China is buying Muslim leaders’ silence on the Uyghurs

As the world increasingly speaks out against China’s genocide of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, the quietest voices continue to belong to the leaders of Muslim-majority countries.

Look no further than Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s interview this week with Axios’s Jonathan Swan. Swan asked why the premier, who often speaks out on Islamophobia in the West, has been noticeably silent on the human rights atrocities happening just across his country’s border.

Khan parroted China’s denial that it has placed roughly 2 million Uyghurs in internment camps and then evaded the issue over and over again. “This is not the case, according to them,” Khan said, adding that any disagreements between Pakistan and China are hashed out privately.

That’s a jarring statement. Instead of offering a pro forma “Yes, of course we’re concerned by this” before moving on, Khan chose instead to minimize the problem altogether.

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Why would Khan do such a thing during a high-profile interview, with his self-enhanced image as a defender of Muslims on the line? The prime minister gave the game away later in the interview: “China has been one of the greatest friends to us in our most difficult times, when we were really struggling,” Khan told Swan. “When our economy was struggling, China came to our rescue.”

China has given Pakistan billions in loans to prop up its economy, allowing the country to improve transit systems and a failing electrical grid, among other things. China didn’t do that out of the goodness of its heart; it did so partly to make Pakistan dependent on China, thus strong-arming it into a closer bilateral relationship.

It’s a play China has run over and over through its “Belt and Road Initiative.” China aims to build a large land-and-sea trading network connecting much of Asia to Europe, Africa, and beyond. To do that, it makes investment and loan deals with nations on that “road” — like Pakistan — so that they form part of the network. The trade, in effect, is that China increases its power and influence while other countries get the economic assistance they need.

That relationship has helped Pakistan avoid economic calamity. But as of right now, it doesn’t have the funds to pay China back. That could spell trouble for Pakistan, as China has a history of taking a nation’s assets when it doesn’t pay its debts, like when it took over a Sri Lankan port in 2018.

To avoid a similar fate, and perhaps keep the money flowing, Khan likely didn’t want to badmouth China in public. “China is Pakistan’s only lifeline out of debt,” said Sameer Lalwani, director of the South Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.

Look elsewhere in the world and the story is essentially the same. Even the leaders of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — who often portray themselves as the defenders of Islam and of the ummah, the global Muslim community — are choosing to prioritize their economic relationship with China over standing up for the Uyghurs.

In the short term, they may get more funds from the relationship with China, but in the long run, the price they pay is in their reputation.