Jacinda Ardern's balancing act: Appeasing China while standing up for Muslims

Jacinda Ardern's fleeting China trip will be a balancing act as she tries to quash speculation of soured relations while also standing up for the rights of Uighur Muslims.

The Prime Minister announced last week she had cut her trip down to one day in the wake of the March 15 Christchurch terror attack, citing her increased commitments in New Zealand under the circumstances.

And while Ardern insists the Chinese Government understood, there is pressure on her to speak up for a Muslim minority group in China who, according to reports, are being mistreated, Newshub's political editor Tova O'Brien says.

"There is an expectation that the Prime Minister will raise the human rights abuses and perhaps even greater expectation now that she has been such a phenomenal force for the Muslim community in the wake of the Christchurch attack."

Approximately one million Uighurs and other Turkic minority groups have been thrown into "detention camps" without charge in the Xinjiang Province in western China. It's said something as simple as taking a call from overseas or going to a mosque is enough to be detained.

The camps, reports say, were established with the aim of carrying out "anti-extremist ideological education", and satellite imagery has shown rapid growth in 28 camps across the region - over two million new square metres added since early 2017.

O'Brien said there have been reports of Muslims being "beaten and tortured and basically brainwashed out of their religion, being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol and things which are in contravention to their religion". 

There will be pressure on the Prime Minister to keep quiet about it. An article in the Global Times, considered a mouthpiece for the Chinese Government, said New Zealand stands out from other Western countries for not launching "groundless accusations" over China's Xinjiang policies.

Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University's Institute of International Relations in Beijing, told the Global Times: "New Zealand's approach in dealing with China is wiser and more pragmatic than other Western countries."

Protesters calling for an end to Uighur Muslim camps in China.
Protesters calling for an end to Uighur Muslim camps in China. Photo credit: Getty

But the world is looking to Ardern to raise the issue of Uighur Muslim treatment in China. An opinion article in Dubai-based Gulf News, titled 'In a dark world, the Kiwis shine bright', Ardern was praised for giving Muslims hope.

"It brought some comfort to the millions of hapless Muslim immigrants to foreign lands who had fled their countries due to oppression or wars from foreign powers imposed on their soils," it said.

"From the Uighur Muslims previously residing in China's semi-autonomous region of Xinjiang to the Rohingya Muslims fleeing the Buddhist terrorism by the Myanmar government, these Muslims had to find a home elsewhere to survive."

The Prime Minister's show of solidarity with Muslims in the wake of Christchurch was received so well, in fact, that an image of her was projected onto the tallest building in the world - the Burj Khalifa - in Dubai last weekend.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) picked up on Ardern's popularity among the Muslim community, and on Friday urged her to "publicly express concern about mass abuses of Turkic Muslims in meetings with Chinese leaders".

"Ardern should show the same global leadership [as she did after Christchurch] by publicly calling on China to respect the human rights of Muslims there," Sophie Richardson, HRW China director, said.

She criticised New Zealand for not joining a November 2018 letter with 15 other governments to China requesting access to Xinjiang to assess the human rights situation, and suggested now is the time for Ardern to show leadership on the issue.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will meet with Chinese PResident Xi Jinping.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will meet with Chinese PResident Xi Jinping. Photo credit: Getty

But as O'Brien pointed out on The AM Show, the Prime Minister is under pressure to deliver on other aspects of her trip. For one, the trip was originally intended to be a week long with a business focus, and now Ardern only has one day to solidify the China-NZ relationship.

Ever since the New Zealand Defence Force last year explicitly named China as a threat that challenged international governance values and norms with its "alternative model of democracy", speculation has grown that relations has soured.

And to make things worse, Ardern's trip to China was put on hold last year, prompting speculation China may have taken offence to the Government Security Communications Bureau (GCSB) warning Spark against using Huawei's 5G equipment.

"What will be more interesting is how she avoids some of those topics that she doesn't want to talk about like Huawei - she's probably going to have to offer some kind of reassurance to the Chinese Government about Huawei's stalled 5G rollout in New Zealand," O'Brien said.

But it's not all bad. The China-New Zealand Year of Tourism campaign finally kicked off in Wellington over the weekend after being postponed by China. And O'Brien said if the China-NZ relationship was so bad, Ardern probably wouldn't be invited there.

"You don't get a meeting with the President in Beijing at the Great Hall of the People if the relationship is truly on the rocks, but the fact that this meeting was delayed and delayed, it was the real elephant in the room, and we were supposed to be coming here at the end of last year."