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Is China a “Responsible Great Power”?

President Xi Jinping would like everyone to pay attention to how China is exerting leadership in world affairs as a “responsible great power.” While the Trump administration is in retreat, Xi is taking full advantage of the leadership vacuum. He has, for example, emphatically supported globalization in response to Trump’s narrow nationalism, promised many billions of dollars in aid to developing countries that have signed up for the Belt and Road Initiative, promoted energy conservation and solar power at home, tried to play the honest broker in the North Korea-US dispute over nuclear weapons, and contributed importantly to UN peacekeeping missions. Xi can certainly claim that China is a major player on the most pressing international issues, but how responsible a great power is it?

China’s international record has a number of significant blemishes. It has defied a ruling of an arbitral tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that censured China’s military buildup and ecologically damaging activities in the disputed South China Sea islands. It has tried to create an air defense zone in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) to keep US, Japanese, and other aircraft out of another disputed area. It has been putting pressure on Taiwan’s government to dissuade it from any movement toward independence or increased official contacts with the US.

Here I want to focus on two other rather blatant demonstrations of international irresponsibility. Both relate to large-scale violations of human rights: the mass incarceration of Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province and support of the Myanmar (Burma) government’s ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority. China’s failure to acknowledge these major abuses of human rights is consistent with Xi’s repression of dissent at home and concentration of power in the party-state, both to an extent not seen since the Mao era. But these are not ordinary abuses: They involve large, homogenous populations whose cultures are being systematically wiped out.

By now the Xinjiang roundup of Muslim families, perhaps a million people in all, has been widely reported and internationally condemned. The “reeducation centers,” sometimes also dubbed “counter-extremism training centers,” have been captured on satellite photos and video. Uyghurs, who are still the ethnic majority in Xinjiang, have been imprisoned in an effort, justified as counter-terrorism, to change their language, religion, and way of life—in short, ensure that their primary identity and loyalty is to the Chinese party-state. Now that the party’s secret is out, some Chinese officials have painted an entire population as enemies of the state who must be under surveillance at all times. It’s an Orwellian situation, with face-recognition cameras everywhere, the rule of law entirely absent, and tens of thousands of Han Chinese minders dispatched to villages to live with and report on Uyghur families.

In Myanmar, the most recent United Nations investigation casts the situation as “an ongoing genocide.” More than 700,000 Muslim Rohingyas have been driven from their homes into Bangladesh. Myanmar tried, with China’s support, to block the lead investigator’s briefing of the Security Council. He said: “The Myanmar government’s hardened positions are by far the greatest obstacle. Its continued denials, its attempts to shield itself under the cover of national sovereignty and its dismissal of 444 pages of details about the facts and circumstances of recent human rights violations that point to the most serious crimes under international law.” The investigator suggested referring the matter to the International Criminal Court.

Sadly, the UN special investigator on human rights in Myanmar reports that Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of the country, “is in total denial” about the brutal military campaign of rape, murder and torture of Rohingya. “Right now, it’s like an apartheid situation where Rohingyas still living in Myanmar … have no freedom of movement,” the special investigator said. “The camps, the shelters, the model villages that are being built, it’s more of a cementing of total segregation or separation from the Rakhine ethnic community.”

China’s support of the Myanmar government’s intransigence is founded on the noninterference principle, a perfectly respectable principle except when it becomes a convenient excuse for ignoring terrible events next door by pretending it’s wrong to speak out. Criticism of the military is not “helpful” and the situation is “complicated,” Chinese officials have said. They have called for “dialogue,” as though the rampaging Myanmar military has the slightest interest in talking. “Dialogue” is China’s alternative to Security Council and General Assembly resolutions that China has voted against since 2007.

Most likely, Chinese policy is motivated by Beijing’s treatment of its own ethnic minorities: avoid internationalizing inhumane behavior outside China that is going on inside China. Evidently, support of human rights for all is not part of being a “responsible great power,” whereas support of crackdowns on innocent minority peoples is.

More articles by:

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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