BEIJING — When Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visited Beijing this summer, he hailed a new Silk Road bridging Asia and Europe. He welcomed big Chinese investments for his beleaguered economy. He gushed about China’s sovereignty.
But Mr. Erdogan, who has stridently promoted Islamic values in his overwhelmingly Muslim country, was largely silent on the incarceration of more than one million Turkic Muslims in China’s western region of Xinjiang, and the forced assimilation of millions more. It was an about-face from a decade ago, when he said the Uighurs there suffered from, “simply put, genocide” at the hands of the Chinese government.
Like Mr. Erdogan, the world has been noticeably quiet about Xinjiang, where China has built a vast network of detention camps and systematic surveillance over the past two years in a state-led operation to convert Uighurs into loyal, secular supporters of the Communist Party. Even when diplomats have witnessed the problems firsthand and privately condemned them, they have been reluctant to go public, unable to garner broad support or unwilling to risk financial ties with China.
Backed by its diplomatic and economic might, China has largely succeeded in quashing criticism. Chinese officials have convinced countries to support Beijing publicly on the issue, most notably Muslim ones in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. They have played to the discord within the West over China. And they have waged an aggressive campaign to prevent discussion of Xinjiang at the United Nations.
At a special event ahead of the General Assembly this week on protecting religious freedom, President Trump, the host of the event, did not mention the Uighurs. Vice President Mike Pence gave a nod to the Uighurs, after mentioning the persecution of Christians in China.
China contends that its state-mandated detention camps, surrounded by high walls and watchtowers, are central to its fight against Islamist extremism. Beijing has called them boarding schools, explaining detainees are there voluntarily. China said recently that it has reduced the numbers in the camps, although doubts persist about the claim.
“There has not been a single case of violent terrorism in the past three years,” Wang Yi, state councilor and foreign minister of China, said at an event on the sidelines of the United Nations summit. “The education and training centers are schools that help the people free themselves from terrorism and extremism and acquire useful skills.”
[China said it closed Muslim detention camps. There’s reason to doubt that.]
As countries weigh their options over Xinjiang, China’s economic heft looms large.
Officials in the Trump administration have been among the most vocal critics. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has denounced the treatment of the Uighurs as the “stain of the century.” One of his deputies, John Sullivan, who convened a panel Tuesday on the sidelines of the United Nations meeting with several other countries to condemn Beijing’s policies, said China has carried out a “horrific campaign of repression.”
While the National Security Council has pushed economic sanctions over the issue, the Treasury has the power to punish China in that way. So far, the trade talks have taken precedence. And Mr. Trump has largely ignored the issue, essentially giving China a pass.
The administration’s limited action probably affects the global calculus. If the United States does not take a leadership role on the issue, other countries do not feel the pressure to act, either.
Some governments tiptoe around China for economic reasons. When New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, visited Beijing shortly after the massacre of 51 Muslims in Christchurch, she said she had discussed Xinjiang privately with Mr. Xi. She didn’t do much more. New Zealand sells much of its main exports, such as milk, meat and wine, to China.
Last year, China helped Turkey secure a $3.6 billion loan for energy and transportation. Since then, the Turkish economy has further faltered. And during Mr. Erdogan’s visit to Beijing in July, Mr. Xi praised him for supporting what he called China’s core interests, including Xinjiang.
“Many, many governments are looking the other way and self-censoring on the issue of Xinjiang,” said Daniel R. Russel, the Obama administration’s assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. “Beijing is notoriously prickly about its self-declared ‘core interests,’ and few countries are willing to put the economic benefits of good relations with China at risk — let alone find themselves on the receiving end of Chinese retaliation.”
When countries do criticize China, they tend to do so in a group, seemingly as a way to diffuse and lessen possible retribution.
In Geneva this summer, nearly two dozen, mostly Western, countries, along with Japan, banded together at the United Nations Human Rights Council to call on China to close the camps. No one country was willing to be the organizer. Instead, the statement’s signers relied on a rarely used procedure that allowed it to be circulated without a principal leader.
Not to be outmaneuvered by the critics, China quickly prepared a counter-roster of 37 friendly nations praising its “contribution to the international human rights cause.” Among the cheerleaders were members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation that unanimously endorsed China’s Xinjiang policies in April.
China is carefully shaping its image of Xinjiang in the diplomatic world. Over the past nine months, Beijing has invited select visitors on circumscribed tours of the detention camps to garner positive publicity.
China has generally handpicked the visitors, including journalists from friendly countries. They are then often quoted in the state-run Chinese news media offering flattering comments. “I saw genuine smiles on the faces of trainees I interviewed,” Abdul Aziz Raddad A. Alrabie of the Saudi newspaper Okaz said in China Daily, a newspaper of the Communist Party.
The trips do not always go as planned. Two reports — one by a Malaysian diplomat and another by European Union officials — were highly critical after their visits.
The private account by the Malaysian diplomat, reviewed by The New York Times, contradicted China’s contention that the Uighurs were voluntarily attending the re-education centers.
“Delegates could actually sense fear and frustration from the students,” the Malaysian wrote after his December visit with a dozen other diplomats from mostly Muslim nations. “China may have legitimate reasons to implement policies intended to eliminate the threat of terrorism, especially in Xinjiang. However, judging by its approach, it is addressing the issue wrongly and illegitimately, e.g. preventing Muslim minors from learning the Quran.”
The diplomat referred to two cities in Xinjiang — once-bustling Kashgar and Hotan — as “zombie towns,” saying the streets were virtually empty and that China was probably “using the threat of terrorism as an excuse to ‘sanitize’ Uighur Muslims until they become acceptable Chinese citizens.”
The report was never made public. At the time, Malaysia was working hard to repair relations with China over a troubled infrastructure deal. It has also become increasingly dependent on China for purchases of palm oil, its biggest export.
“The $100 billion in annual bilateral trade is enough to focus the minds of Malaysian policymakers,” said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur. “China is too big a market to lose.”
Three diplomats from the European Union visited Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, this year in what one of the participants said turned out to be a “Potemkin village tour.” The officials were shown a hastily built display of weapons that the Chinese guides said Uighurs had used in terrorist attacks; a mosque where there was no sign of religious observance; and a kindergarten where the children sang songs praising the party.
At one camp, the class sang the Communist Party anthem. As they did, one Uighur man caught the eye of a diplomat and held up his wrists as if clamped together by handcuffs.
Afterward, the European Union circulated an internal document saying that the visit “does not invalidate the E.U.’s profound concerns about human rights in Xinjiang, including in relation to mass detention, political re-education, religious freedom and Sinicization policies, as well as concerns that similar measures could be applied in other regions of China with notable Muslim minorities.”
Rifts within the European Union on how to deal with China prevent a common front. Leaders in France and Germany are publicly silent on Xinjiang, while several Eastern European countries are supporters of China.
At the United Nations, China has made Xinjiang its main cause.
The Human Rights Council in Geneva is often considered a diplomatic backwater. The United States is no longer a member, with the Trump administration withdrawing last year in protest over policies toward Israel. As authoritarian governments gain power around the world, human rights are less of a front-and-center issue, leaving the council with less sway.
But China regards the council as a serious arena where it can outmaneuver its opponents, pursue its diplomatic agenda and score points.
A long-scheduled review of China’s human rights record was on the council’s schedule last November just as the Uighurs’ incarceration was gaining attention.
China prepared meticulously. About 60 Chinese diplomats flew to Switzerland from Beijing, a delegation headed by the influential vice foreign minister, Le Yucheng.
He was backed by 40 more members of Chinese government organizations. Such a large entourage of nondiplomats was almost unheard-of at the council, according to diplomats. They acted as cheerleaders, clapping at key moments.
One goal of the performance was to limit backing for an inspection of Xinjiang by Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations’ human rights chief.
“If you’re really serious about a fact-finding mission, please go check the southern border, Guantánamo, the Mediterranean to see if there have been fact-finding missions,” one of the Chinese advocates said, according to a recording by the International Service for Human Rights.
At the end of China’s presentation, more than 120 countries gave a positive review of its human rights record. Fewer than three dozen countries expressed real concern. Ms. Bachelet has not visited Xinjiang.
At the United Nations in New York, China has assiduously worked many angles. At one Security Council meeting last year that was set to discuss human rights violations in Syria, China intervened. It was concerned that the discussion would veer into one on Xinjiang.
The United Nations’ high commissioner of human rights at the time, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, traveled to New York to address the session.
Suddenly, as the diplomats were about to convene, Ivory Coast withdrew support for the discussion on Syria. Since there was no longer a quorum for the session, it was canceled.
Ivory Coast’s ambassador explained that his president had received a call from Beijing instructing him to ensure the session did not happen.
“If you can’t get a discussion on Syria after all these seven years of brutality, of course you can block a discussion on Xinjiang,” Mr. al-Hussein said.