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On 12 to 14 October 2020, the 24th Forum 2000 Conference “A New World Emerging? Restoring Responsibility and Solidarity” took place, due to the current situation as an online event. With a total of 23 panel discussions and prominent panelists from all over the world, the conference discussed the perspectives of freedom and democracy in the post-Covid era. As Jakub Klepal pointed out in the forum’s opening statement, the conference was to have a closer look at Asia and Africa, the two continents where much of the world’s future will be shaped. However, it also raised concerning topics like the rise of populism across the world, the developments in Belarus, or the dire human rights situation in China.
The latter was addressed on the first day of the forum, in a panel discussion called “China: A human rights conundrum”. The invited speakers were Lobsang Sangay, President of the Central Tibetan Administration; Nury A. Turkel, an Uyghur American lawyer and Commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; and Wai Ting Loretta Lau, a Hong Kong artist and activist currently based in Prague. During the discussion they talked about the serious human rights violations committed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime mainly in Tibet, East Turkistan, and Hong Kong, calling for awareness and action. From the panel, the audience could take away the universality of China’s human rights violations, which should not be understood as a domestic problem of China but as an international one. In other words, it was yet another wake-up call to show empathy with the people of Hong Kong, East Turkistan, and Tibet and stand up for human rights. Not just as an act of solidarity, but also to stand up to China’s growing influence around the world. At the end of the discussion there stood a clear call for action: “Either we change China or China will change you”.
Wai Ting Loretta Lau found even stronger words to express this: “We can stand together and hold China accountable or we can choose to become the next victim”. She told the audience out of her own experience as a Hongkonger, talking about how Hongkongers (just like the rest of the world) lacked empathy with Tibetans and Uyghurs when Chinese authorities first started to interfere in Tibet and East Turkistan. They were sure, something like that would never happen on their land. Since 2019, however, the situation in Hong Kong has changed. They had to witness serious human rights violations, especially since China passed the National Security Law in June 2020. Recently, peaceful protesters were labeled as terrorists and faced severe police brutality and arbitrary arrests, school teachers were disqualified for discussing freedom of speech with their students, and people have been arrested and held incommunicado for illegal border crossings to Taiwan.
Nury A. Turkel painted an even darker picture, elaborating on the concentration camps in East Turkistan where Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities face a military drill-like system and are subjected to political indoctrination and forced labor. Even though there are no official numbers, an estimate of one million Uyghurs is detained in these camps, which Chinese authorities claim to be vocational training centers. According to Lobsang Sangay, about half a million Tibetans face a similar fate. It is certain, however, that it is the largest internment of an ethnoreligious group since World War II, says Mr. Turkel. Therefore, he invoked the holocaust as “the only adequate point of comparison for what is happening to Uyghur people”. This comparison should be understood as the means of powerful storytelling to inspire international action, but also illustrates the horrifying similarities between the Chinese internment camps and the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. In the Chinese internment camps, Uyghurs and other, mostly Muslim, ethnic minorities are stripped of their cultural and religious identity, are “reeducated” in a sinicization process, and reportedly subjected to torture and abuse. During his speech, Mr. Turkel referred to experts that report the forced sterilization of thousands of Uyghur women, which lead to a significant decline of births in East Turkistan by about 24% last year. These efforts of Chinese authorities to decimate the Uyghur population could very well be categorized as genocide according to international law, which is why the US Commission on International Religious Freedom advocates calling Uyghur internment camps by this name.
You may ask yourself how such large-scale human rights violations can continue so blatantly without major sanctions or uprisings by the international community. How Disney thanked the CCP’s propaganda commission in the Xinjiang region in the movie’s credits after filming “Mulan” on sets close to several concentration camps. Or how some protective gear like masks, which are sent all over the world to curb the coronavirus outbreak, are manufactured by modern-day slaves called Uyghurs.
After listening to the panel discussion, you might come to some conclusions. Firstly, there is the economic dependence of the private sector that fears to be denied access to the huge Chinese market. Similarly, few Sinologists, for example, are critics of the CCP, as a prohibition by the Chinese authorities to visit the country would seriously jeopardize the credibility of their work. Secondly, as Lobsang Sangay indicated: “the tentacles of the Communist Party of China have already penetrated global organizations”. Four out of the 15 UN specialized agencies have a Chinese Secretary-General. In many of the remaining, other important positions are filled with Chinese personnel. Furthermore, one day after the Forum’s panel discussion, China was elected back to the UN Human Rights Council. This is how, according to His Excellency Mr. Sangay, China continues to redefine international standards and human rights, prioritizing development over democracy and food over freedom. If the international community carries on with business as usual, China will continue to act with impunity in the name of poverty alleviation.
So, what can be done to call China to account for its human rights violations and to change its behavior? The three panelists had several suggestions. First, speak up. Lobsang Sangay noted that the Chinese leadership cares about its image in the rest of the world, so public condemnation of Chinese human rights violations should make news more often. Likewise, governments should issue public statements as they prove to be far more effective than bilateral dialogue on human rights. The more people speak up, the more likely China will listen. Second, have empathy and compassion. Wai Ting Loretta Lau advocated not to underestimate the important role every single one of us can play to help and stand by all those who suffer human rights violations. Due to the covid-19 pandemic, there can be observed a certain trust-deficit towards China in several Western democracies. Lobsang Sangay and Nury A. Turkel consider this a chance for democratic governments to take legitimate action against China. For example, third, through targeted economic sanctions. To prevent compliance with human rights violations, companies should be held accountable for their supply chains. Furthermore, the cooptation of western elites by China through their people-to-people diplomacy should not be tolerated. And fourth, journalists and businessmen should not only be encouraged to criticize the Chinese human rights record, but they should also be protected from subsequent Chinese reactions. Finally, not only businessmen should show responsibility, but also consumers. Mr. Turkel gave the example of the export of Uyghur women’s hair to the US, reported last July. Do we want to buy beauty products that were made in concentration camps?
Interestingly, the panelists' answers on what to do to fight the human rights violations in China also somehow fit into the four things Timothy Garton Ash highlighted in the Forum 2000’s opening: “If we have these four: truth, solidarity, strategy, and responsibility, there will be brighter times ahead”. However, the discussion made clear that now is the time to act. Now is the time to stand by the Hong Kong democratic movement, now is the time to recognize the genocide in Xinjiang and to fight to defend international human rights standards. Silence is complicit. Or to follow suit with Mr. Turkel and quote Elie Wiesel, co-founder of the Forum 2000, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and holocaust survivor: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”