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By Benjamin Harbaugh

On October 17th, China was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council.[1] Many human rights activists deplored the announcement. While they were right to protest China’s presence on the council, Beijing’s position might not be as strong as it seems. First, China’s appointment highlights its weakness—not its strength—regarding its international human rights record. Second, China’s numerous human rights violations, many overtly targeted against religion, have only brought it bad press. In reality, mounting international pressure on China to respect human rights is working.

After China received enough votes to join the council, it trumpeted its “strong support” on its Twitter page.[2] However, the truth was less than reassuring for Beijing. China’s election showed its weakest international support since the council was created in 2006.[3] According to data gathered by Quartz, China’s 139 votes fell short of its previous lowest support when it received 146 in 2006.[4] This outcome isn’t much of a surprise considering recent polling. According to the Pew Research Center, unfavorable views of China have skyrocketed in recent years.[5] In Australia for example, negative views of China have risen to 81%.[6] In Sweden, the number is 85%.[7] These numbers are in spite of a coordinated campaign by China to boost its image abroad.[8]

Two factors have turned public opinion against Beijing. First off, the coronavirus. President Trump’s “kung-flu” moniker aside, most Western countries have panned China’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.[9] However, China’s greatest PR problem preceded the pandemic and will likely outlast it. The dual humanitarian crises of the Hong Kong clamp-down and the persecution of the Uyghurs have dramatically hurt China’s image abroad. On the Hong Kong issue, I wrote an article in July detailing the Chinese Communist Parties’ (CCP) actions in Hong Kong and how they might impact religious freedom.

While Hong Kong received wall-to-wall news coverage around the enactment of the National Security Law, the Uyghur crisis in the northwestern province of Xinjiang has unfolded slowly. Most experts estimate that the imprisonment of the Muslim-majority Uyghurs began in 2014.[10] According to documents leaked by a CCP operative, Chinese President Xi Jinping wanted “absolutely no mercy” for the Uyghurs.[11] By most metrics, there hasn’t been any. Although specific numbers are hard to come by, it is believed that between 1 million and 3 million Uyghurs have been arbitrarily detained in “reeducation centers.”[12] If true, this would be the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic-religious group since World War II and the Holocaust.[13]

Many Uyghurs are detained expressly due to their religion. For example, Chinese authorities interrogate children to see if they use Islamic greetings at home or hear about the Prophet Muhammed from their parents.[14] One woman was sent to a prison camp for the crimes of “receiving calls from Pakistan where her husband is from; visiting Pakistan years earlier; accepting money from a foreigner (a family friend who lived in China); and securing an American visa.”[15] This woman told reporters some of her experiences in the camp. She said that as they left indoctrination sessions they would be asked if there was a God. If they responded yes, they were beaten. They would then ask her if there was a Xi Jinping. She distinctly remembers the guards telling her “your God cannot get you out of here, but Xi Jinping has done so much for you.”[16]  If these horrors were not enough, other tribulations face Uyghurs outside of prison camps, including: mandatory indoctrination sessions, hundreds of thousands of Uyghur children separated from their parents, and forced sterilizations.[17]

As the situation in Xinjiang came into focus, a coalition of 22 nations penned a letter to the UN Human Rights Council criticizing China’s massive detention program last year.[18] However, China was prepared and had organized a group of 37 countries defending Beijing’s actions.[19] This year, the script has flipped. Despite China’s threats and influence, 39 countries signed onto a similarly critical statement this year drafted by Germany.[20]

What do these trends show? For many, the plight of the Uyghurs seems intractable. China has a myriad of tools to threaten and coerce states into silence over its mass-detention program. Criticism of the regime seems pointless to many, and dangerous to some. However, as shown in both the low vote count for China in the UN Human Rights Council and the recent German-led Xinjiang letter, international efforts are working. As evidence continues to mount against China, countries around the world are realizing they must act—or be complicit in the CCP’s crimes against humanity.

Human rights activists were right to protest China’s appointment to the UN Human Rights Council. Though there is still much to be done, they should not overlook the effects of their work. Despite China’s growing geopolitical power and robust economy, public opinion is moving against them. If pressure continues, we may see the day when China is forced to relent and end the nightmarish mass persecution of Uyghurs.

Benjamin Harbaugh served as an intern in both the Office of the Vice President and the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State. He is currently a graduate student at The American University in Washington D.C. where he currently studies U.S. foreign policy and security. He is passionate about supporting vulnerable communities around the globe and has worked alongside the persecuted Church in countries such as Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and more. Engaged in the relationship between foreign policy and religious freedom, Ben believes in the importance of U.S. involvement for religious minorities around the world. When he isn’t studying, Ben enjoys long-distance running and traveling with his wife.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.




[4] Ibid.


[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.






[13] Ibid.


[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.


[19] Ibid.