Photo by ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

How China woos the Muslim world

Money talks louder than Uyghur Muslims can scream

This week an Organization of Islamic Cooperation delegation visited China. It offered slavish praise and deference to the state responsible for atrocities against millions of mostly Muslim Uyghurs, which a British tribunal designated as genocide.

The OIC is the largest multilateral body claiming to represent the global Ummah. Like many such global organs of power, it hardly seems to have its constituents’ best interests at heart.

When it comes to the pertinent issue of Beijing’s extreme policies toward Uyghur Muslims, the OIC, which frequently lashes out at Israel and India, is less outspoken. In a July 2019 statement, over a dozen OIC member states went so far as to co-sign a letter that “commended China’s achievements in the field of human rights”.

Uyghur exiles have been detained and deported across the Islamic World, and Turkey could still sign off on the extradition treaty it struck with China in December 2020. This would have placed its 100,000 Uyghur diaspora at high risk of being forced to return to Beijing’s brutality — though Ankara denies this would come to pass.

The key factor behind the OIC’s double standards is obvious: money. The attempt to decimate and subjugate the Uyghurs is an informal component of the “Belt and Road” Initiative. This program is scheduled to pour over $8 billion into a transcontinental “belt” of overland economic corridors. This “belt” and its corresponding maritime “road” will encompass a major chunk of the world’s Muslim-majority nations from Sudan to Indonesia. With the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, and patchy development throughout the Muslim world, many leaders are predictably eager to carve up their share of the BRI pie.

The Middle Kingdom’s quasi-colonialism fortifies repressive Islamic governments

Easy cash, however, is just one part of the story. Just as the dictators of Russia, Cuba and North Korea collaborate with China on the international stage in a bid to normalise authoritarianism at large, administrations across the Muslim world likewise seek to reap the same nefarious rewards. Whilst the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s adventures in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have often involved ill-fated attempts at implementing democracy and regime change, China currently shares no such ambition. If anything, the Middle Kingdom’s quasi-colonialism is serving to fortify the repressive governments that dominate the Islamic world.

Beijing is now the largest foreign investor in the Gulf region. By keeping largely out of the proxy wars playing out in Syria, Libya and Yemen, Beijing has been able to play the long game and incorporate bitter rivals such as Iran and Saudi Arabia into the BRI fold. Such states are more than willing to oblige Beijing’s “hands-off” diplomacy whilst the cash continues to flow.

Cunning employment of moral relativism is at the heart of this arrangement. When engaging with democracies, OIC representatives gleefully employ the language of liberal human rights. When brown-nosing other autocracies and dispensing domestic law, however, these principles are mysteriously absent.

Hence former Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s aggressive rebuke of French President Macron’s plans to tackle Islamic radicalism, compared with his consistent refusal to acknowledge the Uyghur plight. This does not mention his own country’s brutal policies toward minorities. Likewise, Erdogan’s condemnation of Chinese policy was abandoned once it offered Turkey a $1 billion bailout in 2019.

Does this cynical state of affairs have an expiration date? There have long been reports of extensive inefficiency and corruption forcing Chinese financial authorities to cut down their cash flows to Pakistan. This is not a rare flaw in Beijing’s initiatives at home and abroad.

Beijing is happy to haemorrhage its balance sheet for a long-term return

Pakistan has secured relaxed repayment terms on a series of power plants, suggesting that Beijing is happy to haemorrhage its balance sheet for the sake of a long-term return on investment abroad.

China itself is changing, too. Its low birth rate and gender imbalance are a seething demographic time bomb, and concerns about the PRC’s first credit crisis abound. Some experts perceive its vast network of repression and forced labour as a shortsighted reaction to rising wage demands that threaten its edge in low-cost manufacturing. This suggests that the status of China’s beleaguered minorities may get worse before it gets better.

Washington’s acknowledgement of genocide in Xinjiang is a start, but it’s meaningless without any follow-up. The United States and its allies are still the primary bankrollers of both the World Bank and the United Nations.

Alongside domestic probes into corporate complicity, it must be made clear that there will no longer be any funding of China’s human rights abuses via global institutions or the British taxpayer.

These manoeuvres will only be credible if they are underscored by the expression of equal concern and action regarding all global human rights abuses, regardless of whether this causes tension in the West’s ties with OIC states including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The OIC has made its priorities clear. Only by pursuing economic self-sufficiency, and defending its alternative vision of human dignity, can the West credibly approach the moral failures of the world.

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