The human rights abuses currently being experienced by the Uighurs have led Muslims around the world to protest China. Yet, for nations like Afghanistan, where China is investing heavily, the financial benefits may outweigh the moral outrage.
The ongoing persecution and surveillance of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China has spurred condemnation and sanctions from many western countries. For many Muslim majority countries, though, close economic and political alliances with China have led to acceptance of and even support for President Xi Jinping’s policies toward the Uighur (or Uyghur) population.
The reason for that is predominantly the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious multinational infrastructure plan initiated by China.
Spearheaded by Xi, the BRI involves over US$1 trillion in investments spread across approximately 140 countries as of January 2021. For the countries receiving China’s investment, the economic impact is potentially enormous.
This puts the dozens of Muslim majority countries involved in the BRI in a tricky spot. For many followers of Islam, the human rights abuses currently being experienced by the Uighurs have led Muslims around the world to protest China and urge the international community to take action.
Yet, for nations like Afghanistan, where China is investing heavily, the financial benefits may outweigh the moral outrage.
Some countries have even supported the suppression of the Uighurs, citing China’s reasoning: that such efforts are necessary to stamp out radical terrorism.
The list of countries that have signed on to the BRI includes almost all the countries in which more than 90% of the citizenry are Muslim, among them three of the largest countries in the world: Pakistan (220.9 million people, with 92% being Muslim), Bangladesh (164.7 million, 93%) and Egypt (102.3 million, 90%).
Pakistan’s relationship with China
After Indonesia, Pakistan has the second largest Muslim population in the world at roughly 202.6 million. The nation uneasily shares its eastern border with India, the nation with the third largest Muslim population in the world and incidentally a country with its own record of human rights abuses against the religious minority.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been heralded as a defender of Islam around the world and has even gone so far as to compare the persecution of Muslims in India to the Jewish Holocaust.
Yet, on the matter of the Uighurs, Khan has been mostly silent, neither criticizing China nor defending the policy. Khan has claimed to know little about the situation and, in 2020, one of his advisers said of the issue, “We have zero concerns, absolutely zero concerns.”
For over half a century, China has supported Pakistan, providing both military and financial assistance in the ongoing conflict between Pakistan and India, which has at various times throughout the 20th and 21st centuries escalated to war and violent clashes at the border. That is the reason most people believe Khan has refused to critique China’s Uighur actions and likely never will.
Bangladesh’s relationship with China
Bangladesh also shares a border with India and for most of the past 50 years, the nations have had strong diplomatic ties. At the same time, China has sought diplomacy with Bangladesh due to its strategic location. The result is that the smaller Bangladesh has existed firmly in the middle of a battle between the region’s two biggest powers.
That might explain why Bangladeshis have been more willing to criticize China for its treatment of the Uighurs. In the last year, there have been multiple protests organized by Islamic groups calling for the end of Uighur oppression. The most recent protest, in mid-March, called for a boycott of Chinese products.
A similar protest occurred in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, on August 28, 2020, which was deemed “Uighur Repression Day.” The protest sought to bring attention to the issue and show a united front of Muslims from around the world.
Nevertheless, China’s state media is reporting that infrastructure projects in Dhaka are still going ahead, including a multibillion-dollar rail construction project.
Egypt’s relationship with China
Egypt’s response to China’s policies toward its Uighur population has been uniformly supportive.
In 2019, it was reported that the Egyptian government was allowing Chinese authorities to conduct raids in the country to roundup Uighurs who were living in Egypt. Among them were students at a Cairo university who were told they were being held on suspicion of being terrorists.
Egypt and China have officially partnered to combat terrorism and, in so doing, Egypt has supported China’s explanation for the detention and “re-education” of Uighurs.
The same year as the raids, Egypt, Pakistan and more than 50 other nations supported a statement that praised China for its “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” The statement, from Belarus, was a refutation of a separate statement signed by the United Nations and 23 nations condemning China for its treatment of the Uighurs.
Among other supporters of the Belarus statement was Saudi Arabia, a country whose state religion is Islam and where 100% of the population is officially Muslim.
China is investing billions in Egypt, which has become a major hub for international investment from all regions. Though Chinese investment in the country hasn’t reached that of other countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, its total investment in the country surpassed US$7 billion in 2019.
Currently, Chinese money is providing most of the backing for the creation of Cairo’s New Administrative Capital, the city’s US$3 billion new business district.
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