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What About a UN Mission for Xinjiang?

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

by Magnus Obermann, Beijing

Demands are being voiced to investigate China’s violations of basic human rights in Xinjiang by means of an independent observer mission. Although chances to realize such a mission are almost zero, the efforts might nevertheless not be in vain.

In the wake of a long expected top-level video conference between Chinese and EU leaders, European Council President Charles Michel on 14 September called on Beijing to allow independent observers to visit the autonomous region of Xinjiang, in the North-West of China. Concerns over (alleged) human rights violations and the construction of “re-education camps” for Xinjiang’s Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, next to the controversial security law in Hongkong, have become a major obstacle on the way to the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), originally envisaged to be concluded by late 2020 during the German EU council presidency and its China summit in Leipzig.

The first one to demand an independent, UN-led observer mission to Xinjiang was Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. At the press briefing following Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Berlin in early September, the Social Democrat even uttered he had noted a “willingness to collaborate on the issue” from the Chinese side. But is an independent UN mission for Xinjiang likely? Not really.

In fact, non-intervention into internal affairs is the guiding principle of Beijing’s international relations, upheld by the government of the People’s Republic ever since its foundation in 1949. Foreign Minister Wang Yi himself at the press-briefing added that his government would reject any “foreign interference in Chinese society”. Statistical evidence and a basic understanding of the functioning of the UN system would suffice to be sceptic about any observer mission on (or close to) the territory of a P5 member; but it gets even more complicated with regards to China’s Eurasian West, more precisely the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. In short, while independent foreign investigation of any political issue in China is always unlikely, it seems almost certainly impossible in the case of Xinjiang.

The reason is a complex nexus of political, legal, and economic matters, exacerbated by a deep historic and cultural gap. Xinjiang indeed is an unlikely part of China, as its cultural and ethnic ties with Central Asia are at least as close as with the Middle Kingdom. The so-called Heihe-Tengchong line is a strong indicator for China’s unequal cultural and population divide: Although the line geographically bisects modern China in two almost identical halves, more than 90% of Chinese citizens live in the traditional heartland East of the line, while only less than 10% settle in China’s inner Asia-leaning outskirts. During China’s last rise in the 17th and 18th century, the (Manchu) Qing dynasty conquered these areas and incorporated them into the Celestial Empire, resorting to violence in not just a few cases. Nevertheless, the region during these times did not enjoy the same economic importance as China’s maritime boundaries – which should later become object of imperialistic penetration from Europe and, inevitably, herald China’s descent and the so-called century of humiliations (1839-1949).

Although resettlement of ethnic Han-Chinese to Xinjiang started as early as in the 1950s, the region was long considered somewhat backward by most (Han) Chinese. Looking from Central Asia, however, Xinjiang seems less remote than the Sino-centred perspective suggests. Using Heihe-Tengchong as a baseline, a two-layered image of Central Asia is easily discerned. According to this, the political core of Central Asia (= the five Post-Soviet “-Stans”) is joined by an outer, cultural scope which consists of the geographical regions of “Siberia”, “Mongolia”, “Xinjiang”, and “Tibet”. What comes across like a mere thought experiment is, to no lesser extent, a heavy geopolitical burden which the outer scope of Central Asia is starting to feel again. The reason, of course, is in history and politics.

Despite some analysts’ belief (and maybe hope?), Chinese-Russian relations did not enter world politics with the Sino-Soviet split of the 1950s-1980s. They neither started with the short period of collaboration upon the end of WWII, nor with Russian interest in Manchuria. Instead, the beginning is marked by a joint venture of territorial expansion. It should not surprise that reinforced Manchu advance into Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet appeared around the same time as the Russian colonisation of Siberia; unhindered and sometimes in coordination with their counterpart China and Russia divided the area amongst the two of them. For the following decades, the treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) should become a cypher of this process that stilled the Russian hunger for expansion to the East while satisfying Chinese demands to control its new frontier (literally: Xinjiang 新疆) to the West.

Going beyond the above mentioned, three main phases (or leitmotifs) of Chinese relations with Xinjiang and the Central Asian region can be distinguished: Early Han and Tang dynasty trade contacts, the Qing dynasty Manchu expansion, and post-1991 modern day border management. While there was a vivid, two-sided exchange of goods and ideas in the first phase, a legally inspired notion of sovereignty started to play a key role in China’s foreign relations towards the Central Asian region in the 17th century. In one way or another, the latter resulted in today’s situation – the internationalization of ethnic minority issues in Xinjiang.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the five Soviet Socialist Republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan quite suddenly became independent countries. China compromised with its new neighbours, giving up on large territorial claims against the USSR, and made demarcation of borders and cross-border security management its top priorities. Instead of seizing the moment to reclaim the 34.000 square kilometres of previously Soviet occupied land that – due to the Qing legacy – had been Chinese during earlier stages of history, the government in Beijing decided to opt for a compromise. Given that the most part of disputed territories was held by the Central Asian countries, China was ready to lower (and in some cases denounce) its territorial claims in exchange for the Central Asian governments’ support to fight against the “three evils” of separatism, religious extremism and terrorism. Encompassing China’s imminent neighbours Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the Shanghai-5 were established in 1996, and in 2001 transformed into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), forming some kind of Asian OSCE with Russian and Chinese as official working languages (and potentially global ambitions with regards to the future of multilateralism).

A paradox at the first glance, an ever more pressing internationalization of ethnic minority issues emerged as by-product of the (quite successful) solution to the border questions. While it had been in both Moscow’s and Beijing’s best interest to keep these questions unanswered prior to (and during) the Cold War, not to destabilize the periphery but instead pursue a policy to uphold sovereignty by not enforcing it too bluntly, now paradigms changed. The accurate demarcation of borders led to a situation in which lax border management is an impediment to national sovereignty and defending it therefore translates into a new concept of “tight border, strict control” (in opposition to “the looser the frontier, the easier the rule” of the past).

National minorities which have lived close to (or even across) borders in the Central Asian region for centuries thus find themselves at the centre of attention. In China, whose vast edges have been populated by national and religious minorities for centuries, the influence of the central government is particularly palpable. To understand the Chinese (and similar Russian) concerns, one must question the idea that Kazakhstan’s, Latvia’s or Georgia’s independence post-1991 was inevitable, while Chechnya’s, Xinjiang’s or Tatarstan’s was not. In fact, the stability-driven approach of the 1990s and early 2000s, that turned into a unity-enforcing approach during the 2010s, could be accused of anything but a lack of strategic thinking. Compared to Russia, the pressure the Chinese government can exert of course is much more sophisticated, and thanks to the Belt and Road Initiative and China’s new economic power even reaches far beyond its borders into Central Asia – which is dependent on Chinese trade and finance.

Xinjiang’s appearance at the Chinese-German press-conference, by itself an unpleasant embarrassment for the Chinese leadership, did not come out of the blue. These days the EU finds itself torn between a geo-strategic struggle between China and the USA. Battle grounds of this struggle are trade policies, technological supremacy, arguably even the prerogative to design and interpret the next world order. IT giant Huawei’s inclusion to (or rather exemption from) the build-up of the EU’s new 5G network is just one of the most pressing questions in this context. It could be speculated that Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, another leading personality in China’s foreign policy, visited Europe to counterbalance a diplomatic offensive by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had visited some Central and Eastern European countries earlier in order to foster the anti-China coalition within the EU. Earlier Pompeo had already made clear that he was ready to confront Beijing over Xinjiang. Although EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the Spanish Social Democrat Josep Borrell, seems to acknowledge the challenge when talking about a “Sinatra Doctrine” or the return of the new empires (China, Turkey, and Russia), the HR’s problem, however, is that the institution he resides over is, to use an expression coined by Mao Zedong, still a paper tiger.

Retrospectively analysing Chinese interaction with the political and cultural scope of Central Asia, leitmotifs of Chinese frontier relations with Russia and Central Asia, as well as the overall dynamics of world politics, the conflict involving Xinjiang’s Uighurs seems predetermined. Whether things were bound to develop like this (or were even planned by some evil power) is impossible to answer. But that does not matter because it is not even the right question to ask. The right answer to take home is, however, that an independent UN mission to investigate the crimes in Xinjiang stands no chance to ever be implemented in any way Western politicians might wish. Be it due to superior strategic planning or pure coincidence, China has taken precautions to block such a simple interference in what it considers a domestic affair. If Wang Yi seems to approve an observer mission, it is most likely to take place under the umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and consisting of its member states. Only beginner’s skills in forecasting are required to predict the result. And just like in Nerchinsk, Russia has decided that cooperation with China suits its national interests better than confronting the powerful neighbour.

But no need to end on such a pessimistic note. One of Sun Tzu’s most quoted aphorisms urges not to go to battle unless one has already won. My guess is that, when talking about the feasibility of an independent observer mission, this round goes to China. Meanwhile the EU should think of a more holistic strategy to protect human rights and live up to its values. It cannot liberate one million imprisoned Uighurs’ or rebuild demolished religious shrines any day soon. Nevertheless, China should not — and I am convinced it will not — underestimate the power of the call for investigation itself. This, however, means that even demanding the impossible can be the way. It would be crucial to continue these calls and at the same time find a format where they can be heard without being dragged into any sort of geostrategic confrontation. One could even claim that this way has worked before, in Helsinki, and helped to lead the world out of the Cold War. So, after all, beware of a tiger’s teeth, even if it is just a paper tiger.


Magus Obermann, Beijing

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