When Liu Xiaoming agreed to come on the Andrew Marr show, he ought to have expected that – as the Chinese ambassador – he’d be asked about Uighur Muslims. He doubtless came on to bemoan the Huawei decision. But as anyone with a social media account could have told him, video footage of people with their heads shaved, blindfolded, kneeling, handcuffed, being forced on to trains have been circulating widely for days now. It was fairly obvious that the subject would come up. Marr didn’t just raise the topic, he screened the video. The ambassador seemed flummoxed. It made for some very striking television:
When asked by Marr to explain the footage, Liu began to say that Xinjiang – the area where Uighurs are being imprisoned – is ‘very beautiful’. Marr looked incredulous: set aside the area’s natural charm, he said, the video of people in chains, being led to trains in modern China, is not beautiful.
All Liu could say was: ‘I don’t know where you got this video tape’. If that’s true then he was very badly briefed by his press team: he should have been expected to be shown it. He then said it could have been a prisoner transfer.
Blundering into the subject of ethnic cleansing, the ambassador then claimed '40 years ago it (Xinjiang) has four, five million (Uighurs), now it is eleven million, and people say we impose ethnic cleansing but the population has doubled in forty years'. Yes, said Marr, but figures from China's own local government statistics say the Uighur’s population growth rates have fallen by 84 per cent between 2015 and 2018. Not so, said Liu. 'Let me tell you this, the so-called western intelligence keep on making these false accusations against China'. He didn't say what was false about the footage, authenticated, by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The camps are too big a secret to keep. Harald Maass reported on the camps for The Spectator a few months ago. Even Xinjiang government admits to their use with its chairman, Shohrat Zakir, calling the camps a ‘pioneering’ approach to tackling terrorism, during a press conference in Beijing When shown a second video on Marr, with a Uighur Muslim woman telling her story of being forcibly sterilised, the ambassador said there were no ‘massive forced sterilisation’ in China, but that he couldn’t ‘rule out single cases’.
Another report came out this weekend from someone who had escaped from the camps, published by Haaretz. Sayragul Sauytbay, forced to be a teacher in the camps, escaped and now tells her story. Every move, she says, is monitored by cameras as Uighur men and women are tortured, forced to take pills and get injections in medical experiments. Women are raped. Men become sterile.
Sauytbay told Haaretz how a woman was stood before a group and told to confess her misdeed.
‘She stood before us and declared that she had been a bad person but now that she had learned Chinese she had become a better person. When she was done speaking, the policemen ordered her to disrobe and simply raped her one after the other, in front of everyone. While they were raping her they checked to see how we were reacting. People who turned their head or closed their eyes, and those who looked angry or shocked, were taken away and we never saw them again.’
When Theresa May last visited China as Prime Minister, the local press praised her for not raising human rights violations. That was at a time when the UK was hungry for Chinese contracts. A more robust balance has now been struck with the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, himself the son of a Jewish refugee, talking of ‘gross, egregious human rights abuses’ which, he says, currently stop short of genocide. Raab will update parliament of the UK’s response on Monday, but the UK is yet to enforce any sanctions, as Lisa Nandy, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, is calling for.
The story is now turning into a worldwide scandal – we are witnessing the persecution of Uighur Muslims. Hard questions are, at last, being asked. If the ambassador’s performance on Marr is anything to go by, Beijing has not yet worked out an answer.