European Commission chief’s comments on Uyghurs fall short of expectations


Stopping the genocide of the mostly Muslim group should be a priority, one human rights expert says.

European Commission chief’s comments on Uyghurs fall short of expectations

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gestures as she speaks during a press conference at the Delegation of the European Union to China, in Beijing, April 6, 2023.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen discussed human rights issues with China’s Xi Jinping during a high-level meeting on Thursday in Beijing, a rare move for European leaders who usually avoid the topic when they visit the Chinese capital for talks.

Von der Leyen, who visited China from April 5 to 7 along with French President Emmanuel Macron and a delegation of about 50 business leaders, told a news conference held after their meeting with the Chinese president that the human rights situation concerning Uyghurs in Xinjiang was “particularly concerning.”  

“I expressed our deep concerns about the deterioration of human rights in China,” she said. “The situation in Xinjiang is particularly concerning. It is important that we continue to discuss these issues, and I therefore welcome that we have already resumed the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue.”

The most recent dialogue took place in February in Brussels, where the parties exchanged views on human rights developments both in the EU and in China. During that session, EU representatives highlighted the vulnerable situation of Uyghurs and underscored the urgency of implementing the recommendations of a report issued by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Xinjiang. 

That report, issued last August, said China’s arbitrary detentions of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in its western Xinjiang province “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

Short of expectations

Von der Leyen’s meeting with Xi comes at a time when Uyghur rights groups have called for concrete measures to stop China’s repression of the mostly Muslim group in recent years through intrusive digital surveillance, arbitrary detentions in “re-education” camps, imprisonment, torture and forced labor.

But von der Leyen’s comments at the news conference, which included trade relations and Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, fell short of the expectations of rights groups, even though most European leaders steer clear of criticizing China’s dismal human rights record when they meet with Chinese leaders in Beijing. 

“In a Western view, complimenting a few minor positive steps on the environment is a standard diplomatic acquiescence, but these things will ultimately be rendered meaningless while also communicating to the Chinese leadership that they can carry out genocide with impunity,” Nury Turkel, chair of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and senior fellow at Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. 

China's President Xi Jinping (C), his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron (L), and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (R) meet for a working session in Beijing, April 6, 2023. Credit: Pool via Associated Press
China’s President Xi Jinping (C), his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron (L), and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (R) meet for a working session in Beijing, April 6, 2023. Credit: Pool via Associated Press

Turkel went on to say that stopping an active genocide, which is a clear violation of international law, should be the first and foremost concern of any diplomatic engagement. 

In June 2022, members of the European Parliament passed a resolution calling the Chinese government’s systemic human rights abuses against Uyghurs “crimes against humanity and a serious risk of genocide.”

The U.S. State Department and the parliaments of several Western counties also have declared that the Chinese government’s repression of Uyghurs amounts to genocide and crimes against humanity.

‘Systemic threat to global peace’

Regarding von der Leyen’s statement about having “deep concerns” about China’s human rights situation, Turkel asked, “How on earth can any European leader make such a statement with a straight face?”

“Do they honestly believe that the Chinese regime carrying out genocide is moved by deep concerns from international leaders?” he asked. “Such naïveté brought us to a Russian invasion and is fueling the destruction of the Uyghur people while creating a less stable world in which China can carry out atrocity crimes and further breaches of international law with impunity.” 

“As feared, the visits by President Macron and President von der Leyen have contributed to the whitewashing of this genocide and have certainly done more harm than good,” he added.

Laura Harth, campaign director at the Spanish humanitarian group Safeguard Defenders, said von der Leyen’s messaging in recent weeks indicates a fundamental and much-needed policy shift away from the EU’s blind engagement with China.

But such statements on grave human rights violations by the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, regime need to be backed up by the imposition of concrete consequences, she told Radio Free Asia. 

“At this point, we are not yet where we ought to be in that respect, but some European decision-makers seem to have finally understood that the CCP’s crimes against the peoples in China and its aggressive posture abroad represent one and the same systemic threat to global peace and stability,” Harth said. 

Statements about the high-level discussion issued by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not mention human rights issues.

Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Matt Reed.

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