Vladimir Bukovsky died recently, in the country he called home after his 1976 expulsion from Russia. He was one of the last Russian dissidents from a time when concerns about Russia related not to its interference in Western elections or its financial links with Western leaders but about the spread of its Communist ideology, its brutal control of Eastern Europe, its appalling treatment of those who protested (incarceration as “insane” in psychiatric jails) or those who wanted to leave (Russian Jews – Anatoly Sharansky, for instance). All a very long time ago now, from a period when the Berlin Wall was standing, a structure exemplifying the brutal reality that Communist states were prisons: to try and escape meant death. It is history now, unimaginable to the generations since, even if there are some, even in the West, who still mourn its passing.
One of the many facets of the Cold War which is largely forgotten is how the West fought the war on the ideological front – help to dissidents (often by brave private individuals), pressure on the authorities to let people go, exposure of what was happening, formal pressure on the Soviets to live up to the ideals they proclaimed and the agreements they signed. The most successful of these were the 1975 Helsinki Accords, containing a chapter on human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Soviet Union signed up, little imagining that this would be used by protestors and dissidents to hold it to account, embarrass it, give hope of a better future. Charter 77 was based on it; one of its most prominent signatories, Vaclav Havel, became a symbol of resistance, writing that – even in a totalitarian state – man should try to live “as if” one were free, a liberation of the mind, a private free space. Eastern Europe seized its freedom 30 years ago now, Havel becoming President of Czechoslovakia. Charter 77 was dissolved in 1992. But its influence lives on – in Charter 08, a manifesto signed by Chinese dissidents and human rights activists in December 2008, 60 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A tricky word that: “Universal“. Whatever the original intentions, human rights have not been universal in practice and, signatures on treaties notwithstanding, not even accepted in theory in many countries, including China. China’s treatment of its citizens has been as brutal and murderous as the Soviet Union (at least 45 million murdered by Mao). Even after its opening up to the West and its enthusiastic embrace of capitalism (Chinese-style, along with extreme wealth and corruption), its treatment of dissidents and protestors or those who will not conform has continued to be brutal, harsh, often deadly.
And no group is suffering more than the Uighur Muslims, a people who have lived in this region for centuries and been Muslim since the 10th, as shown in this Panorama documentary. Or set out here. A million people forcibly detained in camps; children separated (perhaps permanently) from their parents; organs harvested; torture, rape, medical experiments; destruction of mosques and burial grounds. Why? For “re-education” in order to deal with people “influenced by extremism” and terrorism, according to the Chinese authorities. In reality, it is a regime of incalculable cruelty: a deliberate attempt to wipe out a religion, a language, a history, a culture, a memory. For what is a people – even if they live – if their history, their way of doing things, their culture, their beliefs, their language, their buildings, their religion – are obliterated?
Arguably it may even fall within the UN definition of genocide: “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or on part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: ……. causing serious ….. mental harm to members of the group….”. But set aside legalities: what is happening is revolting, not very different in its cruelty and effects to other acts of annihilation of groups committed by totalitarian or aggressive regimes in the 20th century.
If China succeeds in its “re-education”, an ancient Islamic people will, to all intents and purposes, disappear. If anything deserves the moniker “Islamophobia” surely this does?
How should the Western world react? Exposure of what is happening has been recent; UN reports are being written; the US may raise it with the Chinese authorities; the US Congress has passed a bill and 22 UN countries have condemned it. (More than double that number have supported China.) Will anything else be done? There is little pressure for more. So far anyway. Why? Well, some reasons suggest themselves:-
- The Uighur are a faraway people of whom little is known. Perhaps, to misquote Regis Debray, these victims are “too Muslim to interest the Right, the wrong sort of foreign to excite the Left”.
- The Muslim world has not spoken up for them, a striking contrast to how it behaves when some perceived offence against Muslim sensibilities occurs in Western countries. Indeed, when the UN raised the issue, some leading Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt) spoke up for China. Where is the Muslim ummah when you need it most?
- Perhaps there is some truth in the “terrorism” charge the Chinese level at the Uighur, though no evidence of this has been provided. More likely, the Chinese have cynically used fear of Islamic terrorism as a justification, knowing that this fear is shared (not without some reason) by many countries and that this may inhibit condemnation, let alone action.
- Chinese markets, money, business and trade matter to the West, far more than the fate of a people whose name is hard to spell. Unlike the Soviet Union, which had few economic goodies to offer the West, China’s economy matters.
- China is ruthless enough to ignore any measures taken and take counter-measures of its own. And – unlike Soviet Russia – it will likely not sign up to anything inhibiting its freedom of manoeuvre. The Helsinki Accords were the first step in bringing Russia and the West closer. The same need does not apply to China.
- The West appears to have lost some confidence in projecting its own values. The US has a leader unconcerned by such matters who has sought to challenge China only for the US’s economic benefit rather than out of any particular concern for Western values.
So little may be done beyond statements, reports and, maybe, some token gestures. There are plenty of other issues which the West has to consider in its relationship with China: Hong Kong, Taiwan, trade, the strength of its economy and how this will affect |Western economies, its relationships with emerging African countries, its Belt and Road initiative, use of Chinese telecommunications and so on. Realpolitik will rule the day, no matter how personally appalled Western politicians may be at what they learn. ‘Twas ever thus.
Still, one lesson to be learnt from the disappearance of Soviet Russia and its satellites 3 decades ago, is that apparently permanent and impregnable and strong polities are not necessarily as permanent and impregnable and strong as everyone had supposed. Staying silent, doing nothing for those seeking freedom in such states is noticed by them. As the Polish writer and Nobel prize winner, Czeslaw Milosz, put it to Pablo Picasso in 1956 in relation to his support for Stalin: “During the years when painting was systematically destroyed in the USSR….. you lent your name to statements glorifying Stalin’s regime…. Your weight counted in the balance, and took away hope from those in the East who wanted not to submit….. No one knows what consequences a categorical protest from you might have had…. If your support helped the terror, your indignation would also have mattered.”
So what can the West do? What should it do? What will it do?