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16 February 2022

The Uyghurs’ plight shows the biggest threat to democracy is Western apathy

We know that populist dictators are emboldened by each other’s atrocities, so how many more disappearances will it take before China crosses the West’s “red line”?

By Elif Shafak

“Fear is supremely contagious,” wrote Primo Levi, the Italian-Jewish writer and thinker who survived the horrors of Auschwitz, and who left us prescient warnings about the monopolisation of power and the systemic dehumanisation of others. His words echo in my head when I consider the persecution of the Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in China today.

We live in an age in which we have too much information, but little knowledge, and even less wisdom. These three concepts are completely different. In fact, an overabundance of information, and the hubris that comes with it, is an obstacle to attaining true knowledge and wisdom.

Every day we are bombarded with snippets of sombre news from all over the world. The escalating humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan where millions are facing starvation; desperate migrants and refugees drowning on Europe’s borders; attacks on abortion rights throughout the US; the use of rape as a military weapon amid the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans in Ethiopia; the violent coup in Myanmar. Meanwhile, an escalating climate crisis, an impending financial crisis and a crisis of liberal democracy and pluralism are looming.

[See also: “My culture will survive”: the Uyghur poet Fatimah Abdulghafur Seyyah on her family’s devastating persecution]

A deluge of information necessitates faster consumption. We are catapulted from one piece of news to the next, and we treat each incident as an atomised, separate event – and then it simply becomes too much, too depressing, so we switch off and go back to our own lives. When so much is happening at such a large scale every single day, we think, what can I possibly do to change anything? This is how we lose the fight against authoritarianism.

Let us then return to the memoirs of those who have survived the darkest chapters in history, for they will guide us with their sagacity and fortitude. Fear, as Primo Levi rightly warned us, is supremely contagious, and autocrats recognise this all too well. But dictators and demagogues know there is one more thing just as easily transmittable, and that is numbness – our indifference and detachment as global citizens. If the Chinese government today can continue with crimes against humanity in its treatment of the Uyghur minority, it is because it understands how numbness works and relies on it.

When is a human rights violation deemed “grave enough” to draw the attention and ire of the global public? How many more atrocities does it take for governments in the West to react to a genocide in another part of the world? How many more disappearances or cases of forced labour will it take before China crosses the West’s “red line”? How many more children need to be sent to orphanages, ripped from their families, made to forget their own language and identity? How many more women must be sterilised by force and sexually assaulted?

The truth is that, by now, we know what’s going on in China. The Human Rights Watch report published in April last year underlined how Beijing is responsible for “policies of mass detention, torture and cultural persecution”. Western leaders claim to have red lines – hence the United States’ “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Winter Olympics – but it’s questionable whether they are fixed. Authoritarian rulers benefit from this vagueness, and they gain power every time demands or conditions shift.

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[See also: Behind Xi Jinping’s Great Wall of Iron]

While the West is grappling with its own apathy, the silence of Muslim-majority countries – including some of the wealthiest – regarding the persecution of Uyghurs is deafening. It is more than silence: it is a blatant trade-off. In 2019, when a group of mostly European countries signed a letter to the UN high commissioner for human rights, criticising and condemning China’s mistreatment of its minorities, more than 30 states rushed in to sign an alternative letter. Employing alternative facts, they went as far as praising China’s “remarkable achievements” on human rights. When truth is distorted and diluted, that, too, serves authoritarianism.

We must be aware of how oppression in one part of the world encourages it elsewhere. Populist demagogues and dictators are emboldened by each other’s presence and atrocities. Last June authorities in Belarus, in an unprecedented act of hijacking, forced a plane flying between two EU countries to make an emergency landing so that they could arrest a journalist critical of the regime. A few days later the Turkish government pushed Nato allies into softening their response to this alarming violation of human rights. Belarus openly thanked Turkey for its support.

This new “internationalism” of authoritarian regimes is something we all need to be deeply concerned about. While too many Americans continue to believe in the empty rhetoric of US exceptionalism and the EU struggles with its own tides of populist nativism, it is tragic to see that dictators are the ones who understand the power of international collaboration far better than their democratic counterparts.

Every time we fail to investigate a gross human rights violation, every time we turn a blind eye to atrocities because we have trade deals or financial engagements, we are closely observed not only by that particular country’s government but also by the authoritarian regimes across the world. For they know that when one of them is met with numbness it will benefit them all.

This is how democracy loses. Not only “there” but also here, and everywhere.

Elif Shafak is a British-Turkish novelist and activist

This article appears in our series, The Silencing, on China and the Uyghurs

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War