If Erkin Tuniyaz, the governor of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in north-western China, goes ahead with his expected visit to the UK this week, survivors of the region’s network of camps want him to be arrested and tried for perpetrating genocide, not to be welcomed by the British government.
As the present chairman of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) Standing Committee on Xinjiang and a long-time member of that committee, Tuniyaz is directly implicated in the atrocities being perpetrated there. Tuniyaz allegedly oversaw forced family separations and the other horrors hidden behind the barbed wires and concrete walls of the region’s concentration camps. For over seven years, the Chinese government has subjected the Uyghur people to inhumane treatment, including forced sterilisation, cultural erasure, forced labour, political indoctrination and torture. The British government must be aware of this, and of Tuniyaz’s role in what the UK Parliament itself has declared genocide.
Yet the Foreign Office in London has attempted to justify meeting Tuniyaz (who is Uyghur himself) on the grounds that officials will press him for change. This is a legitimate goal, but since its inception, the Xinjiang chairman’s office has been purely symbolic, a token gesture of the Chinese Han government towards the “autonomy” and ethnic self-governance of the Uyghur region. Appealing to Tuniyaz for change is pointless.
In fact, China has relied on Uyghur officials to carry out its propaganda and disinformation campaigns to conceal the concentration camps. In 2019 Tuniyaz stood before the UN Human Rights Council as a vice-chairman of the region to defend state violence committed against the Uyghurs. The former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith rightly called him “a man who relentlessly instrumentalised the UN and defended the atrocious policy against members of his own community”. Tuniyaz’s complicity was rewarded: in 2021 he was promoted to chairman. Sir Iain, along with the Labour MP Sir Chris Bryant called on Monday (13 February) for Tuniyaz to be detained and tried if he travels to the UK.
[See also: Uyghur detention camps: a culture under attack]
In response to questions from MPs James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, indicated that he was seeking feedback from civil society groups about Tuniyaz’s visit. However, this invitation looks more like an attempt to legitimise rather than to critically assess Tuniyaz’s visit. None of us who advocate for Uyghur human rights want to lend credibility to this ill-conceived meeting with a genocidal bureaucrat who has no will to change the system he serves.
I am not dismissing an attempt in good faith at a solution. There is simply no indication that this meeting will be anything other than an empty example of “engagement” for the Chinese government to gesture towards while changing nothing in the Uyghur homeland. It would only serve the Communist Party’s goal of further dehumanising Uyghur people and lying about its genocidal policies. When China finally admitted to imprisoning Uyghurs in “vocational training centres” it used Tuniyaz as its spokesman. He told the world that Uyghurs are radicalised and uneducated, and that in the camps “they learned basic practical skills and graduated from the centre with a better quality of life”. On the contrary, the camps hold many Uyghur intellectuals, including my own brother, Ekpar Asat, a prominent Uyghur tech entrepreneur and an alumnus of the US State Department International Visitors Leadership Programme, which has been attended by several British prime ministers including Margaret Thatcher, Gordon Brown, and Theresa May.
Tuniyaz is under US sanctions for his involvement in China’s atrocities. Lawyers for Erbakit Ortabay, a camp survivor, have requested permission from the UK Attorney-General to prosecute him. This argument is grounded in the principles of international law. The UK was the site of the Uyghur Tribunal, an independent people’s court which brought together renowned jurists to rule on the question of genocide. The UK is home to many among the Uyghur diaspora, among whom survivors like Ortabay have sought refuge. Besides these brave survivors, the diaspora community within the UK includes those who have been separated from their families and targeted by the Chinese government’s extra-territorial campaign of intimidation and espionage.
China uses economic coercion to stall any progress towards ending the Uyghur atrocities. Last October a motion before the UN Human Rights Council’s session to debate the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’s finding that repression in Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity was voted down as many countries sided with China or abstained. Tuniyaz’s planned UK visit not only serves as a propaganda and disinformation tool for China but also sends a message to smaller countries that there is nothing wrong with diplomatic neutrality on the Uyghur issue.
Instead, the international community should be focused on ensuring that these alleged crimes against humanity are investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Two British lawyers representing Uyghur groups filed a landmark case in the ICC relying on legal theory and precedent first set forth by Rohingya groups in relation to Myanmar. The ICC rejected the Uyghur case. This is regrettable as an ongoing investigation by the ICC would have allowed member states to hand over officials, such as Tuniyaz, to be held to account.
I am in favour of creative solutions to end the Uyghur atrocities, but the UK foreign office’s willingness to meet Tuniyaz and press for change is not matched by any interest on the Chinese government’s side in doing so. China must first credibly demonstrate that this is possible by taking real action, including freeing individuals and allowing unfettered access to the region without police surveillance.
In past diplomatic visits, Ürümchi, the Uyghur capital, and Kashgar, an oasis city of the Silk Road, were given cosmetic surgery for staged tours and disinformation campaigns. The UK government should look beyond these designated Potemkin villages and investigate cities such as Aksu and Turpan as well as rural areas. Diplomats must be allowed to interview local residents without the fear of retaliation. Unless and until the Chinese government demonstrates that it is interested in meaningful engagement on this issue, which will result in tangible change, there are no legitimate grounds for Tuniyaz’s visit.
Rayhan Asat is a Uyghur human rights lawyer and advocate who serves as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Reuben scholar at Oxford University.