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[Research Reports] On the UN Report on Human Rights Issues in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Jun Kumakura (Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Hosei University)
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Research Group on 'China' FY2022-# 1

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

With the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China just around the corner, the Xi Jinping administration's governance in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is once again attracting attention. From July 12 to 15, President Xi Jinping personally visited Xinjiang and toured Urumqi, Shihezi, Turfan, and other areas. Chinese state media reported Xi Jinping's friendly interactions with the people in various places and touted the fact that "stability" had been achieved in Xinjiang. The Xi Jinping administration sees its Xinjiang policy so far as a success and promotes it as such.

Although such Chinese propaganda is viewed critically by Western democracies, it has actually gained traction to a certain extent, in particular among developing countries. As discussed in an earlier paper by this authori, even when the UN Human Rights Council issued a statement condemning China's Xinjiang policy, a numerical majority of countries endorsed a dissenting statement defending China.

Nevertheless, China could not stop the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) from releasing a report critically discussing human rights issues in Xinjiang. On August 31, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet timed the release of this landmark reportii to just ten minutes before the expiration of her term of office at 12:00 midnight Geneva local time.

Harsh Assessment of Bachelet

When the OHCHR report was released, it was welcomed with relief by Western society, the Uyghur community abroad, and others. However, there have been some harsh evaluations, including one directed at the long time it took to release the report.

Bachelet visited Xinjiang in May and had an online meeting with Xi Jinping, but her stay in Xinjiang lasted only two days and she was not allowed to inspect the area unconditionally. Not only that, Bachelet ended up having to meekly listen to China's claims that human rights issues are improving in Xinjiang while the West is trying to interfere in China's internal affairs under the pretext of human rights, and so on. Therefore, after her visit to China, there was a widespread view that Bachelet had gained nothing in China or that she had been successfully used by the Chinese side.

Bachelet subsequently withstood Chinese pressure and released the report, but even then some questioned why it could not have been released earlier. Despite the fact that OHCHR issuing a report on human rights issues in Xinjiang itself has epoch-making significance, Uyghurs and Kazakhs living abroad who have lost contact with their families would have wished that the report had been released as soon as possible. Bachelet may also be subject to accusations of irresponsibility in issuing the report just before the expiration of her term of office.

Bachelet's report is naturally opposed by the Chinese side, according to which it is a "mishmash of false information". Ultimately, the report failed to satisfy either side, seemingly the result of being caught between China's logic regarding the current situation in Xinjiang and the grief-stricken cries of the Uyghurs and other victims.

A Down-to-Earth Report

Nevertheless, this author personally believes that the OHCHR report has some interesting points. First, it explains the problematic nature of China's "anti-terrorism" policy from the perspective of Chinese law. Second, it does not use the word "genocide" in its analysis.

What does the OHCHR report say? Much of the media coverage has focused on the conclusion that there is a high probability that serious human rights violations are taking place in Xinjiang. However, that is not all that is written in the 46-page report. In fact, the first half of the report is devoted to an analysis of China's "Anti-Terrorism Law," "Measures to Implement the Anti-Terrorism Law for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region," and "De-radicalization Regulations for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region," among others. The problematic nature of the fact that China's term "anti-terrorism" is based on a vague concept and that law enforcers are given a great deal of discretionary power is carefully discussed based on Chinese laws, ordinances, white papers, etc.

It is also noteworthy that the word "genocide" is not used throughout the report. This may be partly a strategic consideration to avoid a rupture with the Chinese side and to maintain dialogue, but it is probably not the only reason. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights did not readily accede to the "genocide" argument. As argued in this author's bookiii, there are limits to lumping together the various aspects of the Xinjiang problem under the concept of "genocide". This does not mean that the problem is not serious. The Xinjiang problem has reached a level of evolution that cannot be fully described by the concept of "genocide," which was created at the time of World War II.

The OHCHR report is quite down-to-earth in this sense. This probably has something to do with Bachelet's visit to China. Did Bachelet really gain nothing from her visit to China in May? Certainly, there was no way to uncover evidence hidden by the Chinese side. Still, it would be wrong to say that there was no point in actually going to China and listening to China's claims. To a large extent, the report highlighted the fact that the "stability" in Xinjiang propagated by the Xi Jinping administration is actually based on the violation of the human rights of local residents through the arbitrary application of the "anti-terrorism law" system.

Bachelet was a person who listened relatively closely to China. That same Bachelet put out a report that acknowledged the existence of human rights violations. This seems to have added a certain persuasiveness to the report as a result.

i Jun Kumakura, "China and the Joint Statement on Xinjiang and Hong Kong," The Japan Institute of International Affairs, Japan, September 2021.

ii Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, "OHCHR Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People's Republic of China," 31 August 2022.

iii Jun Kumakura, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: 70 Years of Chinese Communist Rule, Chuokoron Shinsha, 2022, last chapter.