WHEN THE BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY, Dominic Raab, was asked last month about the plight of the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority in China, Raab invoked the odyssey of his father, a Czech Jew who came to the UK in 1938. Similarly, Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, argued during his recent confirmation hearings in the Senate that the Chinese Communist party was committing “genocide” against the Uighurs.
His stepfather was the author and lawyer, Samuel Pisar, an inmate of Majdanek and Auschwitz who escaped from a death march as the Third Reich was disintegrating.
The reports and images of the “vocational training centres” that have come out of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region have resonated with all Jews — the instruments of oppression resemble those employed during the Jewish tragedies of the twentieth century.
While there are no crematoria in these “re-education centres” and no industrialised mass killing, the enforced assimilation, the engineered disintegration of families, sexual abuse of women and brutal coercive labour is designed to eliminate Uighur identity and to destroy Uighur society. Xi Jinping has decided to play the national card to promote Chinese Han nationalism as a unifying force. He appointed a hardline governor to Xinjiang in 2016 and issued a directive during the following year that “religion in China must be Chinese in origin”.
All this has persuaded Jewish organisations in Britain to act. The Board of Deputies of British Jews held a meeting of solidarity with the Uighurs at the House of Commons and the Holocaust Education Trust has bitterly condemned the Chinese government. Uighur representatives spoke at the Limmud conference in the UK in December and have been invited to address many synagogue congregations.
Dominic Raab has promised to tighten up the Modern Slavery Act to ensure that no British company should utilise forced labour in the region. The University of Manchester has now cancelled an agreement with a Chinese technology company after learning that it had apparently supplied platforms and apps for Beijing’s security forces in the mass surveillance of Uighurs.
Volkswagen which maintains a car plant in Xinjiang stated that the issue for them was “just business”. The Jews did not agree.
It is the understanding that the principle of human rights is universal and not solely a Jewish concern that has propelled these protests. In his recent article about the Uighurs in the Guardian, the British Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, recalled his childhood in apartheid South Africa when he accompanied his father — also a rabbi — to visit prisoners on Robbin Island.
In London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb where many Jews live, kippa-wearing Jews have been protesting at the nearby Chinese Cultural Centre. In Israel, protesters have been picketing the Chinese Ambassador’s residence in Herzliya Pituach.Video footage of Uighurs blindfolded and shackled, in September 2019 (Guardian)
The territory of the Uighurs is sandwiched between Russia and China. There have been two republics of ‘East Turkestan’ before the establishment of Communist China in 1949. In both cases, these republics had been Soviet pawns in Stalin’s hands in order to outmanoeuvre the Chinese nationalists of Chiang Kai-Shek. With Mao Zedong’s victory assured, Stalin in all likelihood executed the Uighur leaders of East Turkestan in August 1949 and then permitted the integration of the region into the People’s Republic of China.
The Chinese government has been confronted by occasional demands for Uighur independence. This has been compounded by the rise of Islamism — and acts of militancy and terror in its name. There have been assaults on Chinese tourists and a bomb attack on the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan in September 2016.
In 2009, there were clashes in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, in which several hundred people were reported to have lost their lives. There have also been reports of Uighur Islamists fighting in Syria — and remarkably studying Zionist history in order to learn the lessons of how a small nation achieved its independence.
The draconian response of the Chinese Communists to these political currents has provoked a silent whimper and a private handwringing from the Muslim world. The Organisation of Islamic States has been highly reticent to utter any words of criticism. Although the Uighurs are a Turkic people and President Recep Erdoğan has presided over a neo-Ottoman imperialism, the Turks have downplayed the persecution of the Uighurs because they fear Chinese assistance to the Kurdish cause.
The Arab world, too, has also been largely silent because China is the biggest investor in the Middle East. Together with Pakistan, it blocked a motion at the UN which called upon China to allow independent observers into the region.
According to the China Global Investment Tracker, Beijing invested more than $50 billion in the Gulf States between 2016 and 2020. Oman exports 80% of its oil to China. In contrast, Chinese leverage on Israel amounts only to several hundred million dollars in investment.
Moreover, the cause of the Palestinians has been damaged by the stand of the Palestinian Authority on the Uighurs. President Mahmoud Abbas agreed with “China’s legitimate stance on issues concerning its core interests like Hong Kong and Xinjiang”.
This reflected Yasser Arafat’s approach in 1989 when he supported the killing of hundreds of young protesters in Tiananmen Square. In all these cases, national interests prevailed over Muslim solidarity. It made a mockery out of the demand of “human rights for Palestinians”.
China is also worried that the implicit alliance between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States against Iran will pose a challenge to its influence in the region. It was lukewarm to the recent diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain.
In 1949, several Jews travelled to Beijing to build the new China. Many were consequently denounced in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and like their contemporaries in the USSR decades before, ended up in the Gulag — this time a Chinese one. Mao killed tens of millions during his time in power — and especially during the man-made Great Famine when starving peasants were forced to devour their own children.
Unlike the USSR, Mao continued to revere Stalin. Xi Jinping has updated aspects of Stalinism for the twenty-first century. He has eliminated opponents while controlling a successful capitalist economy and suppressing ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs.
One hundred years ago, Lenin allied the Communists with the intelligentsia against the capitalists. Today Xi Jinping allies the Communists with the capitalists against the intelligentsia. Despite the proliferation of an abundance of well-to-do business people and a higher standard of living for many, the campaign of the Chinese government against the Uighurs signifies the moral decay of a ruling elite.
It also invokes the failure of Chinese Communism to engineer a change in the human condition for the better. One Chinese historian commented decades ago that “each official wore two faces: before his superiors, he was a slave and before his subordinates, a tyrant”.
Jews know only too well this syndrome, embedded in the human psyche — and the terrible consequences that it can wreak. This is why Jews are unable to turn a blind eye to the fate of a small people in a remote part of the world.
plus61j 9 February 2021