There is the official version and the truth. The BBC reportage published last autumn tried to show both. “I love the Chinese Communist Party”, read the diary of one of the Uyghurs taking part in a “training camp”, who was visited by a team of journalists with the permission of the authorities. But they didn’t manage to conceal everything. Like the inscription in the toilet, seen by the British journalist, who was unwittingly allowed to enter, which said: “My heart is not yet completely broken”.
On Thursday, Dutch MPs gave credibility to the true version. In a special resolution, they declared that the fate inflicted on the 13-million Uyghur community, that maintains an identity separate from the Chinese Han because of its Turkish ancestry and Islamic faith, bears the hallmarks of genocide.
“No camps of this scale have been built for ethnic persecution since the Second World War”, says the initiator of the resolution, Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, an MP from the centrist Democrats 66 party.
His group was part of the recently broken government coalition, as was the Protestant ChristenUnie, another party that supported the resolution. However, Prime Minister Mark Rutte himself and his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) did not choose to support it before the elections on 17 March – even though he is at the forefront of denouncing the authoritarian trends in Poland and Hungary.
“No government single-handedly can define the conduct of another country as genocide. That’s the role of international tribunals”, explains foreign affairs minister, Stef Blok.
The stakes of the conflict with China are high. The Netherlands, which has risen to second place in the EU, just after Germany, on the list of the largest exporters to China, hopes that cooperation with Beijing will help pull the country out of the economic slump into which the pandemic has driven it.
It is, however, a difficult dilemma. The seat of the International Court of Justice is within a quick bicycle ride from the Dutch government building, and serves as a constant reminder of how committed the Kingdom should be to fighting for human rights. The truth about the fate of the Uyghurs, despite China’s attempts to hide it, is becoming increasingly clear. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has shown on the basis of satellite images that under Xi’s rule the number of camps in Xinjiang is growing so fast that there are already at least 380 of them now. At least one million people are imprisoned behind high concrete walls topped with barbed wire and guard towers, and more than three million have passed through them. As UN experts highlight, inside the camps women face forced sterilisation and even rape, the inmates are subjected to communist indoctrination and work in slave-like conditions.
In the face of these reports, four days ahead of the Netherlands, the Canadian House of Commons also passed a resolution declaring the treatment of the Uyghurs a genocide. But here too, on the day of the vote, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who much like Rutte is one of the iconic liberal politicians in the world, was absent from the chamber. Foreign affairs minister Marc Garneau also abstained from the vote, “on behalf of the government”.
Now a similar battle between more values-driven parliamentarians and governments that put business first is beginning in Brussels. The investment agreement with China, signed on the penultimate day of the German presidency (30 December), which satisfied Beijing’s loose promise to take into account International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards, is at stake.
“This agreement will defend our interests and our fundamental values. It gives us the tool to eradicate forced labor”, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted immediately after the deal was struck.
But Reinhard Bütikofer, MEP for the German Greens, has no illusions: “This is a deal that was pushed through at the instigation of Germany and France against the position of many EU countries.” Now a growing group of MEPs want China to ratify the ILO deal before the agreement is approved by parliament, which would take months if not years. This was the condition the European Parliament set before agreeing to a similar deal with Vietnam.
The example of the Netherlands also presents a challenge for the Polish parliament. It was the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin who coined the term “genocide”, and nowhere did the Germans build as many concentration camps as in occupied Poland.
But above all the world is waiting for the reaction of the new US administration. In his first conversation with Xi, Joe Biden raised the issue of the Uyghurs. But Congress wants much more. In the autumn, a group of influential senators introduced a resolution that also recognised the tragedy in Xinjiang as “genocide”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a similar term on his last day in office (19 January). At that time, however, it did not cost him anything.