The oppression of the Uyghurs and other Turkic and Islamic minority people in China’s Xinjiang region has come into stark focus over the past five years.
First, minorities were interned in “re-education facilities” for indeterminate periods. Then came evidence of Chinese “minders” being sent to live with Uyghur families and report on their behaviour, of checkpoints on pedestrian streets, face-scanning cameras, the enforced installation of state spyware on personal phones, forced controls on fertility and the closing or demolition of mosques and other religious sites. Throughout all this, a man named Erkin Tuniyaz has been a leading official in Xinjiang’s regional government, and an enthusiastic defender of this “Sinicisation” of Islam. Since 2021, he has been the formal leader of the entire region.
Yet none of this stopped British Foreign Office officials from planning to meet with Tuniyaz during a visit to London – a visit that has now been cancelled, after hurriedly arranged protests, condemnation by prominent politicians from the Labour and Conservative parties, and calls for his arrest under torture laws. News of the cancellation came not in an official announcement, but rather from the Inter-parliamentary Alliance on China, which tweeted that it had heard the news from government sources. This is characteristic of the whole affair: Tuniyaz’s visit was initially announced only in an email to activist groups , and his schedule was never published.
The furtiveness of the planned visit implies that the Foreign Office was fully cognisant of how unwholesome it was. Tuniyaz is not a peripheral figure in the mistreatment of Xinjiang’s minority peoples. Indeed, he has been a vocal defender of the mass internment camps there. The British government was aware of this: it has previously condemned the mistreatment of Xinjiang’s minorities and sanctioned other Xinjiang officials – including Tuniyaz’s deputy, Chen Mingguo – for their roles in the outrages that parliament has recognised as a genocide. In return, China has sanctioned many of our politicians, activists and academics for speaking out about the situation in Xinjiang.
That Tuniyaz is himself Uyghur is no irony. Rather, his role as chairman is a product of the Chinese state’s cynical use of complicit members of minority groups to provide a veneer of equality and representation to Beijing’s rule of Xinjiang. As elsewhere in China, the government is subordinate to the party. While Xinjiang’s chairmen have always been Uyghurs, the party secretaries to whom they are subordinate have – with a single exception in the 1970s – always been Han, China’s dominant ethnic group. Chairmen like Tuniyaz are simply the face of policies decided on by party secretaries.
It is likely that it was intended that Tuniyaz play a similar role in his visit to London, which was only one of his intended stops in Europe to “discuss this situation in Xinjiang”. In the face of the backlash, these trips have also been cancelled. However, the fact that they were planned at all suggests that Beijing was hopeful that the attention of the world had moved elsewhere, and it could begin to put behind it the scrutiny it has faced over the treatment of the Uyghurs. Given the willingness of British officials to meet Tuniyaz, such hopes may not have seemed farfetched.
The British government was slow to act on the abuses in Xinjiang from the start, imposing sanctions only after years of campaigning from brave Uyghur exiles and other human rights activists. Among those who attended a protest against Tuniyaz’s visit outside the Foreign Office on Monday was Rahima Mahmut, a longtime Uyghur activist, singer and translator. As with other vocal Uyghurs living in the west, her decision to speak out over the years has had terrible consequences – she can neither return home, for fear of arrest; nor contact her family there without putting them at further risk. Many Uyghurs living in the UK simply will not discuss Tuniyaz’s visit with journalists, fearful of drawing the attention of Beijing which, in its well-documented efforts to silence criticism from abroad, is fiercely engaged in efforts to control the discourse around Xinjiang. Tuniyaz’s planned visit can only be seen as a part of those efforts.
The cancellation of Tuniyaz’s visit is testament to the bravery and commitment of those who fought against it. But it also attests to the inconsistency of Britain’s approach. There should have been no meeting to cancel in the first place – Tuniyaz, as a defender and an overseer of the abusive policies in Xinjiang, should not be allowed to walk the streets of London. As the protesters argued on Monday, the British government should be listening to their experiences rather than to the state propaganda pushed by representatives of Beijing. Had it done so, Tuniyaz would already be on the sanctions list, as he is in the United States.
The claim, from the prime minister’s office, that the meeting was agreed to with the intention of making clear the UK’s “abhorrence over the treatment of the Uyghur people” makes little sense. The official British position is already clear, but it will remain unconvincing until those responsible for the mistreatment of Xinjiang’s Turkic and Muslim minorities know that they are not welcome here.