Prime Minister Trudeau attends question period, September 2020. Image credit: Adam Scotti/PMO

Canada’s Global Affairs staff must have felt quite chuffed this week to see their carefully crafted talking points parroted by U.S. President Joe Biden, who declared that “human beings are not bartering chips.” It was a reference to the Chinese regime’s arrest and arbitrary detention of two white Canadian citizens, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

The “two Michaels” were detained in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest and arbitrary detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou under this country’s highly problematic Extradition Act. Her detention was an apparent favour for the U.S. that, her lawyers argue, turned Wanzhou into “a bargaining chip in a global trade war.”

Since the men were detained, the Trudeau regime has treated their incarceration as a hypocritical opportunity to issue condescending statements on rule of law to the Chinese, even as Wanzhou is held under a dangerous piece of Canadian legislation that fails to meet the basic principles of fundamental justice.

Canada’s self-righteousness meter has neared the breaking point of late with respect to China, evidenced in a bloviated Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations as part of “its steadfast commitment to upholding universal human rights and the rules-based international order.” Among the signatories to the declaration — which calls for an end to “harsh conditions in detention, denial of access to legal counsel, torture [and] other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” — are countries that regularly engage in such abuses, from Israel and the U.S. to Australia, Haiti, Greece, the U.K., and Canada itself.

Eager to jump on the Canadian exceptionalism bandwagon, Conservatives in the House of Commons led with a non-binding motion February 22 to declare the Chinese government’s persecution of the Muslim minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang province a genocide. While the mass surveillance, forced disappearance, forced sterilization, sexual assault, torture and murder of Uyghurs is certainly deserving of that condemnatory finding, it rang false coming from the mouth of Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who engaged in Canadian genocide denial last fall when he said that residential schools were created to “try and provide education” to Indigenous children, and only later became “horrible.”

During the House debate on the Uyghur motion, descriptions of the plight of the long-oppressed Muslim people could have been lifted directly from the pages of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which clearly explained how and why it concluded that Canada’s residential schools were an act of genocide. Indeed, perhaps unconsciously echoing the similarities, Bloc Québécois MP Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe said when he heard Uyghur testimony first-hand, it’s “very hard to remain indifferent when human beings are telling stories of children being taken away from their families and placed in state-run orphanages or schools. It is even harder when we know that they will be robbed of their language and culture so they can be indoctrinated and ultimately assimilated.”

The Conservatives have long taken a very selective, politicized approach to what constitutes genocide. Indeed, former leader Andrew Scheer engaged in his own genocide denial in reaction to the report of the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, while Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak’s similarly noxious views eventually led to her long-overdue resignation.

Canada blocks Uyghur refugees

Such hypocrisy is not limited to the Conservatives. While Justin Trudeau has issued statements in support of Uyghur rights, his government is refusing to allow three former Guantanamo Bay detainees to settle in Canada, where their families now live.  Ayub Mohammed, Salahidin Abdulahad and Khalil Mamut are Uyghur men who were wrongfully jailed and interrogated by both U.S. and Chinese officials for upwards of seven years in the U.S.-run concentration camp, but eventually cleared despite facing the brutally unfair military tribunal process. The three had experienced Chinese state repression while growing up, and two of them have relatives in the concentration camps branded by Beijing as “re-education” or “vocational” centres.  

While many Liberals did vote to support the genocide motion, any subsequent commitment to assisting Uyghur refugees and taking actions that might have an influence on Chinese repression appear elusive. After all the table pounding about the genocide in China, there appeared to be no official statement from the Liberals or Conservatives about welcoming more Uyghur refugees. The Conservatives appear to relish this issue as a battering ram against China, with a focus on punishing that regime via targeted sanctions and cancelling the Olympics. While no one can argue with their demand to ban importation of products made by Uyghur slave labour, there was no clarion call to stem the tide of genocide by creating a safe space for Uyghurs in this land.

Last summer, Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, shared with a parliamentary committee his concerns that Canada’s immigration and refugee bureaucracy continues to put up unnecessary and painful barriers for Uyghurs seeking asylum. Sweden has recognized that all Uyghurs fleeing repression in China are facing collective persecution — meaning they do not have to prove individualized persecution by the Chinese state — a move Tohti is urging for the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board. Tohti argued that Uyghurs should not have to go through the horror of recounting their trauma “in pain and in tears before their adjudicators…. [Canadian immigration] is still asking Uyghur refugees to provide all official documents from China, which China has been denying, to process their family sponsorship program. For that reason alone, Uyghur refugee families are shattered, divided without unification.”

There has also been no indication from Ottawa that they will respond to Tohti’s call for Canada to open its doors to some 2,300 Uyghur families, largely in Turkey, who are at risk of arrest and deportation back to grave fates in China. But acceptance of thousands of refugees has rarely been a priority for Canadian governments of any stripe, and it is unlikely that Erin O’Toole will hit the hustings pleading for an open-door policy for Uyghur refugees. Yet now that Canada’s Parliament has recognized the Uyghur genocide, there should follow an obligation to do whatever it takes to prevent further acts of genocide by allowing Uyghurs to resettle in countries where they can preserve their culture. As Tohti points out:

“The Chinese government banned our language, history, everything…. You are talking about thousands of years of culture. Western countries became the only venue for us to preserve our culture, teach our language and keep our culture for the next generation; otherwise, China will totally erase them. In this regard, Canada should help bring in those 2,300 Uyghur families.”

The human hair market

Uyghur rights advocates are also calling on Canada to ban all Chinese products associated with Uyghur forced labour, including personal protective equipment and imports of hair products. In chilling detail, Tohti spoke about the Chinese export of massive amount of Uyghur women’s hair, and asked MPs on the International Human Rights committee “to visualize 13 tonnes of human hair. It takes more than 300,000 Uighur women’s hair to make 13 tonnes. The Auschwitz memorial museum displayed piles of hair taken from Jewish victims after they were murdered in gas chambers.”

Meanwhile, as the Trudeau government puts itself forward as a proud practitioner of  “feminist” foreign policy, it is unclear what it is willing to do to protect Uyghur women. Speaking before the human rights committee last summer, internationally renowned human rights activist Sayragul Sauytbay, a Kazakh woman who survived one of the Chinese concentration camps, told MPs that “guards rape the women and girls they want. It’s daily…[one day in a class] they brought back a young lady. When she entered the class, she couldn’t even sit on the chair. She just fell down on the floor. They started calling everyone by number. Every girl has a special number. They don’t call them by their names; they call them by their numbers. When they called that girl by her number, she said, ‘I’m not a girl anymore, because they raped me.'”

While it is encouraging to see increased awareness of and calls for support around the persecution of Uyghurs, it’s unfortunate that they have become a political football, one increasingly used by right-wing groups as part of a larger geopolitical game aimed at containment of China, now the world’s second-largest economy. For much of the past decade, especially since then-president Barack Obama decided to make China the newest “evil empire” — one that helps justify the existence of the Pentagon, NATO, and spy agencies — there has been an endless stream of anti-Chinese rhetoric that finds its roots in “yellow peril” racism.

When the corporate trade treaty Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was signed in 2016, it was a reminder from Obama that only one nation can rule the world. “TPP allows America — and not countries like China — to write the rules of the road in the 21st century,” Obama said, finalizing a deal that was part of his “pivot to Asia,” a euphemism for increasing U.S. militarization and intimidation in the Asia-Pacific region.

Earlier this month, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) head David Vigneault invoked Cold War rhetoric when he said that Beijing was “pursuing a strategy for geopolitical advantage on all fronts — economic, technological, political, and military — and using all elements of state power to carry out activities that are a direct threat to our national security and sovereignty.”

While China is certainly engaged in massive surveillance, offensive cyber attacks, and intimidation of dissidents, there is a terrific irony when the head of Canada’s spy agency expresses outrage, given that similar activities are waged by the U.S., Canada, Israel and England, among many others.

While anti-Chinese saber rattling on the military and economic playing fields is in no way justified, that doesn’t take away from the fact that China’s abuses of the Uyghur people must be addressed. But how best to address them in a way that does not play into the NATO imperial agenda is a critical question that many who are now condemning genocide would prefer not to answer.

A world of double standards

While China is often blamed for cyberattacks in Canada (and there is no doubt Beijing engages in such behaviour), Ottawa handed its own Communications Security Establishment (CSE) offensive cyberattack powers with its omnibus state repression bill, C-59. Everybody does it, and each government uses the tired “anti-terror” rationale to justify it.

While China is notorious as an authoritarian state driven by mass surveillance, Canada’s CSE cyber spies have been criticized for massive data collection of hundreds of million of Canadian emails. The respected Citizen Lab notes concerns about longstanding “problems with the CSE’s foreign intelligence operations, which are predicated on ambiguous and secretive legal interpretations that legitimize bulk collection and mass surveillance activities” as well as raising questions about “the CSE’s acquisition of malware, spyware and hacking tools, which may legitimize a market predicated on undermining and subverting, rather than strengthening, the security of the global information infrastructure.”

Much like the Canadian government engaging in colonial violence to further its economic agenda of megadams, pipelines, and theft of so-called natural resources, so the Chinese have stepped up persecution of the Uyghurs in their traditional homeland as part of Beijing’s own economic expansion. The Belt and Road Initiative is a multi-trillion-dollar project that “aims to link Beijing with some 70 countries around the world via railroads, gas pipelines, shipping lanes, and other infrastructure projects. It is considered President Xi Jinping’s pet project, and an important part of his political legacy,” and two-thirds of those trade routes run through the traditional Uyghur territories of Xinjiang province.

In the same way Canada engages in propaganda campaigns and rhetoric to cover up its ongoing colonial genocide (for example, continuing ad nauseum to repeat that no relationship is more important than the one with Indigenous peoples at the same time the government has spent the past five years refusing to end “willful and reckless” racial discrimination against 165,000 Indigenous children), so the regime in China invites outsiders to carefully staged “dog and pony shows” that “show ethnic Uyghur men and women putting on dance and musical recitals inside classrooms, operating sewing machines, and learning the words to pro-China songs from a textbook.”

As Indigenous people around the world (from Canada and the U.S. to the islands of the South Pacific and former Soviet Union) have been sacrificial lambs in the nuclear weapons race, so too have the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, where China detonated open-air nuclear weapons tests for four decades. Much as Canada has tried to cover up abuses against Indigenous people as part of this country’s profiteering from the nuclear fuel cycle, so has China engaged in massive denial. The Lop Nur project at Sapporo Medical University in Japan seeks to remedy that by documenting what it estimates are hundreds of thousands of radiation-related deaths among Xinjiang’s population, and “that the peak radiation dose in Xinjiang exceeded that measured on the roof of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor after it melted down in 1986. Most damage to Xinjiang locals came from detonations during the 1960s and 1970s, which rained down a mixture of radioactive material and sand from the surrounding desert. Some were three-megaton explosions, 200 times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.”

In a global context of abuses committed by state institutions, it is an unfortunate reality that raising human rights concerns may become muddied by such hypocrisy. For example, the ugly phrase “responsibility to protect” has arisen on numerous occasions with respect to China and the Uyghurs, conjuring up images of U.S./NATO military intervention in the name of humanitarian intentions, a concept that has resulted in unending bloodshed. From the former Yugoslavia and Libya to Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, deadly imperial interventions are repeatedly couched as loving, helpful efforts to liberate women and protect the world from evil as Canadian, American, and NATO bombs rain down on school buses, hospitals, weddings, and farmers. When such nations engage in such cynical propaganda, it’s easy to be skeptical about anything they say regarding legitimate human rights concerns.  

But as Alex Neve, former director of Amnesty International Canada points out:

“I think that whenever we have debates about responsibility to protect, a lot of the focus goes to the end of that continuum, this notion of armed intervention, sending in the troops to respond to a situation of mass atrocities. Responsibility to protect is about so much more than that. It’s about what is consistently short-circuited by the international community, the obligation to take preventive actions through a whole variety of means, be they sanctions or through very strong and forceful action at a multilateral level or through justice and accountability measures — all the things that for decades the international community has shied away from when it comes to China, trade and investment being more alluring than those sorts of preventive actions. We need a very strong agenda on that front, with the kinds of steps through justice and accountability, universal jurisdiction, possibilities of individual sanctions, etc., and we need it now.”

Listen to Uyghur voices

If we cannot trust the intentions and politics of the many hypocrites now pounding their chests about the genocide being committed by the Chinese, there are plenty of Uyghur voices who deserve to be listened to. In Canada, one of those voices is Kamila Talendibaevai, who is married to Huseyin Celil, a Canadian Uyghur held on bogus charges and tortured by the Chinese since 2006. Uyghur advocates believe that had the Canadian government taken a firmer stand to demand Celil’s release, Beijing might not have felt it could easily kidnap and detain Spavor and Kovrig, or continue holding under pain of death two other Canadians, Robert Schellenberg and Fan Wei.

Speaking before Parliament in July 2020, Talendibaevai talked about having to raise her four boys alone for the past 14 years, during which she has never received a letter or phone call from her husband. At the same time, Celil has never been granted Canadian consular access. For a time, members of her overseas family were occasionally able to visit Celil and provide updates, but those updates ended in 2016. Sharing with MPs the fear, frustration and agony of not being able to even speak with her husband, she talked about her boys, who “have grown up. They became teenagers. They’re all in high school. They are preparing for university. It’s been very difficult. I cannot describe in one or two words my last 14 years.” While she has long called for a special envoy to go to China and negotiate her husband’s release, Ottawa has preferred to focus on China’s role as Canada’s “second-most important bilateral commercial partner” and hosting Chinese soldiers to practice war on Canadian military bases.

Rayhan Asat, president of the American Turkic International Lawyers Association, sadly shared with a parliamentary committee last summer that “as people are perhaps wearing masks to get around, they could perhaps be using one of those masks that were produced as a result of forced labour. It could be even my brother’s prison labour.” She also pointed out that Uyghur children:

“from a very young age are subjected to political indoctrination that forgoes their language and their culture, and they just don’t have any connection with who they are as Uyghur people. I think basically they are trying to raise these kids in a completely different setting that is very foreign to their culture. It truly breaks my heart, because I think that’s also a very good way of destroying the culture, destroying the population, because these kids would not be growing up as Uyghurs. I think in many countries we do have a dark history of this kind of practice, but again in China this is happening as we speak.”  

Mehmet Tohti, the longtime Uyghur rights activist who has faced incessant threats and intimidation by the Chinese state since he left the country in 1991, told parliamentarians about a Uyghur refugee in Montreal who had 76 of his immediate and extended family members disappear. A Uyghur refugee in Toronto knows more than 30 of his family members are locked up in camps, including his 25-year-old daughter, and four of his relatives were killed in the camps. Another Uyghur Canadian reports her oldest sister, aged 63, was killed in a concentration camp with five of her immediate family members. “My mother, 78 years old, and 38 of my relatives disappeared four years ago,” Tohti said. “Today I received a chilling computer message from an unknown Chinese agent, saying, with f-words, ‘Your f—ing mother is dead.'” 

Saving language and culture

Members of the global Uyghur diaspora are desperately trying to save languages and cultures that the Chinese regime seeks to destroy. They point to artists, poets, and scholars who are among the almost two million Uyghurs facing mass detention. “I think it is abundantly clear that their crime was being born Uyghur. The targeting of intellectuals and cultural figures sends a clear message that this campaign is essentially to end Uyghur culture and identity,” says Joshua Freeman, a historian focusing on China and Inner Asia, who translates Uyghur poetry.

“Uyghur poetry is the soul of the Uyghur language. If the soul of Uyghur language dies, the language dies,” says Ekhmetjan Osman, known for leading the new movement in modern Uyghur poetry in the 1980s.

“The core of people’s beliefs, ways of thinking, customs, history, construction of society — all of this is based on language. This is all going to disappear. It is disappearing… The very act of this language being taken away from my existence is the greatest insult and invasion of my humanity, my value as a human being and my dignity as a person. What other crime is there than erasing the whole of a nation? To me there is no bigger crime.”

Such voices are not likely to be quoted by the Canadian politicians whose policies seek to enact the same genocidal results against Indigenous nations.

While the renewed focus on the genocide against the Uyghurs is welcome, there are specific things that can be done that cut through the partisan agendas of self-praising politicians who are likely using the issue for their own ends and not, unfortunately, out of any real sense of human solidarity. Indeed, now that they have committed themselves to a position of apparent solidarity with the Uyghurs, it is an excellent opportunity to press them to give life to their pronouncements.

Among those is exposing and pressuring those companies implicated in Uyghur slave labour (as documented in a March 2020 Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report called “Uyghurs for sale: ‘Re-education’, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang,” which identified 83 foreign and Chinese companies as directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labour transfer programs), and banning any of those companies’ Chinese imports. Among the companies listed as potentially implicated are Abercrombie & Fitch, Acer, Adidas, Amazon, Apple, ASUS, BMW, Bombardier, Calvin Klein, General Motors, Google, Hitachi, Huawei, Jaguar, L.L. Bean, Lacoste, Lenovo, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Mitsubishi, Mitsumi, Nike, Nintendo, Nokia, Oculus, Panasonic, Polo Ralph Lauren, Puma, Samsung, Siemens, Sony, Tommy Hilfiger, Toshiba, Victoria’s Secret, and Volkswagen.

Uyghur advocates have also called on Canada to ban import of human organs that may have been forcibly harvested in China, open the doors to the thousands of at-risk Uyghur families currently living precarious lives in Turkey, withdraw Canada’s investment of $256 million in the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (which critics say helps fund Belt and Road initiatives going through Uyghur territories), and immediately allow entry to the former Guantanamo Bay Uyghur detainees still separated from their Canadian families).

Should such actions be taken by the Canadian government, the genocide declaration will sound a lot less hollow. Until then, Uyghur advocates continue their long and lonely work, much of which can be followed at the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.

Image credit: Adam Scotti/PMO

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Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who coordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. His column “Taking Liberties” examines connections...