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Why is Japan cautious about taking stance on alleged Uyghur human rights abuse by China?

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi is seen at the prime minister's office on Dec. 21, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- While the U.S. government has officially deemed China's oppression of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region a "genocide," the Japanese government has taken a cautious stance toward making such a declaration.

    The question of whether the Chinese government's actions in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) fall under "genocide" -- the destruction of an ethnic or religious group through mass killings, moves to harm and prevent births of members and other such acts -- has been a major theme disputed in the international community. Why has Japan taken an ambiguous position on this topic?

    A great wave of shock spread throughout the world in early February following reporting by the BBC. "My job was to remove their clothes above the waist and handcuff them so they cannot move." This account by a woman who was in a facility in the Xinjiang region and other statements from witnesses appeared to expose systematic sexual violence in the facility.

    Although the Chinese government denied the allegations and accused the BBC of spreading a "false report," countries in North America and Europe, which uphold the significance of human rights, have expressed concern one after another and condemned the reported actions.

    Concerning the state of human rights in the XUAR, there has been continuous reporting and news coverage in recent years accusing China of imposing forced labor on and sterilizing ethnic minorities. Assimilation and indoctrination of children has also been reported. Additionally, reports have emerged about leaked Chinese government documents indicating that China has fortified its monitoring of and crackdowns on Uyghurs, as well as their transportation to detention camps on the grounds of public security. Media outlets have been analyzing such allegations. It is estimated that at least 1 million Muslim minorities, including Uyghurs, are held in detention camps in China.

    Amid the spread of global concern, the United States took the lead in adopting bold measures against China. On Jan. 19 this year, shortly before his resignation from his post, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the Chinese government's actions in the Xinjiang region a "genocide," and stated, "we are witnessing a systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs."

    Genocide is a hybrid word consisting of the Greek term meaning "race" or "tribe," and the Latin word for "killing." It began to be used to criticize the mass murder of Jewish people by the Nazis in the Holocaust during World War II.

    The Genocide Convention, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, defines genocide as "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy an ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

    (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

    However, Pompeo did not provide any explanation as to which of China's actions fit the description of "genocide," or how they relate to the Genocide Convention. As the official statement came immediately before he left office, speculation spread that it was a declaration to promote a political stance, rather than an indication that the U.S. would seriously tackle the issue of improving the state of human rights. In spite of this, Pompeo's successor and current U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, said, "My judgment remains that genocide was committed against the Uyghurs and that hasn't changed." The method of citing "genocide," recognized as a crime under international law, to increase pressure on China, has apparently been succeeded by the administration of President Joe Biden.

    Meanwhile, the Japanese government has not taken a clear stance on whether China's actions count as genocide. When asked about the U.S. government's statement on China in a Jan. 29 press conference, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said, "Regarding the Xinjiang region, there have been numerous reports that serious human rights violations have taken place. The recent decision by the United States is likely an indication of the country's strong sense of awareness toward such issues." He added, "Japan, too, holds grave concerns," to keep in line with the U.S. government, but did not go as far as determining whether China's actions were genocide or not.

    What is the background to such remarks?

    Although Japan has not joined the Genocide Convention, it is capable of determining whether cases qualify as genocide. Regarding why the Japanese government avoids taking a stand on the situation, a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited a lack of information to determine whether genocide has taken place or not. The official also pointed out that deeming China's actions a genocide will not necessarily improve the state of human rights, and that ongoing discussion with China is indispensable for improving the situation. In practice, Japan does not have a body like the CIA that collects information about other countries, and it is said to be difficult for the government to get a handle on affairs on its own, besides working to collect information when embassy staff members in China visit the area on duty.

    There seems to be a separate, additional reason.

    China has strongly objected to the United States' accusation of genocide, calling it "trash" and an "intervention in domestic affairs." In a March 7 press conference, Wang Yi, State Councilor and Foreign Minister of China, said, "They are deliberately making it into an issue, and trying to destroy the stability of the region." If the Japanese government were to also deem China's actions a genocide, it is certain that not only the U.S. but Japan, too, would bear the brunt of China's criticism. It is likely that in such a case, Japan would have to "brace for retaliatory measures such as a halt in trade between the countries," according to a former high-ranking ministry official of the Liberal Democratic Party. A source close to the government involved in policy-making regarding China, revealed, "It is Japanese companies and the public who will suffer the consequences. When considering economic ties with China, Japan cannot act in the same way as the U.S."

    Indeed, it is not the case that the Japanese government is looking on without doing anything about the situation in the Xinjiang region. In a meeting with President Xi Jinping during a state visit to China in December 2019, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, "The international community has been increasingly concerned about the human rights situation surrounding the Uyghurs. I'd like the Chinese government to provide a transparent explanation on the issue."

    At a session of the U.N. General Assembly's Third Committee held in October 2020, Japan participated in a joint statement that expressed "grave concerns" about affairs in the Xinjiang region and Hong Kong. Foreign Minister Motegi also reportedly communicates concerns about human rights each time he meets with top Chinese officials.

    However, there have remained firmly rooted voices demanding the Japanese government take more action. One figure making such calls is Kerimu Uda, president of the Japan Uyghur Association.

    "The systematic attacks reported by the media, experts, and think tanks fall under the definition of 'genocide.' I'd like the government to send out the message of intolerance toward the mass murder of ethnic groups, and end this nightmare as soon as possible," Uda said during a general meeting of the nonpartisan Japan Uyghur parliamentary group held in the Diet in February.

    Shiori Yamao, a House of Representatives member belonging to the Democratic Party for the People, and joint head representative of the nonpartisan Japan Parliamentary Alliance on China (JPAC), commented, "If it investigates the situation properly, the Japanese government will have no choice but to deem China's actions a genocide." She says JPAC is aiming for the establishment of the Japan version of "the Magnitsky Act," a law that imposes sanctions on foreign individuals or organizations involved in human rights violations. The group is also discussing creating a system enabling the Diet to demand an investigation from the national government, and Gen Nakatani, former defense minister and co-head representative of JPAC, emphasized, "We'd first like to enable the collection of information."

    At the same time there have been views that damage to Japan would be "limited," even when factoring in potential retaliation from China, if Japan were to deem China's actions a genocide and set out to implement sanctions.

    Akira Igata, visiting professor at Tama University's Center for Rule-making Strategies, pointed out that companies that import products created through forced labor and companies whose endeavors are effectively supporting the suppression of human rights are being subjected to increasingly harsh scrutiny from consumers and investors. He said, "It's not an age where economic benefits can be reaped if you tacitly accept human rights problems. Companies should take the stance of rigorously tackling human rights issues in order to maintain competitive power."

    In response to a question by House of Representatives member Jin Matsubara of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan at a Feb. 26 subcommittee meeting of the lower house Budget Committee, Foreign Minister Motegi said, "Rather than focusing on the kind of expressions used, it's important for the international community to stress that the situation is concerning and unite to demand improvements."

    The comment indicated the Japanese government's basic position is to collaborate with related countries to urge China to improve the situation, rather than excessively prodding the country.

    However, there have been concerned voices among those from the Xinjiang region, such as "If matters are abandoned for another few years, the Uyghur culture will be lost." And some regard Japan's stance on the issue as weak.

    The Japanese government faces a tough decision on how to act to help improve the state of human rights for Uyghurs while avoiding an extreme deterioration of relations with China.

    (Japanese original by Jun Aoki, Political News Department)

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