As a prerequisite to the Japanese debate regarding policy coordination between Japan and the United States on the human rights issue in Xinjiang, it is necessary to understand the following characteristic: because many Japanese advocates of the protection of human rights are liberals who are relatively tolerant of China, approaching the Xinjiang issue from the perspective of human rights does not necessarily lead to a deepening of the discussion. To effect a change in this situation, it is important for the United States to present to Japan a larger amount of clear evidence of the human rights abuses in Xinjiang to overwhelm China’s claims with the sheer volume of data.
Phases of the Issue
The following is a summary of how and when the internment of the Uygur people and other minority citizens began. Since Xi Jinping’s visit to Xinjiang and the 2nd Xinjiang Work Forum, both in the spring of 2014, a new type of surveillance has been widely utilized in the region under the “People’s War Against Terrorism” order. This new surveillance uses spyware, applications, facial recognition systems, and other types of technology. In addition, in August 2016, a new Party Committee Secretary for the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region took over. Under the newly installed Secretary Chen Quanguo, the “Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Anti-Extremist Law” was enacted in March 2017, providing the legal basis for China’s policies. Making full use of AI, a surveillance society that has never before been seen in the world was formed, while at the same time the so-called re-education camps were established in the Xinjiang region and citizens in minority groups were taken into preventive custody in an on-going large-scale internment program.
The Chinese Communist Party justified the existence of the “re-education camps” by saying that they were created in the name of establishing social stability through the promotion of employment of the poorest segment of society via “vocational training.” The number of people who underwent “vocational training” at these centers is estimated to have exceeded one million, as suggested by the “Employment and Labor Rights in Xinjiang” white paper released by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China in September 2020. In the name of “vocational training,” members of minority groups underwent re-education at the camps. Specifically, they were trained in the Chinese language, as well as in Chinese history, culture, and so on. This has come under criticism as a policy of forced assimilation. In addition to this type of internment, in recent years, intense global criticism has been aimed at a program of employment promotion for the purpose of “eradicating poverty” and, as a part of this, practices such as forced labor in cotton fields and a rapid increase in the sterilization of women in minority groups.
There is nearly no public criticism of these developments in China (controlled by the Chinese Communist Party), regarding policies such as vocational training for ethnic minorities, coercive mobilization in the name of vocational training, and the promotion of sterilization. It is important to note that in response to “terrorist attacks” in which Uyghurs were the chief culprits, a victim mentality has only grown stronger among the Chinese public. Based on Chinese domestic public opinion, “poverty eradication,” along with policies designed to prevent future “terrorism,” is welcomed rather than criticized. Thus, from the perspective of the Chinese government, if they can succeed in establishing “long-term stability in Xinjiang society,” then they feel they can expect the support of domestic public opinion.
With regard to the issue of so-called forced labor, mobilization itself is not being rejected even by the Chinese media, which is, quite the contrary, showing images of members of minority groups being loaded onto large buses and transported to cotton fields. This mobilization is tolerated in China as a result of the policy logic of “anti-terrorism” and “poverty eradication.” Regarding the issue of forced sterilization, the Chinese Communist Party maintains a policy logic that states that the realization of “long-term social stability in Xinjiang” will prevent the creation of the next generation of “terrorists” via the elimination of poor households of large families among ethnic minorities that are viewed as “hotbeds of terrorism.” This is being done by limiting ethnic minority families to only two or three births each. This effort can be described as being a part of the new large-scale preventive “anti-terrorism policy.”
However, in Europe and the United States, where the freedom to choose one’s vocation and whether to be sterilized is taken as a matter of course, the Chinese logic cannot be accepted. In addition, as a result of repeated incidents, such as Uyghurs residing outside China being taken into custody upon returning to China, the inability of Uyghurs residing outside China to communicate with relatives in Xinjiang, and testimonies of human rights violations by exiles from Xinjiang, consolidated criticism of China by Europe and the United States has increased. This has brought the perception gap between China and the West into sharp focus.
Discourse in Japan
In Japan, there is particular interest in the Xinjiang issue by those in the world of business and economics, who find themselves directly affected by the issue of forced labor and related sanctions. One typical example is Uniqlo. The company’s brand image was seriously damaged by incidents such as the ban on imports in the United States and the investigation launched in France. The general view of Japanese companies doing business in China is that they would rather not become entangled in political discussions.
Japan is being influenced by both China and the West. The Chinese influence can be seen in the fact that there is currently a certain number of people, mainly leftists, who are sympathetic to Chinese claims. Specifically, these people argue that there is no basis to Western criticisms of genocide and that there are also human rights issues in the West. Some in the business world who do not want to become involved in political issues with China show a favorable stance toward pro-China claims. However, the claims of the pro-Chinese faction are hardly pervasive among the general Japanese population. This is because China’s image in terms of human rights is quite bad as a result of media reports on the Hong Kong issue.
At the same time, examples of human rights abuses in Xinjiang are increasingly being presented mainly by the Western media. However, one characteristic of the discussion in Japan is the fact that Japanese activists are not taking up this issue very often. Many Japanese who advocate the protection of human rights are still liberals who are relatively tolerant of China and thus tend to turn a blind eye to these kinds of problems in China. On the other hand, many of those who are critical of the problems in China are the so-called right wing. Thus, in Japan, approaching the Xinjiang issue from the perspective of human rights does not necessarily lead to a deepening of the discussion. Discussion of the Xinjiang issue in Japan is influenced by a relative lack of action due to these domestic issues (although the strength of economic ties to China is also a factor), unlike the countries of the West. Examples of human rights abuses are being uncovered one after another, and as a result, circumstances are in a gradual state of flux. To effect further change in the future, it is important for the US to provide to Japan even more clear evidence of human rights abuses in Xinjiang to overwhelm Chinese claims with the sheer volume of data.