Muslim leaders still put self interest above the lives of the Uighurs

Notoriously, and arguably quite shamefully, last year, over thirty Muslim-majority countries signed a letter commending China on its human rights record, whilst innocent Uighurs in the Xinjiang region were being detained in modern day concentration camps for engaging in anything that was deemed Islamic: whether that is mandatory acts of worship, bearing the name ‘Muhammad’, or owning a compass (to determine the direction of prayer). Global Muslim leaders have turned their back on the Muslim minority that they should be caring about most right now, in a bid to preserve their economic interests with China.

Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Egypt, Eritrea, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates, were among the first to step forward to sign the 2019 letter of support for China’s behaviour towards the Uighurs. Since then their ranks have been joined by the Government of Palestine who all applaud China’s ‘counter terrorism and anti-extremism’ measures. A phrase which has been used by China to justify its maltreatment of some one and a half million Muslims, including upwards of one million Uighurs who are being subjugated by enslavement as forced labour, and the systematic sterilization of their female population.

The region of Xinjiang where the Uighurs reside was briefly independent between 1944 and 1949 until its re-annexation led by Mao Zedong. In 1955 the People’s Republic of China created the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region as a concession to the non-Han population and in parallel with similar arrangements for Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Since then, the communist government has been trying to shape the Uighur culture to reflect their own by infiltrating more and more Han people into the territory. This policy has been only intensifying over the years, with its biggest impact being felt in the early 2000s, whilst the world was distracted by the international ‘war on terror’ led by President George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The legitimisation of events in Xinjiang by the world’s Muslim political leaders is not just harmful for Uighurs, but potentially for other Muslim minorities around the world. It sends a sign of approval to other global leaders that it is lawful to exercise similar anti-Muslim policies in their respective countries under the banner of dealing with ‘Islamic terrorism’. The likes of such can already be seen in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi who introduced a citizenship law last year allowing non-Muslims who entered the country before 2015 to become legal citizens – and by default denying Muslims the same privilege. Research shows that terror attacks carried out by people of a Muslim background already receive on average 357 percent more media coverage than acts committed by any other group. To remain silent in the face of blatant discriminatory practices against Muslim minorities is to perpetuate the dangerous concept that Muslims pose a security threat everywhere and that they deserve to be repressed.

The complacency that global Muslim leaders have shown on this issue does not align with Islamic principles. These are leaders who proudly defend Islam within their own borders but have nothing to show for it in the international arena by limiting their own agency in response to the Uighur cause. The recent boycott of French products within the Middle East gives a glimpse of the action that could be taken against Chinese imported goods if Muslims were to mobilise on the issue. However, this depends on momentum garnered by Muslim leaders in response to China’s activities, which has failed to materialise. Economic insecurity coupled with weak diplomatic relations of most Muslim-majority countries means they are wilfully succumbing to global powers like China for investment and foreign aid, rendering them powerless, overly dependent, and in denial of the Uighur issue. The Western countries that have condemned China’s policies at the UN this year have once again shown themselves to be more considerate of human rights, and ironically, more in line with true Islamic values than an overwhelming number of Muslim leaders.

Perhaps, this isn’t a question of benevolence on behalf of global leaders, but rather a question of who has the capacity to challenge China, a country that is growing in wealth every year and has expanded its outreach in the world by investing in places like the Western Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East, regions that all share a degree of economic instability. Western economies can be crowned the champions in this regard. But it also serves as a gloomy reminder that one’s material conditions are to be put first before much needed action is taken in solving issues elsewhere. One thing is for sure: global Muslim leaders must be reminded of the duty specified in the Qur’an upon all Muslims to be upholders of justice even if it may entail going against their own self-interests and those of their kinsmen. This includes economic and political gain; a reminder that now holds stronger than ever for Muslim leaders in response to China’s treatment of the Uighurs.

Image above from Ürümqi (Chinese: 乌市, Wūshì), formerly known as Tihwa, the capital of the Xinjiang is by andy chung from Pixabay

Things go from Bad to Worse in China

Next Century Foundation Secretary General William Morris explores how we can all take action in response to China’s atrocious treatment of the Uighurs and behaviour over Hong Kong in his weekly podcast: Issues of the Week

China’s treatment of the Uighurs and its behaviour over Hong Kong demands a response. Governments do nothing but we can take action. We could start by boycotting Chinese goods. Not easy. Amazon fails to put countries of origin on the goods it markets. A little campaign to force Amazon to do so would do no harm – and for those environmentally inclined would enable us to buy goods without so many air miles (should Amazon comply). One way to twist Amazon’s arm would be to buy our books elsewhere. Here are a few alternative book platforms listed by country:


Bookshop – supporting local bookshops; Hive – books, eBooks; Biblio – rare, special, and used books; Alibris – books, textbooks, movies, music; Big Green Bookshop; Eurospan Bookstore;


Bookshop – supporting local bookshops; Biblio – rare, special, and used books; Alibris – books, textbooks, movies, music; Indie Bound – independent bookshops in U.S.; Thrift Books – second hand books; Book Outlet; Libro – Audiobooks through local bookstores; Overdrive – audiobooks through your local library; Hoopla – borrow movies, eBooks, music with your library card


World of Books


Eurospan Bookstore; Fnac – books, CDs, DVDs, films, electronics, homeware


Fnac – books, CDs, DVDs, films, electronics, homeware; Recyclivre – secondhand books; Label Emmaus – secondhand books and other items; La Librarie – books from local bookshops; Place des Libraries – books from local bookshops; Libraries Independentes – books from local bookshops


Indigo – books, toys, wellness, homeware, fashion, electronics;;


Better World Books; Book Depository; Book Mooch – book exchange; Wordery; eBooks

Australia & New Zealand

Biblio New Zealand – rare, special, and used books; Biblio Australia – rare, special, and used books;; Boomerang Books – independent bookstore; QBD Books; Dymocks

Non-Book Platforms


Fnac – books, CDs, DVDs, films, electronics, homeware; Pres de chez nous – supporting independent ethical stores; Label Emmaus – second hand books and other items


Fnac – books, CDs, DVDs, films, electronics, homeware; Pres de chez nous – supporting independent ethical stores


Indigo – books, toys, wellness, homeware, fashion, electronics


Bonanza – various products available; Etsy – independent sellers; Pres de chez nous – supporting independent ethical stores

UN Oral Intervention: End the Oppression of Ethnic Minorities in Xinjiang

The following has been submitted in the format of an Oral Statement to the 45th session of the UN Human Right’s Council, prepared by a Next Century Foundation Research Officer.

The indoctrination of over a million Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China infringes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Next Century Foundation is dismayed at the lack of support for these fellow Muslims shown by the Arab World.

Recently the State of Palestine’s President Mahmous Abbas stated Palestine, “Would continue to firmly stand with China and resolutely support China’s just position on . . . Xinjiang”. 

The 41st session of the UNHRC witnessed the submission of a letter supporting China’s policy in Xinjiang from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Republic of Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Arab Republic of Egypt, amongst others.

That letter described China’s policy as “a series of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang” stating that the “fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there are safeguarded”.

Whilst we recognise China’s desire for a cohesive collective identity, against the backdrop of decades of foreign interference and induced fragmentation during the ‘Century of Humiliation’, the violation of basic Human Rights is inexcusable.

The Next Century Foundation asks for a UN led investigation into international corporate complicity in the employment of these detained ethnic minorities within China. We also ask that China aligns its national labour standards with those held by the International Labour Organisation.

Additionally, it would be helpful if Amazon, an organisation that has featured wrongly or rightly in complicity allegations, were to include the country of origin on the descriptions of goods they market. We call upon the international community to boycott goods produced in China until such time as China’s treatment of its Muslim minorities reaches standards that accord with the United Nations Human Rights Charter.

A Better Understanding of China’s Thinking

Why has China risked international condemnation with their treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang? Why do they feel the need to exert such a high level of control over civil society? This blog will attempt to demystify China’s thinking behind these controversial decisions.

Whilst it would be all too easy to attribute current policy programmes to the authoritarian nature of the current Chinese state, China’s history of empire, domination and the formulation of Han nationalism against a backdrop of a diverse number of ethnic minorities should be given greater importance.

The ‘100 Years of Humiliation’, a period ending in the mid-20th century, is key to understanding how China has regarded their position on the international stage. This period saw decades of economic exploitation by Western imperialists and political domination from Japan and Russia. Considering the length at which China experienced such foreign interference, it is unsurprising that they pursue an agenda to strengthen both their nationalist identity, but also their identity as a strong, independent political actor (examples here can include their treatment of ethnic minorities and Hong Kong). Indeed, in 2013, current President Xi Jinping emphasised the ‘Chinese Dream’, referring in part to the need to ‘rejuvenate’ China as a nation.

China has portrayed the detention of Eastern Turkic Muslims, specifically the Uighurs in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, as a necessary step in the reduction of terrorism. China’s official justification to the existence of these ‘Vocational Training Centres’ is that they need to protect their populations against a terrorist threat and need to pre-emptively reduce the spread of extremism.The state has connected the terrorist threat to the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist, militant Uighur group. However, whilst China is officially an atheist state and wary of religious separatism, this alone cannot explain the prosecution of an entire ethnicity.

Considering how far reaching China’s economic investments are, it is likely that they recognise their influence, subsequently discouraging challenges to China from other states. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would help illustrate this, specifically in the case of Kazakhstan. Despite reports stating there to be thousands of Kazakhs imprisoned in ‘Vocational Training Camps’ in Xinjiang, the Kazakhstan government has so far remained quiet on this gross abuse of Human Rights. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, BRI countries’ debt to China has increased significantly since their participation in this infrastructure scheme. In Kazakhstan, which joined the initiative in 2013, the percentage of debt owed to China increased by 8.3% by 2016. This raises the possibility that Kazakhstan has felt unable to challenge China on its treatment of Kazakhs due to the economic significance of their relationship.

All in all, the driving factors behind China’s decision-making process are linked to strengthening the image of a strong, singular identity of the Han Chinese people, a fixation encouraged by a history of exploitation by foreign powers. In addition to this underlying theme, their economic omnipresence has led to a fear of opposition to such a policy. China perceives the Uighurs to be a threat to ethnic nationalism, rather than a genuine threat to their national security, a perception which has been moulded by a history of fragmentation, and confidently carried out against a backdrop of economic dominance.


The Kazakhs of Xinjiang

The treatment of the Uyghurs in China has raised human rights concern globally, less discussed however is the equally horrific treatment of the second largest ethnic minority in north-western China – the Kazakhs.

The vast majority of the Kazakh population residing in China’s border are descendants of those who fled from the modern-day state of Kazakhstan during 1916-1941. The increasing voluntary and forced migration of ethnic Russians to the central Asian republics resulted in mass displacement of central Asian peoples from their homeland. Angered by the Russification/Sovietisation policies of the government in Moscow, a large rebellious movement took hold in these republics (the Baschami Movement). However, the movement had largely subsided by 1926 after the Soviet government’s iron-fist approach to rebellion in the Central Asian Republics. The result was thousands of fatalities and the mass destruction of the agrarian livelihoods of the local population. Combined with the government’s mismanagement of food and labour, the Kazakh people were also victims of two devastating famines in 1919-1922 and 1931-1933. Thus, an approximate 200,000 Kazakhs fled across the border. By 1941, the number of Kazakhs living in China was reached an estimated 325,000. The current number is estimated to be around 1.8 million Kazakh Chinese citizens.

Like the Uyghurs, the Kazakhs also present a challenge to China’S majoritarian view. Facing calls for separatist movements in the Xinjiang region from members of its ethnic minorities, China has increasingly clamped down on what it deems dissent from the local population. The Chinese government’s problem with the Kazakh minority focuses especially on the Muslim identity of the community. Thus, China has progressively increased the number of Kazakhs in re-education detention camps; China maintains they are vocational schools for criminal offenders. The aim of the Chinese government is to alter the identity of ethnic minorities (ideological purification). Hence, in re-education camps, detainees are forced to: embrace CCP propaganda, learn Mandarin, continuously recite Chinese rhymes and songs, and to give up their religion. Moreover, the detainees are fed only one meal a day, forced to sleep on metal beds, forced to provide biometric data (including voice samples and DNA) and undertake laborious activities on measly wages. As more escapees have come forward, the vast scale of the human rights abuses and torture endured by the detainees has become evident.

China asserts that it treats its ethnic minorities well, arguing that those in Xinjiang have a measure of autonomy. The Kazakhs who mainly reside in Illi Autonomous Kazakh Prefecture, part of the larger Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, vehemently oppose the actual degree of autonomy granted to the minorities. As per China’s law, the individual head of the autonomous prefecture or region should be given to the region’s ethnic minority. Yet with China’s authoritarian political system in which the CCP dictates the affairs of the state, power resides with the local Party Secretary. The local Party Secretary is a post elected by party officials and is given to those of a Han Chinese background and not to those from an ethnic minority. Indeed, this was a major contributing factor to the outbreak of protests in 2008 in Xinjiang.

China has a longstanding fear of ethnonationalism amongst its ethnic minorities and especially those in Xinjiang. The Kazakh people straddling the 660-mile long Kazakhstan-China border have traditionally traversed the border without too much concern for the Westphalian understanding of state boundaries. The fear of Kazakh ethnonationalism and terrorism rising in China’s north-west has worried the CCP into coercively carrying out the mass detention of Chinese Kazakh citizens. Travel between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang also raises suspicion amongst China’s authoritarian government. Kazakhstan features as one of twenty-six countries deemed “sensitive”, meaning any travel to and from the country raises suspicion leading to interrogation and arrests. This has included the arrests of Kazakhstan’s citizens who are simply visiting family members in China.

The role of Kazakhstan in the issue is double-edged. On the one side, there is growing resentment amongst its population against China’s treatment of Kazakhs; on the other is China’s economic importance to the state. Kazakhstan imports approximately 23% of its goods from China, and exports approximately 10% of its goods to China, resulting in China being the second largest exporter and importer for Kazakhstan. Furthermore, China’s aim to rebuild the silk road has economic importance for Kazakhstan, potentially allowing the country to benefit greatly from increased trade links with China and European states. The result has been to mainly reaffirm China’s view on the treatment of its ethnic minorities in its borders. Indeed, Kazakhstan went as far as to arrest Serikzhan Bilash, the leader of Atajurt – a large human rights NGO based in Kazakhstan assisting Kazakhs with family members in China’s detention camps. Bilash, charged with inciting hatred, was eventually released owing to international pressure but on the condition that he would end his activism. Recently, Kazakhstan also arrested two protestors outside the Chinese Embassy in Nursultan who were demanding the release of family members in China’s re-education camps. Other times, however, Kazakhstan has successfully lobbied for the release of Kazakhs in re-education camps, China allowed 2,000 Kazakhs to give up their Chinese citizenry and emigrate to Kazakhstan. Moreover, Kazakhstan permitted two Chinese Kazakhs to remain in Kazakhstan despite their illegal border crossing on the basis that they may face persecution at the hands of China’s authorities.

As the international community becomes more aware of the grave human rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang, it is important to amplify the voices of the ethnic minorities of the region. At the very least, the release of minorities forced to live in detention camps should be guaranteed. China’s style of governance ensures that even when individuals are released from camps, there will be heavy monitoring of their activities. An approach to back Kazakhstan’s government to demand the release of detainees is unlikely to get far. Kazakhstan’s government is strategically and economically dependent on China and thus is unlikely to take any bold approaches. For now, the best approach may be to continuously raise the issue of human rights abuses on the global stage and challenge China’s government on its use of detention camps.



Healing the Nations – Book Now!

The Next Century Foundation’s 
Healing the Nations
Summer Conference


The Next Century Foundation is holding a ten-day online conference over the end of July and the first week of August.

Events will be taking place covering all of the Foundation’s key nations and areas.


To book, contact with details of which sessions you are planning to attend.
Sessions will run in the mode of the NCF’s successful weekly meetings, mixing input from knowledgeable speakers and key players with both breakout room and round table discussions.

This conference provides a unique opportunity to take stock of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and beyond, and gain on-the-ground insights simply unavailable in mainstream reporting.

We would be honoured if you would join us in confronting the key issues in these countries and working towards peace and positive change through constructive discussions – just have as we have for the last three decades.

Conference Sessions
(London BST)

Thursday 30 July 
11.20 am US/UK 
3 pm Lebanon

Friday 31 July
3 pm Palestine 

Saturday 1 August
3 pm Libya

Sunday 2 August
3 pm China

Monday 3 August
11.30 am Afghanistan 
3 pm Iran 

Tuesday 4 August
11.30 am Iraq
3 pm Syria 

Wednesday 5 August
11.30 am Kashmir 
3 pm Yemen

Thursday 6 August
11.30 am Israel 
3 pm Sudan

Friday 7 August
3 pm Bahrain

Saturday 8 August
3 pm Conclusions

Image: Sunrise in San’a, Yemen taken by yeowatzup / CC BY

The Kashmir Question: India, Pakistan, China?

Since the signing of the Simla Agreement in 1972, the Kashmir conflict has largely been viewed as the kernel in historically fraught Indo-Pak relations – a repository of long-standing ethno-religious divisions, opposing nationalist ideologies, and cross-territorial violence. In the wake of the UNHRC’s landmark 2018 report on the region, it has only recently been recognised that effective reconciliation in Kashmir is wholly dependent upon India and Pakistan taking joint responsibility for the endemic human rights abuses committed on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) i.e. the de facto boundary between India and Pakistan within Kashmir. Nevertheless, in framing the conflict in Kashmir as a wholly bilateral issue, such scrutiny has failed to properly account for China’s emerging role as a hitherto under-discussed third-party in the conflict. In light of China’s previous investments in other conflict zones, and its own history of human rights abuses, The Next Century Foundation’s researcher, Udit Mahalingam, examines how escalating tensions in current Sino-Indo relations can be situated against broader, multilateral disputes occurring at both the LoC and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) i.e. the de facto boundary between India and China within Kashmir. 

The recent June 15th clash between Sino-Indo security forces in the Galwan Valley (along the LAC between Ladakh and Aksai Chin) provides the ideal starting point for this discussion. The most significant escalation in over four decades of relations between India and China, the skirmish is emblematic of savage warfare at its worst, despite the enforcement of a 1996 border agreement, which prevents either side from “open[ing] fire […] within two kilometres of the Line of Actual Control”. At least twenty Indian soldiers, and an unknown number of Chinese security officials died in the conflict, perishing at the hands of “stones, iron rods and bamboo poles wrapped in barbed wire laced with nails”. With both nations accusing the other of territorial infringement and unilateral aggression, the question remains as to when the process of disengagement will resume, especially considering that Sino-Indo tensions were already simmering in the wake of the 2017 Doklam standoff.

Propelled by far right Hindu nationalism on one side and quasi-hegemonic expansionism on the other, the Galwan Valley conflict is the perfect example of how geopolitical gridlock is often maintained at the expense of ordinary lives, on both sides of the divide. As such, the ramifications that this clash has on the adjacent conflict in Kashmir cannot be understated. To begin with, it situates India’s current infrastructural investments on its side of the LAC within its wider unilateral interventions across the LoC, evidenced most prominently in the removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in 2019, as well as the subsequent security lockdown and communications blackout enforced within the region. Moreover, given the strategic importance of Ladakh as the point of intersection between the Indo-Pak and Sino-Indo border, the recent skirmish draws further attention to the importance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (C-PEK) in relation to the conflicts at both the LoC and LAC. 

At first glance, the C-PEK, a flagship for China’s wider Belt and Road Initiative, (BRI), seems to serve as just one of the many signifiers for China and Pakistan’s self-described ‘iron brotherhood’. Nevertheless, given China’s history of engaging in debt-trap diplomacy with other conflict zones in South Asia, it would be unwise to avoid scrutinising the superpower’s strategic investments in transport infrastructure (road-building, rail-line building, etc…) within Pakistan-administered Kashmir. In consolidating its control over the aforementioned region, China has represented itself as a seemingly sympathetic ally to the cause of self-determination amongst the Kashmiri population. Despite China’s well-documented persecution of its own minority Uighur Muslim population, the Galwan Valley conflict has only helped engender such a representation, setting the stage for potential third-party escalations within the region. To quote a recent report from the Observer Research Foundation, “the [Kashmiri] people are seeing China’s aggression as a lesser evil simply because it doesn’t affect their lives and livelihood directly”. Given the intensification of Indo-Pak and Sino-Indo relations, a three-way conflict fought on two fronts would not only shatter the existing bilateral agreement on the Kashmir issue, but would aggravate the humanitarian crisis at both sides of the LoC. The devastation left in the wake of such a conflict will serve as an additional setback to the wider process of reconciliation within the region. 

In view of the tensions between India, Pakistan and China, it is imperative that the international community recognise the multilateral dimensions of the conflict in Kashmir.  Given the rampant spread of ethno-religious nationalism on both sides of the LoC, a two-state solution may be near-impossible to negotiate, let alone implement. Nevertheless, despite the recent internationalisation of the region’s humanitarian crisis, third-party mediation via the United Nations would fail to account for the intensely tribalized nature of the conflict. This would only help stagnate progress towards long-term regional peacebuilding and reconciliation. In the Next Century Foundation’s view, a syncretist approach would be the most effective long-term solution to the conflict. Such an approach could potentially involve bilateral recognition of the LoC and LaC as official borders rather than loose demarcation lines, as well as a multilateral response to the associated humanitarian crisis (via international judicial institutions, such as the International Court of Justice). In light of the current stasis in Indo-Pak and Sino-Indo relations, it remains to be seen as to whether such a solution could ever be implemented.


What future for Hong Kong under China’s new National Security law?

For the people of Hong Kong, recent nights have not brought much sleep. On May 28th, the National People’s Assembly, the closest thing to a Chinese parliament, passed the National Security law, to be introduced to the city’s Constitution without consultation with either its government or its citizens.

The new law, targeting issues of terrorism and secession, as well as any act implicitly or explicitly aimed at attracting foreign interference in China’s internal affairs, is likely to become the new legal ground to prosecute pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. In the eyes of many, including the U.S. Secretary of State Mark Pompeo, this is the end of the autonomy afforded to Hong Kong under the ‘One Country Two Systems’ framework.  

Although certainly distressing, the news was not entirely unexpected. The law had been on the Chinese agenda since 2003 and was presented to the city’s Legislative Council on several occasions, only to be endlessly postponed due to mass demonstrations. After one year of protests, with Xi Jinping’s image strengthened both in China and abroad thanks to the effective handling of the pandemic, the time was perfect for the Chinese government to finally sort out the Hong Kong issue.

However predictable, the law is still bad news for those who hoped for a democratic Hong Kong: “We dreamed of Taiwan but will end up as a new Macao,” say activists of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. A powerful image, evoking the range of possible positionings of China’s semi-autonomous regions surrounding Beijing: Taiwan, the democratic and de facto independent “renegade province” on one side, and Macao, the former-Portuguese colony that enjoys Hong Kong’s same degree of autonomy but never makes the news, on the other.

Although both Hong Kong and Macao – and technically Taiwan – are included in the doctrine “one country, two systems”, their historical and development trajectories made them quite different interlocutors in Beijing’s eyes.

In the case of Macao, at the time of the handover those who did not want to submit to Chinese Communist hegemony were allowed to leave and move to Europe. The UK, on the other hand, denied full British citizenship to the people of Hong Kong where civil resistance to Beijing’s encroachments became an existential issue. Besides, due to the different development trajectories Macao is economically more dependent on the mainland than Hong Kong, whose main financial partners are Western democracies. As a result, the civil society movement is virtually non-existent in Macao: an alluring vision for the Chinese leadership who may be planning to level out the differences between the two.

But Hong Kong’s response could be violent: “We must firmly oppose the new law; it is essential not to lose momentum” – say PolyU students. Demosistō, the party founded by Joshua Wong and the other students who led the pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014, in an online appeal to the international community, stressed the need to continue to manifest dissent in any form.

A tug-of-war between the central government and the protesters will probably define the city’s near future. A key variable could be the international response to the issue: The United States has been a strenuous defender of Hong Kong’s autonomy, but as domestic dissent escalates, the Trump administration may be too preoccupied with protests within the USA to defend those protesting abroad.

However, some Hongkongers are convinced, the city will retain a certain degree of autonomy: “Hong Kong is more important to China than China is to Hong Kong”. Cracking down on the civil society may save the Communist Party’s face by restoring a sense of order in the region. But in the long run, China may want to keep on benefiting from Hong Kong as a privileged trading hub, especially in the light of growing rifts with the United States. If that is the case, Beijing may have to silently renegotiate its position.


Did China manufacture Covid-19?

The 73rd World Health Assembly began on May 18th – and it soon became yet another battleground between the US and China. Back in March, the Trump administration started repeatedly addressing the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus”, causing huge offence in Beijing. Since then, the two countries have been engaging in a mediatic war over who is responsible for the pandemic. The underlying assumption of this blame-shifting is that the virus has been bioengineered to serve as a weapon.

This conversation has proved dangerous on both sides: it not only provoked several attacks in regard to China and Chinese communities abroad, but it also injected a renewed sense of nationalistic pride in the Chinese and eventually reinforced an “East versus West” paradigm and the idea of an inevitable conflict between the two.

Narratives of this kind are as ominous as they are misleading. In the US, it is mainly conservative politicians who speculate that China created their virus out of their biosafety level-four laboratory located in Wuhan, where they suggest the outbreak originated. The first raising questions as to the possibility of a manufactured Covid-19 was American social scientist Steve Mosher, who published an opinion piece on February 22 entitled ‘Don’t buy China’s story: The coronavirus may have leaked from a lab’. Mosher, the president of the Population Research Institute, has also written a book entitled Bully of Asia: Why China’s ‘Dream’ Is the New Threat to World Order, which sheds a bit of light on his stance on the country.

Chinese criticism has been equally sharp but quite different in nature: allegations of a US-manufactured virus were framed more as a (not very) diplomatic response than as an actual inquiry into the American medical research. Xinhua, China State News Agency, has instead released a video advertisement that mocks the U.S. government and blames it for having underestimated the virus and having poorly handled the crisis causing many people to die. A type of criticism that may somehow be more constructive than blaming a government to have deliberately released a new-type disease as a weapon.

What is more important, however, is that none of this is backed by science. Experts worldwide have been debunking theories that Covid-19 originated in a lab. According to a study recently published on the biomedical journal Nature Medicine the molecular features of SARS-CoV-2 that are essential to initiate infection are so perfect that they can only be the result of natural selection and not the product of a genetic engineering process, even if performed by very clever scientists.

In interviews published on Business Insider and Scientific American, Jonna Mazet, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis, who has worked with and trained Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers in the past and Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli warn that there are at least four reasons why a leak would be unlikely. Besides the rigorous safety protocols implemented by the lab, it appears that the lab’s samples simply don’t match the new-type corona-virus.

The most likely explanation for the appearance of Sars-Cov-2 may be instead that it was transmitted to humans after a process of natural selection in an animal host – probably bats – that were sold in Wuhan wet-market. This theory has been leading many to mistrust or mock the Chinese for their backwardness and unusual alimentary habits. While part of this criticism is justified – as China grows it should start taking responsibility both over its society and its engagement with the world – it is not reasonable for other countries to assume that China should just abandon its culinary traditions however strange they might sound. At the origin of the pandemic is the problem of unregulated animal markets anyway, not the ingredients of a Chinese soup.

One last consideration: it may be worthwhile to engage in a mental exercise for a second and imagine what would have happened if the virus originated, let’s say, in Italy. Would have the conversation been any different? It suddenly becomes harder to picture anybody accusing the Italian government of having evil plans to conquer the world. A sign that most of the current discourse on Covid-19 might have more to do with politics than with health.



Stronger UK-China relations? First try and understand China

In 2019, the United Kingdom ranked 9th among the People’s Republic of China’s top trading partners in terms of export sales. That is to say, the UK imported around 62 billion dollars worth of Chinese shipments in 2019 alone. The same year, the PRC ranked 5th among major trading partners of Britain, meaning Beijing imported around 30 billion dollars worth of British products. Against all odds, trade and investment have been peaking after Brexit, with the UK being the first recipient of China’s FDI (foreign direct investment) in the real estate sector in Europe since 2017.

There is more: England is a decisive pawn on the Chinese geopolitical chessboard. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a massive plan for infrastructure investments covering the route of the ancient Silk Road to promote trade, diplomacy, and people-to-people exchanges, to exert influence abroad and – according to some observers – to reshape the US-led global order into a Sino-centric one. It is no coincidence that the first-ever “Silk Road train”, inaugurated in 2017, connects London and Yiwu (one of China’s main production hubs). The BRI was also the main sponsor of the 2019 London’s Chinatown Chinese Spring Festival, signalling that China-UK relations go beyond business and trade to cultural exchange.

Looking at data, it seems clear that chances for the UK to thrive without dealing with China are shrinking. However, many in Europe are still sceptical about China being a responsible actor to be entrusted with large shares of power and influence over others. The reason is a legitimate ‘fear of the unknown’: the PRC is an unfamiliar country, geographically, politically, and culturally distant from Western liberal democracies.

Doubts on the eligibility of China as a partner worthy of trust have been the result of both warnings from the United States and lack of knowledge of the Chinese context. Concerns have been raised in many European countries about whether it is acceptable to promote closer ties with the PRC. But given its growing involvement in international affairs, it seems unlikely that – for the foreseeable future – any major country will be able to avoid doing business with Beijing.

What is suggested here is a medicine for uncertainty. That is a need to depart from binary Cold-War-logic in favour of a more comprehensive understanding of the Chinese context, beyond the domain of business and trade. Filling the gaps in knowledge of China’s civilisation, history, society, and institutions is essential to better understand the country’s current strategy and policy-making.

The Chinese are devoted students of Western history, philosophy, and political theory: without relinquishing their identity they managed to take over those aspects of Western thought that they believed would be beneficial to them. Greater understanding of factors of this kind would enhance the ability of Western governments to predict China’s behaviour and, possibly, to find a framework for mutual understanding under which to operate.

The PRC is experiencing impressive economic and technological development. At this pace, the capacity of China’s economy will outstrip the U.S. within the next few decades. Likely, the templates of economic – and eventually, political – power will be shifting from West to East. Greater knowledge of China will provide policy-makers with useful tools to promote national interests through an effective relationship with Beijing.

Furthermore, with power shifting from the U.S. to China, Europe might draw strength from acting as a mediator. In the geographic middle ground, European countries – especially the UK, given its traditional diplomatic ties with the United States – might be in a position to make the best of both worlds. Such a repositioning should start now and be consolidated over time if it is to be an effective reality at the time of the shift.

To this end, it is essential for the UK to get the big picture: if Brexit really does mean that a more independent Britain will have the chance to reboot its foreign policy and build healthier, equitable and ethical bilateral relationships with its international partners, then China would be a good place to start. For this to be possible, a holistic approach to China should be pushed forward to become the bedrock for a new topic of conversation within the English public discourse.  


Covid-19: Lessons from the East?

Are there lessons still to be learnt about the way the East has handled coronavirus? As Europe and the US adopt increasingly draconian measures to stop the spreading of the virus, Asia is slowly recovering. Within a similar period of time, the virus has made a greater number of victims in Europe and the US than in Asia. This imbalance is not only a matter of governance or national health systems – a lot of it is cultural.  

The People’s Republic of China, a country of 1.4 billion people, managed to contain the virus in about ten weeks reporting the first day without deaths on April 7th. Vietnam, one of the PRC’s neighbours and home to the first registered case outside of China back in January, has only a few hundred infections within its territory and, seemingly, no deaths. The government in Hanoi was even praised by the World Health Organisation for its performance. South Korea, one of the virus epicentres back in February, managed to slow down the spread and now has about 10,000 cases (one seventh of those registered in the UK) and only 222 deaths.

What made Asian countries’ response to the virus effective? Many have found an answer in the ability of governments to strictly control their citizens. This capacity is seen as the direct result of the presence of authoritarian governments – China, Vietnam – or authoritarian traits within formally established democracies – South Korea – and has been dismissed in the West as something neither possible nor desirable. But this view might be simplistic. As much as a country’s policy-making reflects the nature of its political systems, political arrangements result from the mindset, customs and social behaviour of a people or a society. To put simple, politics rests upon culture.

There are a few societal behaviours shared by China, Vietnam and South Korea that are absent in the Western cultural tradition. First, the general tendency to value the collective over the individual. This fundamental premise is a legacy of Confucianism and an underlying concept to the notion of citizenship in China and culturally proximate countries. Confucius preached that the virtuous individual should be willing to sacrifice for the family, the neighbouring social circles, and ultimately the state.

Valuing the collective over the individual is a two-fold asset at a time like this: first, the Chinese, the Vietnamese and the South Koreans have arguably had less troubles than Europeans or Americans in accepting the idea of suffering any form of discomfort – isolation, in this case – for the common good. As such, they proved more disciplined. This is evidenced by the Chinese experts that were sent to Europe to help fighting the virus: “The main problem is that too many people are still out in the streets,” they declared to China’s State News Agency.

Secondly, the importance conferred by the individual on the state, combined with centralized policy-making, allowed the government to adopt cost-cutting strategies to deal with the crisis. For instance, central governments in China and Vietnam have been able to elude market rules in order to prioritize production of certain goods over others: this allowed to avoid the risk that key products – such as food, surgical masks, and sanitary products – get out of stock or become overly expensive.

Most European countries and the United States have been taking on some of the measures that proved successful in Asia, but recovery is nowhere near in sight. As Westerners, we feed into the idea that this imbalance is the result of the ideological premises of liberal democracy that grant citizens’ individual freedom instead of controlling and restraining them. This might be true. But on closer inspection, we might find that some aspects of existing liberal democracies exceeded those premises: undeterred individualism, the rule of the market, and the lack of state intervention, if unchallenged, may be our doom in the world of the future.


The UK should not use Huawei’s technology to develop its high speed internet

The current coronavirus crisis originated in China and has become – quite naturally – the only issue about which most of us care. But there are other China related issues that affect our future, and the overarching crisis should not allow other issues to slip under the wire unchallenged. The most important of which, as far as the UK is concerned, is Huawei, as the following implies:

Huawei’s access to the UK’s 5G network is a political matter – one the UK government shouldn’t underestimate.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson allowed Huawei to be part of the country’s 5G network, although setting a strict cap of 35% on market share. The decision triggered criticism among Tories, as it was taken whilst ignoring US warnings of alleged links between Huawei’s administration and the Chinese Military. UK citizens may be wondering whether the country should use Huawei’s technology to improve high-speed internet. The answer is no.

Without detracting from Huawei’s technological capacity, it does not seem in the UK’s strategic interests to increase the involvement of the Chinese company in its 5G rollout. Aside from the alleged relationship between Huawei’s CEO, Ren Zhengfei, and the People’s Liberation Army, the reason that should keep Johnson from letting the company free access to the country’s 5G network is the USA.

The race to dominate tech and the cyberspace is part of the trade war between China and the US – a solution to which is nowhere near in sight. Choosing a partner to implement 5G broadband nationwide is thus a matter of picking sides: regardless of the deepening of China-UK relations, the US is still the island’s first trading partner – whereas China ranks fifth – and the US is a traditional political and military ally.

Americans, who are now in a phase of retraction from world economy under Trump’s leadership, might further hold back from engaging economically with partners they don’t consider trustworthy: if that is the case, fast-speed downloads and uploads allowed by Huawei’s 5G coverage might be more expensive than the UK can afford.