BY ITAMAR WAKSMAN
For many, October seemed to be the moment the world would hold Saudi Arabia responsible for its extensive history of human rights abuses. The gruesome murder and mutilation of well-known journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, seemed to finally awaken the international community from its long slumber regarding the Kingdom’s internal repression. A multitude of different influential figures and organizations , ranging from the press to corporate executives, abandoned the Saudi’s signature Future Investment Initiative forum, a key piece in Crowned Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s drive to diversify the Saudi economy. Even Steve Mnuchin, the U.S. Treasury Secretary, cancelled his attendance of the event, hinting at a possible change in U.S. policy towards the Saudis.
It would be easy to assume a new era, in which morality reigned over geopolitics, had begun. But on the other side of the continent, in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, the Chinese government’s oppression of the Muslim Uyghur minority has drawn little more than a murmur of opposition from world leaders. China’s activities in Xinjiang today arguably constitute a form of ethnic cleansing. Uyghurs are prevented from practicing Islam, including not being allowed to fast during the holy month of Ramadan, grow long beards, or wear headcovers. Their homes are occupied by an army of mostly Han-Chinese “siblings” who check that they are speaking Mandarin, not practicing Islam, and participating in mainstream Han culture. It is estimated that as of July 2018 there are one million Uyghurs interned in reeducation camps, where they are indoctrinated and forced to abandon their culture for the Communist Party’s version of Chinese culture.
Yet this previous June’s Belt and Road Summit, the critical conference discussing and coordinating China’s ambitious project to expand international connectivity, had no protest abandonments from the multitude of global elites attending. In the face of such brutality, why has Saudi Arabia been singled out while China’s abuses have gone mostly ignored?
Today’s situation is a reversal of a historic trend in which the international community, especially Western elites, have berated China’s human rights record while ignoring the Saudi’s transgressions. In the aftermath of the 1989 violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square , the United States and its European allies enacted a variety of sanctions against China, including banning the export of military equipment. In 1995, Congress passed the China Policy Act, demanding that the Clinton Administration work towards improving human rights in certain specific areas. But at the same time the U.S. has refused to seriously and publicly pressure the Saudis over their own abuses. 13 million people are at risk of starving in Yemen, largely due to the Saudi military’s bombing campaign and blockade of humanitarian aid. In the words of former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, the United States makes “tough choices” when choosing between its interests and values on the international stage. This is especially relevant to Saudi Arabia, the U.S.’s most important regional security partner, one of the largest oil exporters in the world, and the single largest funding source of U.S. startups.
A possible reversal of fortune, though, is no more than a facade. In 1994 President Clinton, reversing his promise from the previous year, decoupled China’s human rights situation from proffering it with Most Favored Nation status, a legal term that gives a country preferential trade treatment. As China’s importance to the global economy has grown, the international community has been increasingly unwilling to criticize its human rights record. The same goes for Saudi Arabia, which is now seeing that the possible storm over its murder of Mr. Khashoggi is nothing more than a moment of anger from a media outraged at the killing of one of its own. While Secretary Mnuchin did not attend the “Davos of the Desert”, he still met with the Crowned Prince in Riyadh, the kingdom’s capital. President Trump has promised to continue selling lucrative armaments to the Saudi regime, all but ensuring the continuation of its conflict in neighboring Yemen.
But this does not mean that citizens and states should not continue to demand better. The Arab Spring proved that human rights abuses are inherently destabilizing, putting countries at risk of civil strife and therefore weakening regional stability. Though we live in a hyper-partisan age seemingly devoid of moral considerations, the values we work towards represent the world we dream for our children. Elites must begin to use the existing legal and institutional infrastructure to pressure abusers of human rights to change their practices. It is still possible. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s direct confrontation with Chinese President Xi Jinping led to the release of Liu Xia, the widow of the late Nobel Peace Prize winner and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo. A bipartisan group of US senators in August called for sanctions on Chinese citizens responsible for the situation in Xinjiang using the Global Magnitsky Act, which has as of yet only been applied to Russian citizens. The world must remember that as much as it needs countries like Saudi Arabia and China economically, so do they need international markets and investment to continue their development. By remembering its leverage, the international community can still fight for human decency regardless of locale.