Friday, 7 May, 2021
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OPINION

Western Tears For Uyghurs



P Kharel

Muslims in various parts of the world, as is also the case with many other religions, suffer setbacks and hardships but it is extremely rare to be touched upon seemingly with sympathy from the industrially advanced West. Among the exceptions are pathetic conditions allegedly suffered by Muslim minority in China’s largest region of Xinjiang.
Of late, Xinjiang has become the focus of trade tussle between the United States-led West and communist China. Washington and its allies claim that 12 million Uyghurs, mostly Muslims, and other minorities in the communist country’s north-west region, are forcibly held in camps for enforced labour. Beijing vehemently denies the accusations.
The resultant diplomatic spat between the two military and economic superpowers has begun to give an idea of what might happen if the battle prolonged, engaged as power players are in diplomatic spat massaged by limited but potentially reckless route to trade boycott. China is accused of forcing Muslim Uyghur minority to pick cotton in Xinjiang region. Charges of human rights violation persist notwithstanding Beijing’s denials. Some foreign companies elected not to source cotton and products originating in Xinjiang. This affected Chinese brands abroad, which account for one-fifth of the world’s total cotton production.

Self-defeating
The tit for tat approach is not one-sided. China, too, has given enough indications of not taking things lying down when others act “unfairly”. A number Western product brands have also borne the brunt of a stunning backlash from Chinese consumers who have started to boycott wears originating in companies that slight Xinjiang cotton.
Beijing warns that it could be self-defeating for the boycotting parties. It did so to Australia after the latter sought probe into the origin of COVID-19 in China. A spokesman for the Xinjiang government said that Nike, H&M, Burberry, Adidas, Converse and products from other contextually identified retailers would no longer be able to make money in the world’s largest market.
Beijing’s policy reiterates that one can’t eat the cake and have it too. The choice is clear. The general reaction across China seems to support the government, given media reports in the West suggesting that Beijing’s proactive move led to the boycotting of goods from foreign companies that ban Xinjiang-produced cotton. The non-Chinese companies concerned have begun to suffer the backlash while their counterparts, which are not in the US-driven bandwagon, have been compelled to think thrice before deciding to incur Beijing’s retaliation.
Canada, the UK, the US and European Union members have imposed sanctions on a number of Chinese officials. Denying the charges, Beijing responded by announcing sanctions on European officials. Some of the sanctioned officials, who try putting up brave faces amid the uncertainty and consequences, cannot conceal their claim in public that Beijing’s action against them would be a “badge of honour”.
In China, clear and loud messages of strong reactions to foreign attitude are being unleashed. Patriotic fever has caught up with celebrities. Distancing themselves from foreign brands, three dozen celebrities registered themselves to condemn the onslaught against fellow Chinese. Their online stand quickly generated more than 16,000 shares and 41,000 comments.
In the early stage of the boycott battle, Chinese stars have earned massive praise from their fans at home. This means a lot anywhere, especially in a country with 75,500 cinema screens representing the biggest movie market so powerfully alluring that big Hollywood banners crave and compromise for a piece of the cake. Unfortunately for them, there is a quota for screening imported fares, and hence a stiff competition among foreign companies vying for their venture’s space.
At a time when sane minds everywhere appeal for shedding a tear or two and sparing some thoughts and efforts to alleviating hunger and indignity of being unemployed, Xinjiang’s achievement has struck a very interesting note in not only other parts of the most-populous country but the rest of the world.
The region that sparked off the latest Washington-Beijing tiff is expected to maintain its pre-pandemic pace of growth by next year, something most regions in the most economically advanced societies in general envy of. Not only has poverty been eradicated in Xinjiang but the region recorded more than 7 per cent economic growth rate for five consecutive years before COVID-19.
That countries considered to be close allies of the US and the EU, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, have distanced themselves from the Western chorus condemning Beijing of allegedly committing serious crime against the minorities in Xinjiang tells a lot. Theirs is a stand that the controversy is China’s domestic affairs. Nuclear power Pakistan, with Muslims constituting for nearly 90 per cent of its 220 million people, sees Xinjiang as a motivated issue made up by the domineering capitalist West not able to reconcile with the successes of the world’s next No. 1 economy.

Telling tale
In Western countries, more often than not immigration officers scrutinise the passport and other travel documents of Muslims in general with extra attention. Indian movie star Shahrukh Khan, for instance, was stripped bare during two of his visits some years ago. The incident drew a hue and cry in the Indian press even with casual mention or complete indifference in the rest of the world.
The point is that a Muslim visitor in Europe has greater chances of being treated as a potential suspect, though the arriving guest’s wallet and spending provoke no such grim look. Money plays a crucial part behind the façade of human rights, rule of law and punitive action so loftily upheld at various international forums for public consumption. This has time and again been the case when narrow strategic interests of the big and the domineering are at stake.
Regarding the need for action against brutal murder of Al-Arab News Channel’s editor-in-chief and The Washington Post’s columnist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul Consulate in 2019, American President Donald Trump reminded that Riyadh had ordered for American goods and equipment worth $110 billion. Trump’s successor at the White House, Joe Biden took some action recently but let off the biggest fish under worldwide suspect list scot-free. Should anyone find Washington’s tears for the Uyghurs intriguing or baffling, the background of Western policies since the 1990s provides ample reference point for better understanding. Much of what are commended for popular consumption, when strategic interests are not at stake, do not get upheld in practice.

(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)