Imagine that tomorrow morning Israel amasses troops on the outskirts of Ramallah. A plane carrying the Palestinian leadership regrettably crashes en-route to negotiations in Israel. To avoid another unfortunate accident, a few Palestinian leaders ‘agree’ to ‘merge Palestine into Israel’. The next day, Israel’s Parliament (the Knesset) declares the West Bank as the 'Palestinian Autonomous Region', an indivisible part of the State of Israel. A regional government is appointed, made up of Jewish Israelis and ‘friendly Muslims’. Civil servants are sacked if they ‘look Muslim’ (i.e., wear beards if they are men or veils if they are women, if they fast during Ramadan, etc.) Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis are settled in the Region, lured by better-paid government jobs, while the Region’s Muslim inhabitants are ‘encouraged’ to move elsewhere to ‘better assimilate’ into the Israeli society. Any dissent is swiftly and brutally dealt with, the leaders being either executed or carefully ‘re-educated’ over a few decades in prison.
If you think that such scenario would cause a global uproar the like of which has never been heard before – you are certainly right. But hey – don’t worry! Just give it a bit of time, they’ll all get used to it. Look forward to a visit from UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Right Honourable Whateverthenamewillbe, who will smile kindly and offer his country’s considerable expertise and entrepreneurial spirit to help develop the Palestinian Autonomous Region to its full potential.
What – you think that’s extremely unlikely? Well, you may be right again. But it has just happened elsewhere.
Situated to the north of Tibet, the territory of Xīnjiāng has been, for many centuries, inhabited by a Muslim population speaking Uyghur – a Turkic language. Like many other territories, Xīnjiāng (pronounced Shinjang in Uyghur) has had a turbulent history – alternating between Mongolian, Chinese and Tibetan rule; occasionally, the Uyghurs managed to govern their own affairs – at some point even establishing an Uyghur Khaganate. The latest such attempts occurred twice in the 20th century, when Uyghurs declared the territory’s independence under the name of East Turkestan Republic. In August 1949, with the Chinese Communist Army approaching, five Uyghur leaders boarded a Soviet plane, to attend a conference in Beijing; they all perished in a mysterious accident. It was thus left to three other leaders – who wisely chose to travel by train! – to agree to join the People’s Republic of China. Communist China incorporated Shinjang as the Xīnjiāng Uyghur Autonomous Region. Several Uyghur armed groups continued to resist the Chinese takeover, but were eventually defeated, their leaders either fleeing or being caught and executed.
Enticed with plush jobs, millions of Han Chinese have settled in the ‘Autonomous Region’ – causing the ratio of Uyghurs in the Region's population to plummet from 73% in 1955 to circa 45% in 2000.
Just like every other Chinese citizen, Uyghurs are required to learn Mandarin and use it in dealing with the authorities. Overt displays of Uyghur nationalism – however peaceful – are harshly suppressed as ‘separatism’. Muslim religious practice is ‘subtly’ and not so subtly discouraged.
Hundreds and perhaps thousands of people have been killed in the frequent bouts of violence that erupt in the Region, with Uyghur rebels clashing with Han settlers, as well as with the Chinese police and army. Nobody really knows how many have been imprisoned and executed.
In May 2014, the otherwise ‘progressive’ New York Times reported that China’s leader, Xi Jinping,
has called for tighter state control over religion and for better assimilating Uighurs into Chinese society, including moving more Uighurs from Xinjiang to other parts of China, where they can live among the Han, the nation’s dominant ethnic group.
The paper further reported that Mr. Xi also announced that China will use “special measures” in Xinjiang to “deal with special things”. No specifics were given.
Even Amnesty International – which usually treads as if on eggshells when it comes to criticising dictatorships – reported:
On 28 July , state media reported that 37 civilians were killed when a ‘knife-wielding mob’ stormed government offices in Yarkand County (in Chinese: Shache) and that security forces had shot dead 59 attackers. Uighur groups disputed this account, putting the death toll much higher and saying rather that police opened fire on hundreds of people who were protesting against the severe restrictions placed on Muslims during Ramadan. Uighurs faced widespread discrimination in employment, education, housing and curtailed religious freedom, as well as political marginalization.
But all that did not stop the Right Honourable George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, from visiting China at the head of a large delegation, eager to increase the economic cooperation between the two countries. Mr. Osborne has even visited Xinjiang – presumably to see how British firms can benefit from China’s investments in the Region’s infrastructure – an infrastructure that (so Uyghurs claim) is designed to serve the Han settlers.
By the way, words like ‘settlement’ or ‘settlers’ were never pronounced in the many speeches and interviews given by the Right Honourable on this occasion. Nor are they to be found in any official UK declaration in the context of China. There is clearly a big difference (though also a very subtle one, ‘coz I can’t see it!) between Han Chinese settling in Xinjiang and Jewish Israelis settling in the West Bank. Because when it comes to the latter, Her Majesty’s Government does not mince words:
Our position on settlements is clear: they are illegal under international law…
Needless to say, none of the disciplined and ‘progressive’ mainstream journalists who interviewed Mr. Osborne was rude enough to ask why that exalted International Law applies to one case, but not the other. Nor did Her Majesty’s Opposition – rendered even more ‘progressive’ by its new leader Jeremy Corbyn – raise any major moral objections to the idea of a closer relationship with the Chinese Occupation (‘occupation’ – either with or without the capital ‘O’) was yet another word blatantly absent from the whole UK-China conversation).
In case you wondered, let me reassure you that there are no plans to distinctly label Chinese products made by Han settlers in Xinjiang or Tibet – even though the UK Foreign Office wants to ‘expedite’ the implementation of such labelling for products made in Israeli settlements.
Nevertheless, some people and organisations did criticise Mr. Osborne’s visit and his eagerness to collaborate with China, pointing out that the Communist regime in Beijing is one of the world’s worst human rights violators. But even that criticism was calm, measured and polite; there were no calls to ‘Boycott, Divest and Sanction’ China – that particular punishment appears to be reserved exclusively for use against the Jewish State.
Mr. Osborne has shrugged off even that light and mannered criticism, explaining that
I have raised the human rights concerns that we have with the Chinese authorities as part of the broader conversation.
The conversation must have been very broad indeed – or perhaps it was conducted in Chinese whispers. Because the Chinese hosts don’t remember that part at all. In fact, the Chancellor has been praised by Chinese government-controlled media for… not raising the human rights issue. One Chinese paper called him
the first Western official in recent years who focused on business potential rather than raising a magnifying glass to the 'human rights issue’
The paper further opined that Mr. Osborne’s behaviour should be emulated:
It should be diplomatic etiquette for foreign leaders not to confront China by raising the human rights issue. Keeping a modest manner is the correct attitude for a foreign minister visiting China to seek business opportunities.
Mr. Osborne may not be “foreign minister”, but he appears to understand why he is required to keep “a modest manner”:
Of course we're two completely different political systems and we raise human rights issues, but I don't think that is inconsistent with also wanting to do more business with one-fifth of the world's population.
And therein is – obvious for all but the wilfully blind to see – the double standard: China is a huge country – as well as an economic, political and military power. Israel is almost exactly the size of Wales and its economy is on a par with those of Singapore and Hong Kong. Her Majesty’s Government does not wish to upset China; it does not care if it upsets Israel – in fact that might earn it a few brownie points with Arab dictators who rule over half a billion people and command the majority of the world’s oil and gas reserves.
All of which does not make it moral. In fact, it reminds me that, a few years ago, I was walking with a Jewish friend through the streets of Amsterdam. All of a sudden, my friend – a happily married, moral-to-the-point-of-obsession man – knocked on a window and asked the woman inside ‘How much?’ ‘Eighty euros’ answered the prostitute, ‘do you want to come in?’ ‘No’, answered my friend, ‘I just wanted to know’.
And so, since the UK Government’s benevolent interpretation of International Law appears to be for sale – just like the body in the Amsterdam window – may I respectfully ask Mr. Osborn how much it is? I just want to know…