What Should We Make of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”?
I generally like to have a theme when I write these observations such that everything hangs together but I am struggling today. I guess that I will start with stories that I have had in mind for a couple of days which have to do with the fact that the world was well aware of just what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was like well before the CCP pandemic took hold. Take China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative which I have written about many times in previous posts. I’m not going to go into detail again here about the initiative suffice to say that China is building a “belt of overland corridors” and a “maritime road of shipping lanes” that together will constitute new trade routes from Asia through to Europe. The article upon which I am drawing reports that, “Over the five years since President Xi Jinping announced his grand plan to connect Asia, Africa and Europe, the initiative has morphed into a broad catchphrase to describe almost all aspects of Chinese engagement abroad“.
The Belt and Road Initiative has seen China engaging in what is known as “debt trap” diplomacy with poorer nations around the world. Basically China makes big loans available to these countries and when these countries can’t repay the loans, China “requests”, for example, a lease for a port in lieu of payment. Contracts for the Belt and Road Initiative also, generally speaking, require that Chinese products be used in the projects and that Chinese workers be employed on the projects. Another aspect of the initiative is the “soft power” that China is seeking to exercise through the various “Belt and Road” projects. Basically, if countries are in debt to China then China can exert influence in those countries through “hanging the debt” over governments as China asks, for example, for leaders to align with China’s votes in transnational organizations such as the United Nations or the World Health Organization.
Australia is at Odds With Itself Over China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”
The Australia system of government is structured in terms of a Central Government also known as the Federal Government, the Commonwealth Government or the Australian Government. Additionally, Australia is comprised of a federation of six states which, together with two self-governing territories, have their own constitutions, parliaments, governments and laws. Whilst the Australian Government declined to sign up for “Belt and Road” projects, this video provides details regarding the fact that Daniel Andrews, the Premier for the State of Victoria, has signed a deal with China to engage with the Belt and Road Initiative. In other words, a State Government has basically ignored a clear indication from the Australian Government that Australia wants nothing to do with China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. ABC News quite rightly points out that it would be unthinkable for a Chinese province to defy the wishes of Beijing. Not so in Australia and so the Prime Minister Scott Morrison has simply been left frustrated but with no way to put a stop to the agreement.
A news report from ABC News provides some details on who both China and Victoria may benefit from the agreement. The agreement may ease the way for Chinese companies to invest in Victoria which could benefit both Beijing and Victoria. Although no details are given, the article also suggests that China may invest billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in Victoria which could lead to work for Victoria’s infrastructure experts. Victoria my benefit from larger Chinese markets for beef and wine. Finally, China may establish companies in Victoria and bid for major works such as the building rail networks so there’s another potential benefit for Beijing. The news article concludes by pointing to China’s human rights abuses. However, it would seem that these abuses do not bother Daniel Andrews and, to be fair to the premier, these rights have not stopped Australia trading with China in the past. Indeed, Australia has a huge trading relationship with China that includes exports of iron ore, barley, beef and wine.
How Much Evidence is There for Human Rights Abuse in China?
I should stress here that this is the first time that I have looked in to CCP human rights abuses in China and so I am really at the beginning of any research into this issue. This means that I am looking for initial stories that might indicate what has been happening in China with respect to human rights abuses. Having established a broad and indicative picture of what may or may not be going on in China I will, at some point in the future, build upon what I have found to look more deeply into the issue. So, prompted by the ABC news story which questioned China’s human rights abuses, I did a Google search using the terms, “China, Muslims, Concentration Camps”. The first page of results brought up stories from the BBC, Reuters, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Forbes and the Independent in the United Kingdom. It would be fair to say that these are reputable newspapers but at the same time it should be noted that one would need to dig a lot deeper than the first page of search results from Google.
The first page of the search results also brought up an article from Wikipedia which states that, “Xinjiang re-education camps, officially called Vocational Education and Training Centers by the government of the People’s Republic of China, are internment camps that have been operated by the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region government for the purpose of indoctrinating Uyghurs since 2017 as part of a “people’s war on terror” announced in 2014.” As an academic, I know that my colleagues would put little if any stock in an article from Wikipedia. However, I have always found Wikipedia to be a good starting point if one wants a reasonably comprehensive article on a subject. Additionally, Wikipedia will usually provide a reasonable number of references to be followed up. In this respect, the article on the Xinjiang re-education camps did not disappoint. It is is comprehensive with a reference list that runs to 337 citations. This is impressive by any standards although quantity should not win out over quality. I will list the main points from the article and you can take a look for yourself if you want more details.
- First, it is certainly seems to be the case that Uyghur radicals have engaged in which might be called terrorist attacks. In this respect several attacks were carried out by the Turkistan Islamic Party (formerly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) which has been labelled as a terrorist organization by a number of countries. In 1997 the PLA rounded up and executed 30 suspected terrorists during Ramadan of 30 alleged separatists. This lead to protests in the city of Ghulja Region of Xinjiang autonomous region of China and The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) killing at least nine people in bringing the protests under control. The other point to note – and this is important in terms of the CCP reaction – is that whilst there have been other terrorist attacks, they are relatively few and far between across the years. Again, this is not to condone terrorism. It is just to put the terrorist acts into context by saying that we are actually dealing with a very low number of terrorist acts.
- Wikipedia suggests that the CCP views the Xinjiang autonomous region of China as strategically important for its “Belt and Road Initiative” and that the CCP may view the local population as a threat to the success of the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Before we get to that Initiative, the section in the Wikipedia article on CCP Policies from 2009-2016 talks about an extensive program of modernization in Xinjiang with this modernization program having links with Kazakhstan to the East of China. A process of what we might term “ethnic or religious oppression” in Xinjiang has been implemented almost in tandem with the modernization process in the region. This brings us back to the “Belt and Road Initiative” which was announced in 2013 with the Xinjiang territory being at the heart of the project as shown by this map where Xinjiang has is strategically important for six Belt and Road land routes.
- I have reported multiple times on China’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), providing evidence that the UFWD seeks to exercise influence and control over the Chinese diaspora through, for example, threatening family members still in China. I have also reported how the UFWD tries to influence local politics in countries around the world through “front organizations” that seek to “influence” local Chinese who might be able to help the CCP further its strategic aims in different countries, Australia included. Well, guess what, in terms of ethnic or religious oppression, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission and the State Administration for Religious Affairs have been under the control of the United Front Work Department since 2014. In this context the Wikipedia article refers to “sinicization of ethnic and religious minorities”. Here we have the true CCP face of the UFWD.
- By 2017 “counter-extremism training centres” or “education and transformation training centres” had been widely established in the Xinjiang region and English-language news reports were calling the regime in Xinjiang the most extensive police state in the world. Wikipedia reports that, “In 2017 the region constituted 21% of all arrests in China despite comprising less than 2% of the national population, eight times more than previous year“. Remember the point I made earlier about the actual extent of the terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. Well, a University of California Professor suggested in 2019 that mass internments were unnecessary because there were only “isolated terrorist attacks”. My point would be that as far as I can see at the moment, mass internments were never necessary because the CCP was not dealing with a mass uprising. It was in fact dealing with a number of localized terrorist attacks that were, in a number of cases, responses to specific incidents from the police and the army.
- The final part of the Wikipedia article that I would mention is the “testimonies of treatment” from detainees as these “counter-extremism training centres” or “education and transformation training centres”. There are harrowing accounts of what has gone on in these centres. One might of course say, as I am sure that the CCP would say, that these accounts are just false and of course there is not much that one can do in the face of such denial beyond what I have been doing across seventy or so journal entries thus far. It is the burden of evidence that counts. Thus far I have presented evidence from a single source but even now one must surely ask whether China actions in the Xinjiang territory really have to do with trying to counter terrorism or is it the case that China is seeking to ensure that it has control over a region that is crucial to the success of its “Belt and Road Initiative’. I know which option I would take.
Reputable News Stories Would Suggest That Violation of Human Rights is Very Real in China
Now lets take a quick look at the new stories from the papers that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I cannot recommend the BBC news story on the Uyghur internment camps highly enough. Published in October 2018, it’s a combination of solid, fact based reporting combined with aerial images of the construction of internment sites that has been going on in the Xinjiang region over the last three years or so. At the same time the report is utterly frightening in terms of the lengths that the CCP will go to safeguard itself and its interests. For example, the news crew for this story landed at Urumqi airport and were immediately followed by five cars containing uniformed and plain clothes policemen. The crew were prevented on multiple occasions from filming. They were also prevented from interviewing locals and when the crew tried to head from Kashgar to another region known to have internment camps, they faced roadblocks on four separate occasions before they finally gave up.
Another facet to the story is the fact that the team presented aerial photos of the internment facilities to an architectural firm with significant experience in designing prisons. When the architectural firm was presented with images of the increase in building size at the facility in Dabancheng, they estimated that if detainees were being held in single rooms then the facility would hold around 11,000 people, which would make it one of the largest prisons in the world. However, if dormitories were being used rather than single rooms, then the facility would hold around 130,000 detainees. I’m going with the view that the Chinese authorities are in fact detaining Uyghur’s in over-crowded cells so let’s go with the figure of 130,000 particularly as Raphael Sperry, an architect and the president of the US-based organisation, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility concurred with the judgement of the architectural firm that the facility would hold at least 11,000 people and that the estimate of 130,000 could well be correct.
This fact, the fact of a single site, has to be contextualized in terms of there being 44 internment sites in the Xinjiang autonomous region. The report arrived at this number of facilities by asking GMV – “a multinational aerospace company with experience of monitoring infrastructure from space on behalf of organisations like the European Space Agency and the European Commission” to review the sites. Their conclusion. 44 of the sites were either high security sites or very high security sites. GMV also calculated that in terms of these 44 facilities, “the surface area of secure facilities in Xinjiang has expanded by some 440 hectares since 2003”. A 14 hectare site in the United States can house 7000, prisoners which would mean, assuming cells the same configuration, that the 144 hectares could house around 72,000 detainees. Now imagine dormitory conditions and do the maths.
A Forbes news article adds a new dimension to the story by reporting that according to the, “Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), between 2017 and 2019, the Chinese Government facilitated the transfer of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities from Xinjiang to factories in various parts of China”. The story goes on to say that according to ASPI, “80,000 Uighurs have been forced to work in factories that form part of the supply chains of at least 83 global brands“. ASPI calls upon countries to put increased pressure on China to end use of forced Uyghur labour and to end forced detention of Uighurs. Meanwhile. the United States has added it’s voice to the mix, accusing China of detaining Uyghur’s in “concentration camps”. Inflammatory language to be sure but Randall Schriver, who leads Asia policy at the U.S. Defence Department, has defended the use of the terms as appropriate given the scale of the detentions in China. Meanwhile, China has refuted claims that these are detention centres arguing that the alleged detention centres are, in fact, boarding schools and re-education centres.
The Ethical Question of Whether Victoria Should Be Signing Up to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”
It is time to come full circle by returning to the question whether the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews “should” have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China over the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Countries around the world have traded with China for years despite knowing that China has an atrocious human rights record. This being the case, I cannot see an argument in which the Australian Prime Minister could take the moral high Ground with Daniel Andrews. However, Covid-19 is re-configuring the world order with new questions being asked about China on an almost daily basis. In this context, it might be argued that the detention of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang autonomous region of China may well have to do with ensuring the success of the “Belt and Road Initiative”. As such there is a serious ethical question around engaging with China’s initiative and this question should not be ignored.
First Published May 12th, 2020