Most African states have stayed silent as Western nations and rights groups condemn China over a recent United Nations human rights report on China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region.
The report, published by then-U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet on her last day in office in August, said China’s actions against Uyghurs and others in the Xinjiang region “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity,” citing abuses such as arbitrary detention in camps, torture and sexual violence.
Some Western nations and their allies are now pushing for the U.N. to establish a commission of inquiry to further investigate the report’s findings. But whether that happens depends on the number of member states who side with the West.
China’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Chen Xu, delivered a joint statement September 13, during the 51st session of the Human Rights Council, saying the Xinjiang assessment was “based on disinformation and draws erroneous conclusions.” The statement was signed by 28 other countries, with close to half of the supporters from African countries such as Burundi, Cameroon, Comoros, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Last year, out of 43 countries, only two in Africa, Eswatini and Liberia, signed a U.N. communique condemning China’s policies in Xinjiang. In June, they signed again, but they are rare outliers.
South Africa, the continent’s third-largest economy, neither signed the letter supporting China’s position nor staked out a position critical of China. Analysts told VOA that South Africa — seen as the continent’s leading democracy — has simply mostly remained silent on the issue.
“South Africa, with its proud tradition as a shining example for human rights, struggles now, saying nothing about China’s apartheid,” said Magnus Fiskesjo, an associate professor at Cornell University’s Department of Anthropology, alluding to a system of discrimination and segregation that took place in South Africa from 1948 to 1994
Officials from South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
Siding with China
Cobus van Staden, a China-Africa expert at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said that because of China’s economic clout, most African countries simply don’t want to “pick a fight” over Xinjiang, which, to many, seems far away.
“We’ve seen most African countries side with China, and this includes a lot of majority Muslim countries. … In terms of how the African partners will vote on the human rights council [if there is a vote], I tend to fear that they will probably vote with China,” he said.
There are reasons for this, he said. China is Africa’s biggest trade partner, far outstripping the West, and a lot of African countries “tend to be quite suspicious of separatist movements and quite suspicious of militant or political Islam.” Nigeria, for example, has been plagued by Islamist militant groups.
Analysts say some African countries can relate to China’s position, as stated by the state-run Xinhua news agency, that “Xinjiang-related issues are not about human rights, ethnicity or religion at all but about combating violent terrorism and separatism.”
Van Staden said that it all plays into the wider animus between the West and its former colonies on the continent, with some African states seeing the West’s raising of rights issues such as Xinjiang as hypocritical considering the United States’ rights violations at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.
African nations, according to observers, are also unwilling to alienate China, their Belt and Road initiative benefactor and the source of massive infrastructure loans.
Beijing has been offering African diplomats trips to the Xinjiang region, trying to present its position. Xinhua reported last year that ambassadors to China from the Republic of Congo and Sudan defended Beijing’s “anti-terrorism” efforts at a lecture in Beijing. Burkina Faso’s ambassador to China, Adama Compaore, reportedly said “Western forces” were “hyping up” the issue.”
Zeenat Adam, deputy executive director of the Afro-Middle East Center in Johannesburg and a former South African diplomat, said such tours by China are “a very strong marketing exercise of trying to continue their reach into Africa and by getting countries from within the African region … to see things from a Chinese government perspective.”
“It ensures that their investments and their trade into Africa is unhindered and unquestioned,” she added. “Investments from China are lucrative, not just for South Africa but for the entire African region, and this really affects the level of which any of these governments may question the mighty Chinese superpower regarding its policies on Muslims.”
China’s Muslim supporters
Egypt is among the Muslim countries in Africa that have supported China on the Uyghur issue, says Bradley Jardine, a political analyst who focuses on China and recently published a study for the Wilson Center on China’s global campaign against the Uyghurs.
“Across the Muslim world, it’s a very diverse region with very diverse strategic interests,” he said. “There are a lot of economic interests at play, particularly [with] actors such as Egypt, who in 2017 detained hundreds of Uyghur students and deported them to China.”
According to Jardine’s research, more than 1,500 Uyghurs abroad have been detained or extradited — many in North Africa.
Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said she sees a slight decline in joint statements with China on the Xinjiang issue. “The number of signatories has not only plateaued but, in fact, recently dropped.”
“Plenty of other African states have abstained, declining to join China’s counternarrative,” she said, pointing to Eswatini and Liberia, who joined other countries in condemning China’s policies in Xinjiang.