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Human rights

New Zealand condemns China’s treatment of Uyghurs but won't call it ‘genocide’

New Zealand has joined other countries in calling out China for its mistreatment of Uyghurs, but falls short of calling it "genocide." Critics say the condemnation has been "watered down" to protect China as an essential trade partner.

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In this Sept. 20, 2018, file photo, an Uyghur woman rides a scooter to fetch school children, passing an image showing China's President Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uyghur elders at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China's Xinjiang region.

Credit:

Andy Wong/AP/File photo

New Zealand has joined other countries in calling out China for its mistreatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. 

Last Wednesday, New Zealand’s Parliament voted unanimously to declare that “severe human rights abuses” are taking place there, joining some 40 countries that have previously passed similar nations, such as the US, Canada and the UK. 

Related: Uyghur mothers in Turkey walk for miles to ask politicians for help locating their children in China

Rights groups allege Beijing has detained up to 1 million people in sprawling internment camps in the region, where they say forced labor, reeducation and even the sterilization of Uyghur women have been reported. China denies the accusations of abuse, insisting that the massive vocational and training camps are necessary to combat terrorism and poverty.

However, many feel New Zealand’s condemnation fell short because it didn’t include the word “genocide.” 

“New Zealand could do more but they didn’t. They refused to say genocide."

Shawudan Abdul-Gopur, Auckland, New Zealand

“New Zealand could do more but they didn’t. They refused to say genocide,” said 41-year-old Shawudan Abdul-Gopur of Auckland. Originally from Kashgar, located in Xinjiang’s far west, he is intimately familiar with what’s happening to Uyghurs in the region — because it happened to him. 

Related: A Uyghur poem travels from Chinese internment camp to New Jersey

‘I really miss my family’

Abdul-Gopur says in 2009 when violent clashes between Uyghur protesters and the Chinese military broke out in the Xinjiang capital city of Urumqi, he was working as a cameraman for a local TV station.  

“It was heartbreaking, I saw so many stuff [sic],” he said. “The government, how they treated Uyghurs, it’s the same as the animal.”

Some of what Abdul-Gopur filmed during the riots ended up getting published by foreign media, and the Chinese government didn’t approve. He got a call from Beijing about the footage a year after he recorded it. 

Luckily, Abdul-Gopur said he was in New Zealand going to school for English training when he got the call, during which Chinese authorities said they knew he had taken the footage and wanted him to come back to China — immediately.

Abdul-Gopur refused and instead applied for asylum in New Zealand. However, the nightmare didn’t end there. In 2016, his mother and three brothers were taken to an internment camp.

“April 2016 she called me and said, ‘Never call me again,’” Abdul-Gopur said. “After that, I lost contact.”

His mother and two of his brothers were finally released in 2020, but Abdul-Gopur’s eldest brother remains detained. And while he’s heard from his 80-year-old mother since she got out, it’s still too dangerous for them to have regular contact. They could all wind up back in prison. 

Abdul-Gopur said everyone in the Auckland Uyghur community has lost someone to the internment camps, which is why he is disappointed in the recent vote held in the New Zealand Parliament concerning China’s alleged abuses. 

Initially, the word “genocide” was included in the proposal that Member of Parliament Brooke van Velden first introduced in late April. But by the time it reached Parliament for a vote on May 5, the word had been stripped out.  

“I started with the same motion as the British, but then had to dilute it and soften it to gain the approval of New Zealand’s governing [Labor] party.”

Member of Parliament Brooke van Velden

“It’s important for people to know how we got to debating the motion before us today,” van Velden said on the floor the day of the vote. “I started with the same motion as the British, but then had to dilute it and soften it to gain the approval of New Zealand’s governing [Labor] party.”

Related: US bans cotton products from Uyghur region of China

Straddling a 'middle ground'

The motion ultimately passed unanimously, but with the phrase “severe human right abuses” in place of the word genocide. 

“It essentially was watered down,” said Geoffrey Miller with the Wellington-based think tank Democracy Project. He said New Zealand has noticeably taken a softer stance against China compared to the rest of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which also includes Australia, Canada, the UK and the US.

“New Zealand is trying to straddle a middle ground between these two big power blocks. ... And New Zealand is just too heavily dependent on trade with China and is very, very vulnerable.”

Geoffrey Miller, Democracy Project

“New Zealand is trying to straddle a middle ground between these two big power blocks,” he said. “And New Zealand is just too heavily dependent on trade with China and is very, very vulnerable.”

China is by far New Zealand’s No. 1 trading partner, with two-way trade exceeding $24 billion, according to government figures. Miller said New Zealand exports many nonessential items to China such as milk powder, fruit and meats, which means Wellington needs Beijing more than the other way around. 

Meanwhile, 11% of New Zealand’s tourists before the pandemic came from China. 

After the motion was passed, the Chinese Embassy in Wellington lashed out at what it called “groundless” accusations.

But Miller said the question is whether Beijing will take any action, particularly like what they’ve done with Australia. Beijing and Canberra have been locked in an economic tit-for-tat since 2018, and as a result, trade is down between the two. China is also Australia’s largest trading partner. 

“So, New Zealand looks on and sees what has happened to Australia and worries that the same thing could happen to it,” Miller said. 

New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has defended the decision not to use the word. She told Reuters that her government didn’t think the situation in Xinjiang constituted as genocide. 

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said governments are just reluctant to use that word. 

“...[I]t is hard to do business as usual with the government you have accused of ...[genocide]."

Sophie Richardson, China director, Human Rights Watch

“Because it is hard to do business as usual with the government you have accused of doing that,” she said. “It’s sort of further complicated by the reality that, in principle, using that term can trigger certain kinds of legal obligations but very few people have been prosecuted on genocide.” 

Still, Richardson said the passage of the motion is meaningful, as New Zealand joins over 40 countries around the world to make similar statements. She hopes the momentum will mobilize the United Nations to call for an international investigation.

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