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China has enlisted some of the world’s foremost human rights abusers to defend its mass detention of more than 1 million Muslims.

Expand chart
Data: Axios research; Map: Harry Stevens/Axios

Why it matters: A letter supporting China — with signatures from Saudi Arabia, Russia, North Korea and 34 other mostly authoritarian states — comes after 22 countries formally condemned abuses in the Xinjiang region. It reveals growing frustration and defensiveness over the issue from Beijing, says Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch.

From the letter: “We express our firm opposition to… politicizing human rights issues, by naming and shaming, and by publicly exerting pressures on other countries. We commend China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.”

  • The letter also claims China’s policies brought “safety and security” and “a stronger sense of happiness” to Xinjiang, and lauds the commitment from China (which keeps the population of Xinjiang under strict surveillance and aggressively restricts journalists’ access) to “openness and transparency.”

Between the lines: “What surprises me is that they don’t see just what damage it does to their own credibility to draft a self-justifying letter about human rights that’s signed by North Korea,” Richardson says.

The big picture: An estimated 1-2 million people in Xinjiang, most of them Uighur Muslims, are held in detention camps that activists say are designed to erase the Uighur identity and instill fear and obedience to the Communist Party.

  • China at first denied that the camps existed. When that became untenable, Beijing claimed they were voluntary job-training centers designed to root out extremism.
  • The reality exposed by journalists, NGOs and former detainees includes mass surveillance, arbitrary detentions, brainwashing and even torture.

Where things stand: The general response from countries and corporations over the past 2 years has been an uncomfortable silence. That makes the recent criticism at the UN significant, Richardson says.

  • “The Chinese leadership has been given plenty of reason to believe it will be held to a different standard than everybody else,” she says.
  • The message from the countries that have spoken out is, “‘You’re big, you’re powerful, you’ll retaliate, but we’re still going to hold you to the same standard.’”

What to watch: Much of the world sits in the middle, neither condemning nor defending China. That includes big majority-Muslim countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey; European countries including Italy; and Asian powers like India.

The bottom line: China has showed it can rally support, or at the very least silence, from dozens of countries who care more about its checkbook than its human rights record. But that hasn’t made this issue go away.

The U.S. has repeatedly criticized China's actions, but was not party to the statement at the UN Human Rights Council. See the full list of the countries on both sides.

Go deeper

Judge temporarily blocks South Carolina ban on school mask mandates

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster. Photo: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked South Carolina's ban on mask mandates in schools, ruling that it discriminated against students with disabilities and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Why it matters: As mask bans extend to public schools around the country, parents and disability rights activists have sounded alarm bells. The ruling may signal the outcomes of legal fights playing out across the country.

DeSantis takes legal action against Biden efforts on immigration

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took legal action on Tuesday to try to stop the Biden administration's immigration plans.

Why it matters: The Republican governor, who is running for re-election next year and is possibly eyeing a 2024 presidential bid, is picking a high-profile fight with Biden while re-upping his hardline stance on immigration.

Left: Senate's threat "insane"

The famously press-shy Sen. Kyrsten Sinema speaks briefly with reporters on Tuesday. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) lambasted Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on Tuesday, saying "it's insane" that "one senator" is blocking attempts to settle on a palatable figure for President Biden's proposed $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package.

Why it matters: The figure is the linchpin to getting progressive support for the companion $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package. Khanna's statement reflects broader dissatisfaction among House progressives with Sinema and her fellow holdout, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

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