world evidence, so why aren’t they believing us?” said Qelbinur Sidik, an Uyghur teacher who was forced to work at a camp and has since received asylum in the Netherlands.

Pushing For A Response

Calls for stronger international pushback against China over Xinjiang are likely to increase following U.S. President Joe Biden's virtual summit with Xi on November 15, the first time in Biden’s term that the two leaders have communicated face-to-face in a formal summit format.

So far, the U.S. government and parliaments in the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada have declared that Beijing’s policies against the Uyghurs amount to genocide and crimes against humanity. The United States has gone further, blocking imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang and companies linked to forced labor in the region. The European Union and the United Kingdom have also imposed sanctions on lower-ranking Chinese officials reportedly involved in organizing the camp system.

A Uyghur woman in Xinjiang uses an electric-powered scooter to fetch school children as they ride past a picture showing Chinese leader Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uyghur elders.
A Uyghur woman in Xinjiang uses an electric-powered scooter to fetch school children as they ride past a picture showing Chinese leader Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uyghur elders.

Calls have also grown to boycott the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, with Human Rights Watch calling on major sponsors of the event to press China's government and the International Olympics Committee about the host nation's human rights violations.

It also remains unclear if the economic sanctions would compel Beijing or Chinese companies linked to forced labor in Xinjiang to change their ways.

China has retaliated against economic pressure by imposing sanctions of its own on Western individuals and institutions. It has also called for boycotts against leading retailers such as Nike and H&M after they expressed concerns in March about forced labor in Xinjiang.

Diplomatically, Beijing has also managed to weather pushback.

While more than 40 mainly Western countries criticized China at the UN in October -- a new high for the number of signatories expressing concern over abuses in Xinjiang -- 62 countries expressed support for Beijing.

The statement of support, which said that the matter was an internal affair, was put forward by Cuba and backed by a large group of countries across the developing world, many of whom benefit from Chinese investment and receive vitally needed aid from Beijing.

“The Chinese government is only going to react so much to pushback that is mostly coming from the West,” said Thum. “A global response would be different, but that’s difficult to imagine given the number of countries that depend on Chinese economic engagement right now.”

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About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

To subscribe, click here.

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