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Japan finds it harder to stay silent on China’s abuse of Uyghurs

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Last summer, Halmat Rozi, a Uyghur Muslim living in Japan, received a video call from his brother in the Xinjiang region of western China. His brother said he had someone he wanted Rozi to meet: a Chinese security guard.

Top Chinese leader Xi Jinping had been invited to Japan and the officer had a few questions. Were Rozi and his fellow Uyghur activists planning protests? Who were the group leaders? What work were they doing? If Rozi cooperated, his family in China would be well looked after, the officer assured him during a second video call.

The officers’ intention was clear to discourage Rozi from doing anything that could damage China’s reputation in Japan. The warning had the opposite effect. Rozi had invited the Japanese public broadcaster, NHK, to surreptitiously record the second call, which was then broadcast to millions of viewers.

The images provided a rare look at Beijing’s efforts to cultivate and intimidate Chinese ethnic minorities abroad, and they contributed to a growing awareness in Japan of China’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

This, in turn, has increased pressure on the Japanese government to take strong action after years of tiptoeing around China, a dance that has left it out of step with its Western allies. on the issue of Xinjiang.

So far, Japan has elicited little but expressions of “grave concern over the fate of the Uyghurs, hundreds of thousands of whom have been placed in re-education camps in recent years in what critics say is an effort to erase their ethnic identity. Japan is the only member of the Group of Seven Industrial Powers not to participate in the coordinated sanctions imposed on Chinese officials last month over the situation in Xinjiang, which the US government has declared genocide.

Halmat Rozi, a Uyghur Muslim living in Japan, is seen on March 21.  action.  |  NORIKO HAYASHI / NEW YORK TIMES
Halmat Rozi, a Uyghur Muslim living in Japan, is seen on March 21. action. | NORIKO HAYASHI / NEW YORK TIMES

The ruling Communist Party in China has rejected accusations of genocide in Xinjiang and is unlikely to give in to any pressure on its policies, which it says are necessary to combat “terrorism and extremism.” But if Japan fully joined in efforts to force China to end its human rights abuses there, it would add a crucial Asian voice to what otherwise has been a Western campaign.

As in the West, opinions about China have hardened in recent years among the Japanese public, not only on Xinjiang, but also on Beijing’s crushing of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong and its military presence in seas near Japan. .

After years of ambivalence towards China, “public opinion has clearly changed and suddenly become extremely harsh,” said Ichiro Korogi, a China expert at Kanda University of International Studies near Tokyo.

In some ways, the tone of Japanese governments on China has already hardened. When two US cabinet officials visited Tokyo last month, their Japanese counterparts signed a joint statement criticizing China for its “coercive and destabilizing behavior in the Asia-Pacific region and its violations of” the international order. “.

But Japanese executives and businesses have powerful reasons to hold back their fire on China, a critical market for Japanese exports and investment. Any perceived criticism can quickly backfire, as Swedish fashion retailer H&M learned last month when it became the target of a nationalist boycott in China over charges of forced labor in China. Xinjiang cotton industry.

In contrast, Japanese retail company Muji, which has more than 200 stores in mainland China, recently said it would continue to use cotton from Xinjiang despite the accusations.

Despite the economic and geopolitical risks, a growing group of lawmakers is calling on Japan to stand up for the rights of Uyghurs. MPs are working on legislation that would give the government the power to impose sanctions for human rights violations. And a wide range of Japanese politicians were pushing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to cancel Xis’ state visit to Japan before it was delayed for the second time by the coronavirus pandemic.

Protesters hold placards as they gather at a rally in support of the Uyghurs in China in New York on March 22.  |  AFP-JIJI
Protesters hold placards as they gather at a rally in support of the Uyghurs in China in New York on March 22. | AFP-JIJI

The Uyghur community in Japan, although estimated at less than 3,000 people, has become more visible over the past year by pushing the government to act. Rozis’ story has played a significant role. Since airing last year of his appeal with Chinese security officer Rozi, who is fluent in Japanese, has appeared in the news media and before a parliamentary group to discuss the abuses in Xinjiang.

The stories of other Uyghurs have also found a wider Japanese audience in recent months, most notably in a bestselling graphic novel featuring testimonies from women imprisoned in camps in Xinjiang.

As awareness has grown in Japan, concerns about human rights violations in China have grown across the political spectrum.

For years, complaints about China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities were seen as the purview of the warmongering Japanese right. Centrists and those on the left often saw them as pretexts to replace postwar Japanese pacifism with the pursuit of regional hegemony.

But China’s behavior in Xinjiang has forced a reassessment among many liberals. Even the Japanese Communist Party calls it “a serious violation of human rights.”

“China says it’s an internal problem, but we have to treat it as an international problem,” Akira Kasai, member of parliament and one of the party’s top strategists, said in a recent interview.

Last summer, nearly 40 members of the Japanese legislature formed a committee to rethink Tokyo-Beijing relations. In February, a long-standing conservative parliamentary committee dedicated to promoting Uyghur rights expanded its membership to include lawmakers from the country’s center-left opposition parties.

The groups, said Shiori Yamao, an opposition lawmaker, are pushing the legislature to follow in the footsteps of the US government as well as the parliaments of Canada and the Netherlands by declaring that China’s actions in Xinjiang are a genocide.

Workers walk along the fence of what is officially known as a vocational training center in Dabancheng, China's Xinjiang region, in September 2018. |  REUTERS
Workers walk along the fence of what is officially known as a vocational training center in Dabancheng, China’s Xinjiang region, in September 2018. | REUTERS

Members of Parliament say they are also working on a Japanese version of the Global Magnitsky Act, the US law used to impose sanctions on government officials around the world involved in directing human rights violations.

We do not know what the weight of the efforts will be. Rozi doesn’t believe lawmakers will go so far as to accuse China of genocide, but he hopes Japan will impose sanctions.

Rozi came to Japan in 2005 for a graduate program in engineering, eventually setting up a construction company and opening a kebab shop in Chiba Prefecture, on the outskirts of Tokyos. He was not political, he said, and avoided any activity that might be viewed unfavorably by the Chinese government.

Everything changed in 2018 after learning that several members of his wife’s family had been detained. Communication with his own family had also become nearly impossible amid the security crackdown.

The experience convinced Rozi that he needed to speak out, and he soon began participating in protests calling on China to close the camps. In a short time, he had become a leading voice in the Uyghur community in Japan, making media appearances, meeting politicians, and conducting seminars on the situation in Xinjiang. When he received the surprise phone call from his brother, he knew his activism had caught the attention of Chinese authorities.

Since Rozis appeared on Japanese public broadcaster, the Chinese government has made no further attempts to contact him, he said. Phone calls to his family went unanswered.

He is afraid for those close to him. But speaking out was worth it, he said: “Now pretty much everyone here knows about Uyghur issues.

Halmat Rozi, a Uyghur Muslim living in Japan, in his kebab shop on the outskirts of Tokyo.  Public awareness of China's crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang is increasing in Japan, spurred in part by the work of Uyghur activists, and this increases pressure on the government to act.  |  NORIKO HAYASHI / NEW YORK TIMES
Halmat Rozi, a Uyghur Muslim living in Japan, in his kebab shop on the outskirts of Tokyo. Public awareness of China’s crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang is increasing in Japan, spurred in part by the work of Uyghur activists, and this increases pressure on the government to act. | NORIKO HAYASHI / NEW YORK TIMES

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