Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Opinion by Cooper Mendelson-Grasse
In an interview with BBC presenter Andrew Marr, the world was able to witness a Chinese ambassador effusively deny allegations of human rights violation while sitting in front of a screen displaying drone footage of blindfolded, shackled Uighurs being herded on to trains. Speaking instead of terrorism, and discrediting all claims that maligned China, Ambassador Liu Xiaoming, Chinese Representative to the Court of St. James, argued doggedly that all government activities in the autonomous region were taken with the best interest of the native Uighurs in mind. As troubling as this hypocrisy is, it is by no means new. Speaking before the United Nations, and before journalists, senior members of the apartheid-era South African government repeated talking points that are chillingly similar to those raised by Mr. Xiaoming. This article will explore several of these parallels, by highlighting two key themes, terrorism, and the distortion of facts and information. The point of this article is not to argue that apartheid South Africa and the People’s Republic of China are the same, but rather to identify rhetorical parallels, which may serve as potential warning signs for widespread human rights violations around the world.
The first theme that will be discussed is the labelling of all opposition as violent terrorists acting against the best interests of the people. Emerging in the 1960s, the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO), and its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), waged a campaign to liberate Namibia from South African control. Addressing the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in 1978, R.F. “Pik” Botha, South African Minister of Foreign Affairs, declared that SWAPO was “attempt[ing] to gain, by violence, that which they fear they cannot gain by peaceful means.”(1) In an interview with The Associated Press, he characterized the activities of the PLAN as “terrorist incursions”(2). Due to this allegedly terroristic violence, Mr. Botha concluded that South Africa was unable to move towards the independence of Southwest Africa, nor the implementation of UN resolutions, arguing that “the violence, the murders, the terrorist acts, increased to such an extent, [that] unless it’s stopped somehow, somewhere, there will be no possibility at all, of implementing [UN] proposals anytime.”(3)
Speaking over 40 years later, Wang Yi, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, declared that all Chinese government policies in the Xinjiang region were implemented to “prevent extremism and terrorism at their root.”(4) Later, when speaking of the internment facilities in the region, Mr. Yi declared that “The right of all trainees in the education and training program, though their minds and have been encroached by terrorism and extremism, have been fully guaranteed.”(5) Similarly, Mr Xiaoming asserted that the region had been “completely changed because it has thousands of terrorist attacks.”(6)
Thus, one of the threads that connects the rhetoric of the former apartheid regime of South Africa, to the Chinese government’s, is a preoccupation with “terrorism” and “security”. The oppression of the Uighurs, and the oppression of the Namibian people are couched in securitized language. Freedom fighters and activists are maligned as terrorists, while human rights violations are cast as legitimate security procedures. Moreover, this focus on “anti terror” operations, allows the regimes to mask the true extent of their activities. For South Africa that was the intense militarization of Namibia, the deportation of natives near the border areas, and the invasion of Angola. For China, counter-terrorism is the internment, forced sterilization, torture, and disappearing of the majority of Uighurs in Xinjiang. To paraphrase a famous saying, one man’s terrorist may not always be another’s freedom fighter, but they just might be if they’re branded as such by an ethno-nationalist securocratic state.
Distortion of Truth
The second major theme that will be explored is the distortion of truth, and the discrediting of information counter to regime talking points. As mentioned in the introduction, when presented with video evidence of Chinese human rights violations, Mr. Xiaoming responded by first arguing that the video was a fake, saying “You know, there’s a lot of fake [videos], but we are in the modern, … information age. You know of media that [casts] accusations against China.”(7) When the interviewer responded that the video had been vetted by Western intelligence agencies, and Australian security experts, the ambassador retorted by arguing that “so-called Western intelligence [agencies] keep making forced accusations against China.”(8) He justified this claim by presenting figures that showed that Xinjiang’s population had grown since the imposition of these policies, thereby disputing the occurrence of genocide. What Mr. Xiaoming failed to say was that the population growth has come from Chinese migration into Xinjiang. In fact, Dr. Stanley Toops of Miami University argued that continued Han migration into the region will lead to a Han “plurality in the future if not majority”.(9) Furthermore, in response to allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Mr. Yi, argued that all actions in Xinjiang had been enacted “for the sake of the happiness of the 25 million people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.”(10)
In an effort to discredit information that revealed the poor conditions of black Namibians, Mr. Botha, standing before the UNSC, stated that “any information and findings favorable to South Africa are summarily rejected and ignored by the United Nations, while mere assertions are eagerly accepted”.(11) The foreign minister then went on to argue that “It is the truth about Southwest Africa that is defying this council” and not the actions of the South African government. (12) Similar to his Chinese counterpart, Mr. Botha, 40 years before Mr. Yi, made the claim that “the facts concerning the high standard of development already achieved in Southwest Africa cannot be assailed.”(13) This claim is of course laughable, given that apartheid, and its accompanying impoverishment and disenfranchisement of non-whites, had been forced on Southwest Africa when it was enacted in South Africa in 1948.
In this situation, the unifying threads between the rhetoric of these two governments are the dismissal of information counter to government objectives, and a manipulation or outright fabrication of factual information. Claims are made that continued military occupation has resulted in tangible benefits for the oppressed peoples, while any information counter to this narrative is cast as part of a conspiracy to discredit the occupying power. Information is manipulated in an attempt to “prove” to the world that the regime in question is a benevolent force. Furthermore, government policies, as mentioned in the last section, are represented as “counter-terrorism” or “security” oriented policies, never as genocide, economic exploitation or military occupation.
Government rhetoric, whether from a liberal democracy, a kleptocracy, or an autocracy, is always subject to a certain degree of distortion. What is surprising in this case, however, is the similarity between the rhetoric of two, vastly different, nations. To make a comparison between apartheid in Namibia, and Chinese genocide in Xinjiang would be reductive, and would ignore the important differences between both situations. Yet, in comparing the rhetoric of both states, worrying parallels can be identified. Both securitize their language, and attempt discredit truthful information that reveals the extent of their crimes. When looking for the evidence of racism and genocide, a rhetorical analysis is an important place to start.
Author’s Note: All quotes from Wang Yi, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, were translated from Mandarin by Bloomberg, the South China Morning Post, and the China Global Television Network. All quotes from Liu Xiaoming, Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and R.F. “Pik” Botha, South African Minister of Foreign Affairs were delivered in English by the aforementioned speakers, therefore no translation occurred. However, the author has chosen to remove redundant words, double negatives, and speech disfluencies when quoting them.
“SYND 28 7 78 SOUTH AFRICAN MINISTER BOTHA SPEAKS ON NAMIBIA AT UNITED NATIONS,” YouTube Video, 0;17, posted by “AP Archive,” July 24, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfxdxUgPKbg&ab_channel=APArchive
“SYND 13 5 78 FOREIGN MINISTER PIK BOTHA INTERVIEW,” YouTube Video, 0:42, posted by “AP Archive,” July 24, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-fv7bdnHc8
“SYND 13 5 78 FOREIGN MINISTER PIK BOTHA INTERVIEW,” YouTube Video, 0:08, posted by “AP Archive,” July 24, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-fv7bdnHc8
“Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi responds to Xinjiang allegations,” YouTube, 0:40, posted by “CGTN,” September 26, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vixuqiYsQk0&ab_channel=CGTN
“China’s Foreign Minster Wang Yi Defends Xinjiang Detention Camps,” YouTube, 0:04, posted by “Bloomberg QuickTake: Now,” August 31, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watchv=4bsvLebgadA&ab_channel=BloombergQuickTake%3ANow
“China’s ambassador challenged on treatment of Uighurs,” YouTube, 0:52, posted by “NEWS channel,” July 19, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNxzg68Bg-w&ab_channel=NEWSchannel
“China’s ambassador challenged on treatment of Uighurs,” YouTube, 4:49, posted by “NEWS channel,” July 19, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNxzg68Bg-w&ab_channel=NEWSchannel
“China’s ambassador challenged on treatment of Uighurs,” YouTube, 1:37, posted by “NEWS channel,” July 19, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNxzg68Bg-w&ab_channel=NEWSchannel
Stanley Toops, “Spatial Results of the 2010 Census in Xinjiang,” Asia Dialogue, China, Culture and Society, (2016), https://theasiadialogue.com/2016/03/07/spatial-results-of-the-2010-census-inxinjiang/#:~:text=In%20the%20Xinjiang%202010%20census,of%20ethnic%20minorities%20is%20Tibet.
“Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi responds to Xinjiang allegations,” YouTube, 0:59, posted by “CGTN,” September 26, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vixuqiYsQk0&ab_channel=CGTN
“SYND 28 1 76 PIK BOTHA ON NAMIBIA AT UNO,” YouTube, 0:41, posted by “AP Archive,” July 23, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gswPxZ-zp50&ab_channel=APArchive
“SYND 28 1 76 PIK BOTHA ON NAMIBIA AT UNO,” YouTube, 0:33, posted by “AP Archive,” July 23, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gswPxZ-zp50&ab_channel=APArchive
“SYND 28 1 76 PIK BOTHA ON NAMIBIA AT UNO,” YouTube, 0:59, posted by “AP Archive,” July 23, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gswPxZ-zp50&ab_channel=APArchive