SFU academic assails Canada’s criticism of China on human rights

Yuezhi Zhao holds the Canada Research Chair in Political Economy of Global Communication at Simon Fraser University. Her column, titled Canada Should Reflect On Its Struggle With Racism and dated July 29, ran in China Daily. The Beijing-based English-language media outlet describes itself as a government agency on LinkedIn, and it is a central fixture of the Chinese government’s efforts to disseminate its views abroad.

The Chinese government has come under intense criticism for its repression of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. It has rejected calls for an independent investigation into documented reports of abuses, including torture, forced sterilization, forced abortions and involuntary separation of children from their parents. The Canadian, British, Dutch and Lithuanian parliaments, among others, have this year passed motions declaring China’s abuse of Muslim minorities to constitute genocide.

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Chinese officials have acknowledged that the birth rate across Xinjiang fell by nearly a third in 2018.

Prof. Zhao says in her China Daily column that people should consider how the population of Uyghurs has flourished over the long term, particularly since the Chinese Communist Party took power more than 70 years ago.

“Contrary to the genocidal decline of the aboriginal population in North America over the past 500 years, minority populations such as Tibetans and Uyghurs [in China] have grown significantly, and that has especially been the case since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949,” she writes.

Prof. Zhao also takes aim at what she calls the “moral high ground that Canadian politicians have assumed in critiquing the Chinese state.”

The Chinese government in June locked horns with the Canadian government after Canada led more than 40 countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council in expressing “grave concerns” over China’s conduct in Xinjiang. In response, Beijing confronted Canada about its own mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and the discovery of what appeared to be the remains of more than 200 children at a former residential school in Kamloops.

China countered the Canadian criticism by calling for a “thorough and impartial investigation” into crimes against Indigenous peoples, which it said were instigated by racism and xenophobia in Canada.

In a similar vein, Prof. Zhao accuses Canada of genocide, saying “the genocide of the aboriginal population has been at the very core of the founding of Canada.” She argues Canadians are mistakenly assuming that Beijing is trying to assimilate the Uyghurs.

“When Canadian politicians, media outlets and scholars attack China for alleged human rights abuses, especially when they accuse China of genocidal treatment of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, we are witnessing the same unreflective application to China of a home-based paradigm based on the genocidal assimilation of aboriginal people,” she writes.

She contrasts the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1 with “disbelief and shock” in Canada at historical mistreatment of Indigenous children at residential schools. The Communist Party, she writes, “despite all the trials and tribulations, even grave mistakes, is in a position to tell the proud history of national liberation, a history in which the Chinese nation overthrew the ‘three mountains’ of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism.”

Prof. Zhao could not immediately be reached for comment. A spokesperson for Simon Fraser University, Melissa Shaw, said “all faculty members have the right to academic freedom” when asked to comment on Prof. Zhao’s column.

Mehmet Tohti, a Uyghur-Canadian and executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, said he’s shocked to hear the long-term increase in the Uyghur population since 1949 invoked as a counterargument to concern over Xinjiang. He said it’s rare to hear this kind of argument from Canada’s academic ranks, and that dismissing criticism of China’s record in Xinjiang ignores the “concentration camps and the massive internment of people and the forced labour” of recent years.

Mr. Tohti said that, as a Uyghur-Canadian, he found it disappointing to hear “whataboutism” arguments that redirect debate over China’s current mistreatment of Uyghurs to past wrongs committed by Canada.

He said it would make sense for China to establish an independent truth and reconciliation commission for Xinjiang. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which ran for more than six years until 2015, documented the history and effect of the residential school system on Indigenous students and their families.

David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said while residential schools were part of a “cruel and deeply flawed policy,” any comparison with what China is doing in Xinjiang is “almost certainly designed to diminish awareness of Beijing’s vast, ambitious and technologically sophisticated destruction of a people and a culture.”

Darren Byler, an assistant professor with the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser, and an expert in China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, said that for more than 70 years Beijing has sought to transform Xinjiang into an “internal settler colony” by transferring the Han Chinese ethnic majority into the region.

“Over the past four years, this process has dramatically intensified with the implementation of a widespread residential boarding school system, where Uyghur and Kazakh children are instructed in Chinese and not permitted to practice their faith traditions,” he said.

“A mass incarceration and internment system has resulted in 533,000 criminal prosecutions and the internment of hundreds of thousands more who have been deemed untrustworthy,” he added. “Because genocidal violence is just now emergent in China, it is particularly crucial that people of conscience demand that it be stopped.”

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