China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

2020 Edition: Which Countries Are For or Against China’s Xinjiang Policies?

Another year, another set of dueling statements about Xinjiang to the U.N. This time, there are some interesting differences in who is backing China — and who isn’t.

2020 Edition: Which Countries Are For or Against China’s Xinjiang Policies?
Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elías

In the summer of 2019, China and the West sent the United Nations Human Rights Council and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights dueling letters, backed by different lists of countries, that either condemned Chinese policies in the western region of Xinjiang or supported Beijing’s efforts to combat “terrorism and extremism.” 

In a reprise this week, German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen presented a statement to the U.N., within the context of the General Assembly’s Third Committee (on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Issues) on behalf of 39 countries, calling on China to “respect human rights, particularly the rights of persons belonging to religious and ethnic minorities, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet.”

In return, Cuba’s U.N. Representative Ana Silvia Rodríguez Abascal read a statement on behalf of 45 countries in defense of Chinese policies. Given that Abascal’s statement is not available in official text form, I’ve transcribed it from the video of the session:

We propose that all sides promote and protect human rights through constructive dialogue and cooperation and firmly oppose politicization of human rights issues and double standards. We commend that the Chinese government pursues the “people-centered” philosophy in advancing economic and social sustainable development, eradicating poverty, increasing employment, improving peoples’ living standards, and promoting and protecting human rights.

We note with appreciation that China has undertaken a series of measures in response to threats of terrorism and extremism in accordance with the law to safeguard the human rights of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang. There was no single terrorist attack in Xinjiang in the last three years. People of all ethnic groups enjoy their happy life in a peaceful and stable environment. China maintains openness and transparency by, among other things, inviting more than 1,000 diplomats, officials of international organizations, journalists, and religious persons to visit Xinjiang who witnessed Xinjiang’s remarkable achievement.

We take note that the Chinese government has extended an invitation to the High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Xinjiang and the two sides are keeping contact on that matter.

On Xinjiang related issues it is an imperative to respect the basic facts rather than making unfounded allegations against China and interfere out of political motivations and bias.

Heusgen’s statement points to deeply disturbing reports of a widespread network of “re-education camps” in Xinjiang and Abascal’s dismisses such reports as “unfounded allegations” levied at China for political purposes. While the content of the dueling statements is no surprise — they merely lay out the Western and Chinese narratives — the lists of countries supporting either statement has been the focus of much of the ensuring commentary.

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As in my article last year, I’ll list out the countries signing onto the two statements in full.

Heusgen’s statement was made on the behalf of 39 countries: Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Haiti, Honduras, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Marshall Islands, Monaco, Nauru, the Netherlands, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Palau, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The 2019 letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights was signed by 22 countries, in bold in the list above. The bloc, mostly Western democracies but not exclusively, didn’t lose a single signatory and picked up more than a dozen. (The United States did not sign the 2019 letter because, under the Trump administration, Washington left the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2018.)

Meanwhile, the endorsers of the Cuban statement, when held up against China’s letter in 2019, shows some interesting shifts.

Abascal’s statement named 45* countries in support: Angola, Bahrain, Belarus, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, China, Comoros, Congo, Cuba, Dominica, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, Grenada, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Iran, Iraq, Kiribati, Laos, Madagascar, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Palestine, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, the UAE, Venezuela, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

*Abascal also named the “Democratic Republic of Korea” after saying “the Congo” but given that that isn’t the name of any country and we do not have an official text of the statement available we have to guess at this juncture. Both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) and the Democratic Republic of Congo had reportedly signed the 2019 letter, so it could be either of those two.

China’s 2019 letter was endorsed by 37 countries, again, marked in bold on the list above. Interestingly, the 2020 statement includes 18 new countries, but 10 countries that had signed the 2019 letter do not appear associated with the 2020 statement. Given the above name confusion, there’s one potential mystery country, too.

Given my own focus in Central Asia, it’s interesting that the 2019 letter included Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as signatories but the 2020 statement does not. We can infer only so much from that given that it’s possible they just didn’t respond to requests to be added in time rather than having a change of heart regarding the Xinjiang issue. Nevertheless, they aren’t on the list anymore. Neither is Algeria, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Oman, the Philippines, Qatar, or Somalia. Notably, many of the countries that didn’t renew their support for China’s Xinjiang policies are either Muslim-majority states or have sizeable Muslim minority populations.

In 2019, I noted the conspicuous absence from either list of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, in particular. “Ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are among those who have been detained and civil society organizations have sprung up around families whose relatives have vanished in Xinjiang,” I noted. Their refraining from joining either camp was an attempt at neutrality in the matter. We can read Central Asia’s absence from either list in the same way.

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Also in 2019, I noted the absence of Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, as well as the Pacific Island states. Of that group, Sri Lanka joined Cuba’s most recent statement on Xinjiang, as did Kiribati. Meanwhile, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, and Palau (all of which recognize Taipei, and have no diplomatic relations with Beijing) joined with the German statement condemning China’s Xinjiang policies.

Both sides are promoting their lists as signals of a strengthening in their position.