Canada’s residential schools ‘could have lessons’ for China in its treatment of Uyghur Muslims: ambassador

Uyghur men are seen praying in a mosque in Hotan, in China’s western Xinjiang region, on April 16, 2015.

GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

by Nathan VanderKlippe

The federal government is holding up Canada’s experience with residential schools as a warning to China over its mass detention of Muslims – a subject raised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with China’s premier this week.

Over the past two years, Chinese authorities have placed large numbers of people, many of them ethnic Uyghurs living in the country’s western Xinjiang region, into centres for political indoctrination and skills training as part of a campaign against “anti-extremism.”

But “if you forcibly put people into schools or re-education camps, to forcibly teach them to disavow their own traditions, or religions, or pasts or beliefs and adopt new ones – it doesn’t always work out well,” John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, said in an interview Thursday.

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Canada’s historic use of residential schools has “parallels” with the “current situation with Uyghurs in China,” Mr. McCallum said.

In Canada, those responsible for the establishment of residential schools may have thought they were pursuing the betterment of the country, or of indigenous peoples themselves, Mr. McCallum said. “But it turned out it was not good at all. And it left a very bitter legacy that is with us to this day.”

In raising the issue with China, Canada has sought to “acknowledge our own troubles,” Mr. McCallum said, and “point out that those episodes in Canadian history could have lessons for China today.”

China has said it is offering free vocational training and legal education to people at risk of radicalization in Xinjiang, and lashed out at critics.

“If we can take care of prevention, then it will be impossible for terrorism to spread and take root,” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said this week. He called the efforts “completely in line with the direction the international community has taken to combat terrorism,” and said people “should not listen to gossip or rumour, because the Xinjiang regional government, of course, understands the situation in Xinjiang best, and not some other people or organizations.”

But Western nations have become increasingly vocal in decrying Chinese policies in Xinjiang, including Canada. Both Mr. Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland have expressed concern with their Chinese counterparts. Mr. Trudeau met this week with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Singapore and had a “fairly in-depth conversation on this topic,” Mr. McCallum said.

The fact that some Uyghurs have committed acts of terror in China “doesn’t mean that every Uyghur is an extremist,” he said. “And so I think the way you deal with that is in ways other than what the Chinese are currently doing.”

Western scholars estimate that hundreds of thousands of people, and perhaps more than a million, have been placed in the centres. Chinese state media has said those inside learn useful employment skills, and participate in cultural activities such as dancing. Former detainees have told The Globe and Mail they spent hours being drilled in the Chinese language, in addition to reciting allegiance to the Communist Party and President Xi Jinping. People as old as 87 have been detained. Some have died, with families blaming poor conditions.

The growing body of evidence about the region’s education centres, amassed by visiting scholars and journalists, as well as through satellite imagery and government procurement documents posted online, has prompted increasing international criticism. In the U.S., members of Congress have called for the Trump administration to target Chen Quanguo, the region’s top leader, under the Global Magnitsky Act. That legislation allows for individual sanctions against people involved in serious human rights abuse or corruption.

Canada is not pursuing similar action, Mr. McCallum said.

But Canada helped to coordinate a joint diplomatic letter sent this month requesting a meeting with Mr. Chen, who is widely seen as the driving force behind Xinjiang’s “anti-extremism” campaign.

The letter was signed by 15 ambassadors who said they are “deeply troubled by reports of the treatment of ethnic minorities, in particular individuals of Uyghur ethnicity,” according to Reuters, which saw a draft copy and said Canada spearheaded its creation.

“In order to better understand the situation, we request a meeting with you at your earliest convenience to discuss these concerns,” says the letter.

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Coordinated letters are rare, but have been used occasionally in recent years to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on China over sensitive issues, when countries worry that speaking out individually can provoke a damaging backlash from China. The 15 signatories were ambassadors from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, the European Union, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K., Reuters reported.

Mr. McCallum said he could not acknowledge the letter’s existence, which was confirmed to The Globe by multiple diplomatic sources. It was sent Nov. 2.

Mr. Chen is “the top guy” in Xinjiang, Mr. McCallum said, “so it would make sense to have a meeting.”

No such meeting has been scheduled, he said.

Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, on Thursday called the letter “rude” and “unacceptable.” She responded by raising the treatment of minority people in the U.S. and Canada. If they “learn English, shouldn’t it be seen as an attempt by those governments to eradicate or assimilate the language and culture of minority groups?” she asked.

Ambassadors, she added, should not “gossip, making unreasonable demands of the country they are stationed in and doing things that interfere in that country’s internal affairs.”

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China, however, has rebuffed other diplomatic efforts to discuss Xinjiang. Earlier this year, it rejected a démarche by a group of western diplomats, including from Canada, France, Germany and Switzerland, for a meeting about issues related to the region. A diplomatic démarche is a formal presentation of views from one government to another. Such meetings can be used to air complaints or grievances and, in general, are rarely rejected – although the rejection of such overtures is more common in China.

Still, the rising international attention to Xinjiang has value, said Nicholas Bequelin, east and southeast Asia regional director for Amnesty International.

“China doesn’t care too much about being criticized about its human rights record – but it doesn’t want to be an outlier in the international community either, and the Xinjiang mass internment campaign has just landed China there,” he said.

But, “given the scale of the abuses in Xinjiang, we want to see meaningful action. And so far there hasn’t really been any,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“Meaningful action would include targeted sanctions, or investigations into these Xinjiang abuses led by governments.”

 

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