The British Uighur Plan

British Conservative minister George Osborne’s recent visit to the Xinjiang (or East Turkestan) region of China in a bid to boost economic ties between the two countries raises several questions regarding development and human rights in China.

A group of protesters calling for freedom for Uighur people.

Photo: Reuters.

Following the visit to the troubled, now-minority Muslim Uighur region, Osborne stated Britain can bring “economic development and rising prosperity and higher living standards” to regions like Xinjiang, “because we’ll be investing through British companies in infrastructure there, and in education there… and that has got to be a good thing”.

It’s a wonder that Osborne didn’t mention political development (such as advocation, and education for self-determination and individual rights) as a point of focus alongside typical economic development, as China is notorious for human rights violations and oppression, particularly in Xinjiang. Is this a continuation of the outdated development approach that such organisations as the UK’s Department for International Development employ, or is Downing Street afraid of upsetting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and losing out on large-scale money-making schemes such as those taking place in Xinjiang?

Prior to the visit, human rights activists warned that Osbourne could become a propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist party. This can be dangerous for regions where communications are heavily regulated and inhabitants cannot speak out for themselves. Radio Free Asia (RFA), a US-funded news group, is one of the only reliable sources of information about conflicts in Xinjiang, as most other media is state-run, meaning the CCP control what is reported and what isn’t.

RFA reports news in ten languages (nine of which are Asian), focussing on issues in developing Asian countries, particularly those with communist histories. They use many forms of new media to broadcast information, including their official website, social networking, and video streaming websites.

Entities such as RFA are important in regions where state control is absolute, perhaps no more than in Xinjiang, where, in 2009, internet and mobile phone text messaging services were shut down for ten months by the CCP. As well as emphasising the need for new media in spreading independent and unaffected news, this incident highlights the difficulties in employing such media in countries under authoritarian regimes. This leads to the question: How do people gain access to new media when their means of access are taken away?

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6 Responses to The British Uighur Plan

  1. Claire Sharples says:

    I’d agree that politicians should be challenged about international trade and diplomatic policy, but your phrase ‘It’s a wonder that Osborne didn’t mention political development’ seems to assume the British (Western) establishment as the natural representative and defender of human rights.

    This is the call we’re hearing a lot in the UK. Cameron’s pre-election pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act because we Brits know what we’re doing better than anyone (http://blogs.new.spectator.co.uk/2014/10/why-britain-should-scrap-the-human-rights-act/) saw justified backlash
    (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/oct/01/cameron-pledge-scrap-human-rights-act-civil-rights-groups).

    Ongoing critique and protest against Home and Foreign policy that contradicts the universality of these human rights – welfare sanctions, arms dealership, bids for prison contracts – have long preceded the present Government.’Pragmatism’ and ‘social justice’ aren’t always the best bed fellows!

    Xi Jinping’s recent visit to UK was met with a mixed response, with the more negative commentary levelled at both our own wilful blindness to these abuses in China and continuing infringement of citizens’, immigrants’ and workers’ rights at home.

    • Matthew Robinson says:

      Claire, you’ve made a very good point about the assumption that the British, or a Western, establishment should be the natural representative and defender of human rights, and it is something we’re hearing a lot of now, especially following recent Sino-Anglo developments.
      However, my reasoning isn’t related to the idea of Britain being a natural defender of human rights due to it being a Western country, I base it on the fact that George Osborne is from the current ruling party of the UK, and that both the UK and China are current members of the United Nations Human Rights Council, and permanent members of the UN Security Council. Ideally each UN member country should keep the others in check, but in practice we rarely see that when certain countries are concerned.

  2. Adriano Pedrana says:

    The ideas underlining Mr. Osborne’s words reported in the post show that he considers development as mainly/solely on an economic level. But that’s not all. In the Guardian article linked in the post, Mr Osborne states that the UK does defend values, but he also says that “it would be very strange if Britain’s only relationship with one fifth of the world’s population and the government that represents them was solely about human rights”. Sounds like a way to justify the low profile held on this issue.

    A solution to Chinese government’s censorship could be setting up a mesh network [1], an independent, redundant, alternative web, where each device also acts as a node, relaying messages from and to other devices. The higher the number of people connected, the more difficult it is to control and turn off this communication network. Mesh networks had already been used in New York, during Occupy Wall Street, but also in Hong Kong and Taiwan [2].

    The report “Blogs and Bullets, new media in contentious politics” [3](published by the US Institute of Peace) lists five levels of media-politics interaction. With mesh networks, Chinese authorities could still control two of them (by cutting off the connection to the external world, and using this tool for their own propaganda). But the other three (individual transformation, intergroup relations, and collective action) would still be possible, easing unhindered circulation of information and the coordination of activists.

    Unless, of course, among the investments “through British companies in infrastructure”, Mr Osborne included also jamming devices and spy software. Not so surprisingly, it wouldn’t be the first time for a European country to help a not-so-democratic regime… [4]

    [1] – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesh_networking
    [2] – http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/191118-hong-kong-protesters-turn-to-mesh-networks-to-evade-chinas-censorship
    [3] – http://wpmu.mah.se/nmict152group4/2015/10/blogs-and-bullets-new-media-in-contentious-politics-book-review/
    [4] – http://wpmu.mah.se/comdev/2015/07/15/hacking-team-hack-raises-important-questions-for-development-ict4d/

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