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Axios’s Swan Dismantles Pakistan’s Endorsement of Uyghur Repression

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan talks to China’s President Xi Jinping during their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, October 9, 2019. (Parker Song/Reuters)

Jonathan Swan of Axios has conducted another exceptional interview with a world leader, this one highlighting Pakistan’s abject capitulation to Beijing over the Uyghur genocide.

Swan posed a question to Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan asking if his outspoken advocacy for Western Muslims was undermined by his defenses of the Chinese government’s human-rights abuses against Uyghurs. “This is not the case according to them,” Khan said of his government’s conversations with Chinese Communist Party officials about the treatment of Uyghurs. Then, he pivoted, calling China one of “the greatest friends to us” during an economic downturn. “We respect the way they are and whatever issues we have we raise behind closed doors.”

“How come this is such a big issue in the Western world. Why are the people of Kashmir ignored?” he asked.

Khan’s comments are meant to downplay and deny the existence of the ongoing mass atrocities that the Chinese government is perpetrating against Uyghurs, many of whom identify with the Islamic faith. The Party authorities are carrying out a campaign to erase Islam from the Xinjiang region, such as by razing mosques and traditional cemeteries, as it carries out a simultaneous genocidal effort to suppress Uyghur birth rates by forced sterilization and the rape of female detainees.

Nevertheless, Pakistan, along with over 30 other authoritarian states, defended this conduct at the U.N. in a 2019 letter. And although last night’s interview was not the first time that Khan had trotted out these pro-China talking points (he made a similar argument at the World Economic Forum last year) it has put his government’s misconduct on full display.

The reasons for Pakistan’s cooperation with China on this are many. The obvious explanation — in fact, the one that Khan himself makes — of Pakistan’s abiding support for Beijing’s crimes against humanity stems from China’s patronage of the country. The longstanding bilateral relationship has paved the way to significant economic engagement, including, most recently, plans for a $62 billion Belt and Road Initiative economic corridor to connect China with Pakistan’s Gwadar port. Unsurprisingly, China is the largest source of foreign direct investment in Pakistan, even without counting funding related to the economic-corridor project.

And as Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, explained to Politico earlier this year, Islamabad doesn’t have much of a choice:

The problem, Haqqani said, is that the various aspects of Pakistan’s relationship with China are intertwined. While European politicians can strike an investment deal with China while simultaneously criticizing its human rights record, Pakistan has a “one window operation.”

“If you don’t give them what they want in the economic realm, they push back in the military realm. To keep the military relationship going, they have to give up the economic realm,” he said. China is now Pakistan’s biggest arms supplier, and with Pakistan’s military playing an oversized role in its politics, the civilian government has to be wary it doesn’t upset its generals in addition to Beijing.

In addition to that, the countries that support China’s policies in Xinjiang explain them as necessary to prevent terrorist attacks in the region. “Faced with the grave challenge of terrorism and extremism, China has undertaken a series of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang, including setting up vocational education and training centers,” stated the 2019 letter, which was unveiled at the U.N. Human Rights Council. It stands to reason that regimes wary of encouraging domestic dissent see it necessary to support other countries in the process of quelling political resistance.

All of this has contributed to a dangerous trend that went unaddressed in the interview: Islamabad’s direct involvement in Uyghur repression in Pakistan. According to a recent report in the Asia Times, the 2,000 Uyghur immigrants who fled Xinjiang amid the stepped-up repression have been subjected to increasingly worrying repression.

The Times reported this month on Pakistan’s growing complicity in China’s severe human-rights abuses. According the article, Pakistan’s government has collected biometric data from Uyghurs, confiscated their passports, and subjected them to intrusive inspections at home and at work. With Pakistan creating a database of its Uyghur community to identify recent immigrants, the situation in the country is starting to resemble the environment in Xinjiang.

Although Swan didn’t raise that specific issue in the clip from his interview with Khan that circulated widely online, his deft questioning of the prime minister made mincemeat of the ridiculous denials of China’s human rights abuses.

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