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A Chinese flag blocks the sign of an Amnesty International activist during a visit from Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang to the Hague. Photo: Pierre Crom/Getty Images

China’s government is cracking down on dissent at an alarming pace and detaining up to 1 million Muslims in “re-education camps,” but at a UN Human Rights Council review this week, many countries saw fit to applaud China’s human rights record, rather than criticize it.

Why it matters: China’s economic power and investments around the world aren’t just increasing its global influence — they’re making countries far more reticent to speak out about Beijing's abuses at home. Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, tells me, "We might be moving onto the next bad phase where we not only see how few countries are critical of China, but how many are willing to be cheerleaders.”

Case in point: Pakistan and Kazakhstan have both been directly affected by China’s mass detentions in Xinjiang, with citizens or family members from both countries being held. Both are also heavily reliant on Chinese investment and trade. Neither criticized China at this week’s review, the first since 2013, which featured comments from 150 countries.

  • Countries that did speak out included Japan, Germany and the U.S., which called on China to close the internment camps and free the “possibly millions” being held.
  • China’s Vice Foreign Minister responded to the criticism: “We will not accept the politically driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases, with total disregard for facts. No country shall dictate the definition of democracy and human rights.”

Richardson notes that Muslim countries were notably silent on the treatment of China’s Muslim minority. She put it this way:

“If any other government in the world was credibly accused of detaining 1 million Muslims, I think we can reasonably conclude there would be calls for a debate in the UN Security Council. Demands for an investigation. Because China is so powerful both within and outside of the UN, that’s probably not going to happen. The net effect is that China may well get away with this.”

Brookings’ Ted Piccone documents China's success in limiting criticism in international institutions in a recent report:

  • Beijing is "building a strong coalition within the UN, mainly of developing countries more vulnerable to Beijing’s economic and political pressure and which share its wish to prioritize development over human rights.”
  • “European states, however, are not doing as much as they could to stand up against China on human rights. Explanations include protection of their growing economic and commercial interests with the Asian giant as well as geostrategic and political goals in managing China’s rise.”

The bottom line: “It’s not just that the tone of the discussion is getting softer, or that the topics under discussion are softer, it’s that the institutions themselves are under threat from China,” says Richardson. "If you can’t have a conversation about what’s happening in Xinjiang [at the UN], you're not going to have that conversation anywhere.”

Go deeper

Storms pummel flood-hit Pacific Northwest as border river overflows

An image of the water-logged Sumas Prairie area taken last Friday. Photo: B.C. Ministry of Transportation/Twitter.

The latest ferocious storm system to hit the Pacific Northwest triggered fresh evacuation orders and at least one mudslide in flood-ravaged British Columbia, Canada, late Sunday.

Threat level: Flood sirens sounded in Washington state as the Nooksack River overflowed. Henry Braun, mayor of Abbotsford, B.C., told reporters the water flow was headed toward the Canadian border city later Sunday. "There's nothing to stop it," he said.

Updated 3 hours ago - Health

First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada

COVID-19 testing personnel at Toronto Pearson International Airport in September. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The first two cases of the new Omicron variant have been detected in North America, the Canadian government announced Sunday evening.

Driving the news: The World Health Organization has named Omicron a "variant of concern," but cautioned earlier on Sunday that it is not yet clear whether it's more transmissible than other strains of COVID-19.

Former Defense Secretary Esper sues Pentagon over book

Former President Trump and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the White House in 2020. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper filed a lawsuit Sunday against the Defense Department, accusing the Pentagon of "censoring" his First Amendment rights by redacting aspects of his upcoming book on the Trump administration.

The big picture: Esper, who served as defense secretary from July 2019 until he was fired by then-President Trump in November last year, alleges in the suit that "significant text" is "being improperly withheld from publication" of the manuscript "under the guise of classification."