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Allies of the U.S Disagree about Classifying China's treatment of Uyghurs as 'Genocide'

Jacinda Ardern at a China business summit this week in Auckland, where she said differences in values between Beijing and democracies were becoming harder to reconcile. Photo Credits to GUO LEI/ZUMA PRESS

WELLINGTON, New Zealand—China’s repression of Uyghurs is dividing U.S. allies over whether to characterize human-rights abuses against the mainly Muslim minority as genocide.

New Zealand's government stopped a parliamentary motion on Wednesday that would have declared China's acts genocide, highlighting the delicate balancing act the South Pacific nation faces between its long-standing relations and security alliance with the United States and its trade ties with China. Australia, moreover, has been hesitant to use the term.

Officials in the United States have pushed for a coordinated response to Beijing's increased repression at home and abroad. The United States claimed earlier this year that China was committing genocide against Muslims in its western Xinjiang region, where evidence of an extensive system of forced re-education and labor camps has emerged since 2018. China's acts against Uyghurs have also been declared genocide by the United Kingdom's Parliament.

China denies any human rights violations in Xinjiang and claims allegations of mass imprisonment of Uyghurs are false. Its embassy in Wellington, New Zealand's capital, did not answer the phone or respond to an emailed inquiry. In response to previous New Zealand government statements concerning Xinjiang, the embassy has stated that New Zealand should refrain from meddling in China's internal affairs.

Jacinda Ardern said in a speech on Monday that New Zealand’s differences with China were becoming harder to reconcile. Photo Credits to Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

New Zealand's Parliament discussed and approved a motion expressing deep concern about "serious human rights violations" in Xinjiang against Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities. The minority ACT group, which lobbied for the discussion, said that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party objected to calling China's behavior genocide, resulting in the watered-down language.

More than half of the legislators, including Ms. Ardern, were absent when the motion was put to a vote. Brooke van Velden, ACT’s foreign affairs spokesperson, said “It’s a sad state of affairs that we need to soften our language to debate the hard issues,”.

Ms. Ardern's spokesperson directed questions to Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, who said in Parliament on Wednesday that the government would not make a formal designation of genocide until a "rigorous review on the basis of international law" had been completed.

The United Nations' genocide convention describes genocide as actions committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group in its entirety or in part, including killings, forced birth control, child removal, and serious bodily or mental damage.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, wearing glasses, and New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta in April. Photo Credits to 1 NEWS.

These countries stand to risk a lot if they enrage China. Higher Chinese tariffs have targeted Australian barley and wine exporters. In 2008, New Zealand became the first developing country to sign a free-trade agreement with China, and since then, trade volume has more than quadrupled. "The human-rights abuses in Xinjiang are serious but don’t rise to the level of genocide and foreign policy shouldn’t be based on one issue," said Tim Groser, a former New Zealand ambassador to the U.S.

As China's position in the world economy expands, Ms. Ardern said at a China business summit in Auckland this week that the gaps in values between China and democracies like New Zealand are becoming more difficult to reconcile.

Although allies such as Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom — all members of the Five Eyes intelligence network have all called China's violations of minority Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang genocide, New Zealand has followed Australia's lead tempering its criticism. Due to their geographic location, both countries have close economic relations with China.


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