Too often, the world tends to view human rights and religious freedom as being less important than economic issues and trade concerns. And by putting issues of religious persecution and mass human rights abuses on the back burner, the community of nations emboldens totalitarian regimes and condemns the vulnerable to lives of misery, torture and even death.
China is a case in point. Over just a few decades, the Communist country has transformed itself from an impoverished agrarian society to an industrial powerhouse and the world's second largest economy after that of the United States.
Despite undertaking massive economic reforms, China remains a totalitarian police state that denies its citizens basic human rights. And yet countries such as Canada and international organizations like the World Bank seem to gloss over Beijing's horrific human rights record. They prefer instead to focus on issues of poverty reduction and liberalized trade.
The World Bank was established at the end of the Second World War at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire by the United States and other Allied nations. The World Bank was designed to facilitate the reconstruction and the economic development of the world in the aftermath of the war.
In recent decades, the World Bank has focused on reducing poverty in the developing world. However, it is clear that the leadership of the Bretton Woods institution has tunnel vision and cannot see the suffering inflicted upon some of the world’s most vulnerable people by a powerful regime.
In a recent speech, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim praised China’s commitment to liberalized international trade and poverty reduction. But he failed to address the world’s most troubling human rights situation: China’s internment of Uighur Muslims in a series of so-called re-education camps. The camps are reportedly concentration camps where prisoners barely survive inhumane conditions and are forced to undergo Communist indoctrination.
Chinese trade expo
On Nov. 5th, Kim delivered an address at the opening of the First China International Import Expo hosted by Shanghai, China. With Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the audience, the Korean-American declared that it was “an honour and a pleasure” to attend the event.
The World Bank president then launched into a cringe worthy review of the totalitarian regime’s economic reforms and poverty reduction strategy. “This year China celebrates 40 years of reform and opening up,” said Kim. “And this event signifies the tremendous progress that China has made in those four decades by opening the country to trade, foreign investment, and ideas.”
However, the ideas embraced by China’s Communist regime do not include respect for the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to freedom of religion, belief and/or conscience.
Kim, sounding more like China’s advocate than the head of an international institution dedicated to making the world a better place, went on to say that “by embracing reforms and openness in its development model, China has increased its per capita income 25-fold.” And he added that Beijing’s policies have supposedly helped to lift 800 million Chinese out of poverty. That number, said Kim, represents “more than 70 percent of the total poverty reduction in the world.”
According to the World Bank boss, trade liberalization has had a “pro-poor impact”. But he sounded the alarm, pointing out that the international trade liberalization agenda has stalled in recent years. And in a clear reference to the ongoing Sino-American trade war, he said that “in just the last few months we have seen an acceleration in the return to protectionism.”
The World Bank, dedicated to poverty reduction, has praised the economic policies of Communist China.
Kim warned that “the escalation of tariffs will negatively affect the entire global growth outlook and slow down the pace of poverty reduction at a time when we can least afford it.” Trade protectionism would be detrimental to poor households in both the industrialized and developing worlds, he continued. And that could lead to more countries adopting damaging protectionist trade policies.
“We need to continue to support trade reforms that can deliver greater shared prosperity,” Kim said of the need to remove trade barriers and reduce subsidies that distort markets.
Praise for China
Kim praised the Chinese regime for enduring the pain resulting from the economic adjustments undertaken after China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. And he said that Beijing helped workers affected by liberalized trade by providing “better safety nets, active labour market policies, and lower agricultural taxes and fees.”
As glowing as Kim’s remarks were to the expo audience, he wasn’t done heaping praise on the Communist regime. “By ensuring that all layers of society gained from opening up, China ensured continued support for its reform programs,” he declared.
The World Bank president even went so far as to say that the world could learn from China’s example. “This is a lesson for everyone,” he said, asserting that “policy packages should ensure that trade gains are shared widely.” And he asserted that “with trade, we don’t have to choose between inclusiveness and economic growth.”
The irony of Kim’s statement cannot be overstated. China’s authoritarian policies isolate religious and ethnic minorities, depriving them of economic inclusion, basic human rights, and sometimes physical freedom.
When it comes to advancing international trade, Kim said that workers and communities hurt by globalization “need to be at the front of our minds.” And to underscore his point, and probably win favour with the authoritarian regime, Kim quoted President Xi’s 2017 speech at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. In that speech, Xi compared the global economy to “the big ocean.”
Kim paid the Communist leader an even greater compliment by borrowing the ocean metaphor. “For us, the challenge is to put every country in a position where it can swim in this ocean,” said the Bretton Woods institution official.
Kim then talked about his recent trip to Guizhou, where the poverty rate was supposedly reduced from 30% of the local population to 8% in less than five years.
The World Bank president concluded his stunningly uncritical appraisal of Chinese policies by saying that he hoped that discussions at the expo would “bring new ideas and avenues to pursue reforms, make the global market system work for everyone and the planet, help end poverty and ensure quality of opportunity for everyone in the world.”
The harsh reality is that China has one of the worst human rights records in the world. According to the Amnesty International Canada website, “human rights violations in China are widespread, touching many sectors of society.”
For example, the human rights organization asserts that the Communist regime leads the world in the number of executions performed. Not only does the regime execute violent criminals, even some non-violent offences are punishable by death.
However, Amnesty reports that data on death sentences and executions is not available, as it is classified as secret. And the NGO alleges that “judges’ decisions are open to political interference and trials do not come close to meeting international standards.”
In addition, Amnesty documents the harassment, persecution, intimidation, and arbitrary arrest and detention of Chinese human rights defenders, political dissidents, and government critics. “They face harassment, intimidation, arbitrary and illegal detention, enforced disappearances, torture and even the possibility of death in custody as a result of their activities,” alleges Amnesty.
Similarly, Human Rights Watch paints a bleak picture of China’s violation of basic human rights. According to the nongovernmental organization’s World Report 2017, “more than three decades after pledging to ‘reform and open up,’ there are few signs the Chinese Communist Party intends to change its authoritarian posture.”
According to Human Rights Watch, “the outlook for fundamental human rights, including freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion, remains dire” under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.
Anyone concerned about human rights would be justified in taking Kim to task for his appalling speech. For example, when Kim talks about equality of opportunity for all, one cannot help but wonder if he believes that equality should apply to Uighurs and other oppressed faith communities in China, including Christians and practitioners of Falun Gong.
The fact is that if everyone is to enjoy equality of opportunity, they must first be freed. No one locked up in a gulag or concentration camp is free. No one beaten, fed starvation rations, and forced to undergo Communist re-education reminiscent of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution can be considered to be free. They do not enjoy the benefits of globalization.
Xinjiang region (XUAR)
In 2013, the Communist regime proposed the closure of its Re-Education Through Labour (RTL) camps. “These hold petty criminals, drug addicts, Falun Gong practitioners, minor political dissidents etc. for up to four years at the discretion of the police with no due process of law,” Charles Burton told me in a 2013 email interview. Burton is a Brock University associate professor specializing in comparative politics, government and politics of China, Canada-China Relations, and human rights.
“The concern is that if the RTL camps are closed, they may be replaced by other institutions that will be outside of the judicial process, such as it is, in China,” Burton stated. “After all, the RTL inmates have to be sent somewhere; they are not likely to be simply released.”
The U.S. State Department estimated in 2013 that Falun Gong members made up about 50% of the approximately 250,000 officially-recorded prisoners in China’s RTL camps.
In 2013, China’s more than 300 RTL camps were a part of a much larger security apparatus that locked away prisoners of conscience. Amnesty International warned that unless the regime undergoes fundamental change, “Chinese authorities will abolish one system of arbitrary detention only to expand the use of others.”
Time has proven Amnesty International’s concerns to be well founded.
In China’s far-western Xinjiang region, the Communist regime has reportedly interned at least a million ethnic Uighurs and other Chinese Muslims in brutal political re-education camps that Beijing refers to as “vocational training centres”.
The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination alleges China detains and tortures Uighur Muslims.
In the summer of 2018, a United Nations panel unveiled its report on discrimination in China. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released its assessment of the situation in China on Aug. 30th, covering issues such as “the absence of formal national human rights institutions” as well as the alleged torture of “Tibetans, Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, peaceful political protestors and human rights defenders.”
In addition, the UN committee expressed concern over “reports that certain Uighur detainees have been held incommunicado for prolonged periods, putting them at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.”
The UN report devotes an extra section to the situation in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and “the detention of large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities” under the pretext of combatting terrorism. They are arrested and detained without charge or trail. Although the committee did not have any official data on the numbers of people held in re-education camps, it speculated that the number of detainees could be “upwards of a million.”
Uighurs, notes the report, are being incarcerated “for even non-threatening expressions of Muslim ethno-religious culture like daily greetings.”
Moreover, Uighurs not interned by the state still feel the full weight of the Communist regime’s oppressive security apparatus. The UN panel notes that they endure mass surveillance by the state, “including frequent baseless police stops and the scanning of mobile phones at police checkpoints” as well as “mandatory collection of extensive biometric data in XUAR, including DNA samples and iris scans.”
The threat to Uighurs extends to those living abroad. The UN alleges that some have been forced to return to China against their will. “These are fears about the current safety of those involuntarily returned to China,” the UN report states.
“While acknowledging the State party’s denials,” the report states, “the Committee takes note of reports that Uighur language education has been banned in schools in XUAR’s Hotan, Hetian prefecture.”
Not surprisingly, the Chinese regime rejected the committee’s findings, claiming that Beijing was only targeting “extremist and terrorist crimes”. And the regime categorically denies that one million Uighurs are being held prisoner. Yet the regime has acknowledged the existence of re-education camps for people convicted of “minor offences”. It claims that the camps are merely education and vocational training centres.
During a Nov. 6th meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the regime repeated its denials of mass human rights abuses being perpetrated in XUAR. “We will not accept the politically-driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheang said in response to calls from Canada, the United States, Japan, and other members of the UN body to address the abuse of Muslims in XUAR.
Nevertheless, the plight of Uighur Muslims in China of 2018 appears dangerously similar to that of German Jews in 1939.
On November 7, 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rose in the House of Commons to deliver an apology on behalf of the Government of Canada to the passengers of the MS St. Louis. In 1939, as Jews were being persecuted and interned by Hitler’s Third Reich, the 907 German Jewish refugees abroad the ocean liner were refused safe haven in Canada.
“The passengers had been stripped of their possessions, chased out of their homes, forced out of their schools, and banned from their professions by their own government,” Prime Minister Trudeau said of the passengers of the St. Louis. “Their synagogues had been burnt. Their stores raided."
Trudeau recounted to his fellow parliamentarians how the German Jews had been forced to wear yellow stars and “to add Israel or Sarah to the names they had known their whole lives.” Despite being productive members of society, the Nazi regime labelled them as “aliens, traitors, and enemies – and treated as such.”
The Prime Minister pointed out that German Jews were “persecuted, robbed, jailed, and killed because of who they were.” And the authoritarian regime not only denied them citizenship, but also “their fundamental rights.”
After being denied permission to land in Cuba and the United States, the passengers of the St. Louis appealed to Canada to take them in.
“But the Liberal government of Mackenzie King was unmoved by the plight of these refugees,” Trudeau declared in the House of Commons.
On November 7, 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rose in the House of Commons to deliver an apology on behalf of the Government of Canada to the passengers of the MS St. Louis.
“Despite the desperate plea of the Canadian Jewish community, despite the repeated calls by the government’s two Jewish caucus members, despite the many letters from concerned Canadians of different faiths, the government chose to turn its back on these innocent victims of Hitler’s regime,” continued the Prime Minister.
“The MS St. Louis and its passengers had no choice but to return to Europe, where the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, and Holland agreed to take in the refugees.
After the Nazis invaded and conquered Belgium, France, and Holland, stated Trudeau, many of the former passengers of the ship that Canada had turned away were “murdered in the gruesome camps and gas chambers of the Third Reich.”
In addition, the Canadian leader acknowledged that “the story of the St. Louis and its passengers is no isolated incident,” admitting that “the Government of Canada was indifferent to the suffering of Jews long before the St. Louis ever set sail for Halifax, and sadly, long after it had returned to Europe.”
Standing in the Commons, Prime Minister Trudeau declared: “We apologize to the 907 German Jews aboard the MS St. Louis, as well as their families.
“We also apologize to others who paid the price of our inaction, whom we doomed to the ultimate horror of the death camps.
“We used our laws to mask our anti‑Semitism, our antipathy, and our resentment.
“We are sorry for the callousness of Canada’s response. And we are sorry for not apologizing sooner.”
As Trudeau wrapped up his address, he talked about the world of today and how “too many people – of all faiths, from all countries – face persecution.” And he stated that the lives of the persecuted “are threatened simply because of how they pray, what they wear or the last name they bear.”
Trudeau pointed out that the persecuted are forced “to flee their homes and embark upon perilous journeys” in search of safe haven.
“This is the world we all live in and this is therefore our collective responsibility,” he declared.
The fact is that in modern China, the Uighurs face state harassment, and many endure torture and internment. Unlike refugees, the Uighurs are prevented from fleeing their homes and seeking safe haven. Instead they are rounded up and incarcerated.
Trudeau’s St. Louis apology was a strong statement in defence of human rights and a cautionary tale of indifference. And it was heartening to hear him declare that the plight of the persecuted is the world’s “collective responsibility.”
However, the Prime Minister’s lofty rhetoric on human rights does not match the Trudeau government’s disappointing response to China’s persecution of the Uighurs.
In September 2018, on the sidelines of the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland held a bilateral meeting with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.
According to a Sept. 25th post on Freeland’s Twitter account, she and the Chinese foreign minister discussed “the state of the rules-based international order, multilateralism, the WTO [World Trade Organization], and how to strengthen [the] Canada-China bilateral relationship.” However, she made no public mention of China’s massive crackdown on and internment of Uighur Muslims in China.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland held a bilateral meeting with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2018.
That same week in New York City, Freeland and Trudeau took part in an international policy discussion sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. The topics included trade and the importance of defending democracy, diversity, and human rights.
During the question and answer session, a representative of Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental that advocates for human rights and the persecuted, confronted Trudeau and Freeland with the horrific truth about the internment of Uighurs in China. She asked if the Trudeau government would protect Uighurs from being deported to China. And she also wanted to know if Canada would lead an international coalition to protest China’s internment of the persecuted Muslim minority.
In response, the Prime Minister gave a weak, self-congratulatory answer, boasting about how Canada always raises human rights issues in bilateral meetings. But Trudeau failed to specifically condemn Beijing’s internment of Uighurs and other Muslims minorities. He would only say that Canada had raised the issue with the Chinese.
Similarly, Freeland’s answer was disappointing. The foreign affairs ministers acknowledged that she had raised the Uighur issue during her meeting with the Yi. Then she went on to tell the Human Rights Watch representative that Canada is “not perfect” when it comes to human rights, citing Indigenous issues. “We are humble about our inadequacy, and that is really important,” she said contritely.
“Starting from that place, we do think it’s important to speak up about human rights around the world,” she added.
The pursuit of poverty reduction and a rules-based liberal international trading order must not be allowed to override serious concerns about gross human rights abuses in China being perpetrated on a massive scale. In fact, the mass internment of Uighurs and other Muslims must be addressed immediately by the community of nations, because it could be setting the stage for genocide in Xinjiang region.
It is important to remember that Nazi Germany first discriminated against and harassed Jews before interning them and then finally executing the so-called Final Solution. Six million Jewish people were murdered in Nazi death camps.
In November, 2018, Canadian Minister of Finance Bill Morneau and Minister of International Trade Diversification Jim Carr travelled to Beijing to take part in the Canada-China Economic and Financial Strategic Dialogue.
Minister of International Trade Diversification Jim Carr took part in bilateral talks in Beijing.
Given that the Canadian government knows that the Communist regime has interned a million innocent Chinese just because they are Muslims, why did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau send his ministers to Beijing to take part in economic talks, thereby legitimizing a regime that might be preparing to commit genocide?
It is equally repugnant that the Trudeau government seeks to deepen economic ties with the brutal Communist regime. Canada should not pursue free trade negotiations with a regime with the worst human rights record in the world today.
When U.S. President Bill Clinton was negotiating China’s entry to the World Trade Organization, he believed that by integrating China into the world trading system, the Communist country would have to reform not only its economy, but also its political system, allowing for freedom and human rights. History has proven Clinton wrong.
U.S. President Bill Clinton oversaw negotiations to admit China to the WTO.
Joining the WTO forced China to modernize its economy. But engagement with the rest of the world in the sphere of trade has not led to democratic reforms or a respect for human rights in China. In fact, China’s economic might has made the brutal Communist regime more arrogant and less willing to conform to international norms.
Rather than praising China's economic policies, the World Bank should point out that the Communist regime's brutal persecution of the Uighurs is the antithesis of inclusion and a clear violation of human rights.
Under President Donald Trump, the United States is no longer a defender of human rights. That means it is up to the Canada and other liberal democracies to fill the void left by Trump.
Instead of politely raising mass human rights violations in closed door meetings with Chinese diplomats, the Trudeau government and its allies should join together at the United Nations, the G20, and other international forums to publicly call the Communist regime to account for interning a million innocents.
However, the Trudeau government needs to do more than offer statements condemning Beijing's persecution of the Uighurs and other faith communities. The Prime Minister should also suspend government-to-government economic and trade talks.
When Prime Minister Trudeau told the House of Commons that Canada would "never again" turn its back on the persecuted, he made a solemn commitment to uphold human rights and religious freedom. That commitment is now being tested by Beijing. Will Trudeau rise to the challenge?
In the final analysis, Justin Trudeau, on behalf of Canada, apologized for turning away Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis in 1939. Today China is interning Uighur Muslims. Yet Canada continues to do business with China, thereby legitimizing a grotesque regime.
Will a future Prime Minister one day apologize to Uighurs for Trudeau’s inaction in 2018?
Never again? Hardly.
Note: This article was updated on Nov. 13, 2018.
Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian journalist specializing in international affairs, human rights, religious freedom, and political economy. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston