GENEVA — China fumed this week after 22 mostly Western countries rebuked its mass detention of Muslims in the restive Xinjiang region. On Friday the Chinese delivered their answer: praise from even more countries saying China has made Xinjiang safe and happy.
Ambassadors of 37 states from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America jointly signed a letter to the president of the United Nations Human Rights Council praising China’s “contribution to the international human rights cause.”
The states, including prominent members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, said China had faced terrorism, separatism and religious extremism in Xinjiang, the vast northwest region that is mainly Muslim. But through counterterrorism measures and vocational training, these states said, China had restored peace and security there.
“We note with appreciation that human rights are respected and protected in China in the process of counterterrorism and de-radicalization,” they said.
The letter constituted a blunt riposte to the action taken by 22 mainly European countries at the start of the week.
They had urged China to halt the arbitrary detention of Xinjiang’s ethnic Uighurs and other minority groups, which China scholars and human rights groups estimate have swept a million or more people into forced re-education.
China did not sign the letter submitted on Friday, but the text closely echoed the language of statements delivered by Chinese diplomats to the council on Thursday and Friday.
In those, it attacked the “distortions” and “hypocrisy” of Western media and the countries criticizing its actions in Xinjiang, insisting that the region’s people “feel much better and much more happy and secure.”
Chinese diplomats suggested that China’s experience in tackling terrorism could even be usefully shared with other countries.
The battle of letters underscored the growing arm-wrestle for influence in the United Nations and its human rights mechanisms between China, an increasingly confident and assertive power, and countries that have largely shaped the global discourse around human rights since World War II.
The letter from the 37 countries lauded China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights” and particularly its contribution to “protecting and promoting human rights through development,” a theme China has advanced in separate resolutions to counterbalance the Western attention to political and civil rights.
Signers of the pro-China letter, including Russia, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela, also took the opportunity to repeat a position frequently expressed in the Human Rights Council opposing the “naming and shaming and publicly exerting pressure on other countries” by calling them to account for human rights violations.
The larger number of signatories supporting China was a sign of Beijing’s growing global political and economic leverage, analysts monitoring the council said, but also suggested uneasiness at the level of scrutiny it is facing.
“It’s a sign of desperation that a country feels the need to praise itself,” said John Fisher, the Geneva director for Human Rights Watch. “The fact that China can arm-twist delegations into supporting them is nothing new. The fact that other states stood up to it on Xinjiang is an important step forward.”
The pro-China letter came at the end of a Human Rights Council session punctuated by calls for investigation of the part played by Saudi Arabia’s leaders in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and an investigation into President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent drug war in the Philippines.
“If China feels it can deflect scrutiny of what is happening in Xinjiang it is mistaken,” Mr. Fisher said.