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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.

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