Professor: challenge China on policy efficacy, not human rights

Chinese studies expert says scholars should focus on describing and analysing events in Xinjiang rather than political activism  

July 9, 2020
Outside Xinjiang mosque Uighur
Source: iStock

Academics should critique China’s treatment of the Uighur minority from a policy perspective, rather than a human rights one, if they want to have even a chance of changing the situation, an academic claims.

In a paper on China and self-censorship, Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London, questions whether “writing categorically critical attacks of the events [in Xinjiang is] likely to change minds in Beijing” and suggests that it might be “better simply to point out the policies implemented in the last few years are very likely to lead to the very thing they have ostensibly been aimed at preventing – building up local resentment and fuelling radicalisation”.

“The consequences of this will take decades to handle. If one wants to try to do something, anything, about Xinjiang as an outsider, it seems to me more likely that the second tactic – focusing on policy effectiveness and clear, profound questions about this in the region – is likely to work better than the first,” he writes in the paper, part of a Higher Education Policy Institute report on UK-China relations published on 9 July.

More than 1 million Muslim minorities are thought to be detained in internment camps in Xinjiang where, according to former detainees and other witnesses, they are subjected to political indoctrination and abuse.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Brown said that it was “fairly frustrating, verging on futile” to speak to officials in China about human rights as they will “almost always knock it back by saying, ‘our understanding of human rights is different to your understanding of human rights’, so you kind of hit a wall”.

However, he said that, in his experience, if scholars discuss the policy aspects of the issue it will at least be “listened to and engaged with” by officials in China and “you won’t fall into the trap of being easily labelled as another critic of China”.

Professor Brown added that the issue was part of a larger debate about whether there was a place for scholars to be activists.

“I feel that we need to describe and analyse. I’m not sure that we should be activists,” he said.

But Rian Thum, senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham and an expert on China and Islam, said that Professor Brown’s argument assumes that “the goal of writing about Xinjiang repression is to convince leaders in Beijing that their policies are bad”. Dr Thum’s view was that the goal was to “inform actors outside the Chinese government about what is going on, so that they can take action as they see fit, based on the fullest knowledge possible”.

“Exposure of Beijing’s Xinjiang policy itself brings costs by revealing to China’s counterparts in other countries what kind of government, exactly, they are dealing with. And Beijing is very sensitive to reputational costs,” he said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: How to get heard: challenge China on policy rather than human rights, says scholar

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Reader's comments (1)

Why criticise China then buy every last paper clip from them. Surely a better policy is an economic one. Again, shall we start with actions not words from the university sector.

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