Palestinian leader's endorsement of China's Xinjiang policy sparks backlash

Chinese Premier Li Qiang receives Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 15, 2023. [AP Photo]

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently visited Beijing, where he met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and expressed support for China's treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. His endorsement of China's policies and denial of the mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang drew criticism from politicians and rights activists.

During their meeting Wednesday, in which Abbas sought economic aid, he and Xi issued a joint statement in which Abbas endorsed China's domestic and foreign policies while dismissing the human rights concerns in Xinjiang as Western concepts.

The United States and some other countries have designated China's treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang as genocide, and the U.N. human rights office has stated that China's actions in Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity.

China denies these allegations and considers them fabrications by anti-China forces.

Abbas said in the joint statement that China's actions in Xinjiang have "nothing to do with human rights" and are aimed at countering extremism and terrorism. He also emphasized Palestinian opposition to using the Xinjiang issue to interfere in China's internal affairs.

Xi expressed his willingness to support the Palestinians in achieving internal reconciliation and facilitating peace talks with Israel during their meeting in Beijing.

"The fundamental solution to the Palestinian issue lies in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital," Xi said, according to Chinese state media.

'Criminal, disgraceful'

On Tuesday, Abbas' endorsement of China's actions in Xinjiang faced criticism from Devlet Bahceli, chair of Turkey's Nationalist Movement Party, which is an ally of the ruling Justice Party (AKP).

"Labeling Uyghur Turks as terrorists is unjust, false, sinful, criminal, disgraceful, malicious and a blatant display of disrespect towards the Turkic nation," Bahceli said during a meeting in Ankara.

Uyghur activists also expressed concern over Abbas' endorsement, noting the absence of Palestinian organizations rejecting his stance.

Kuzzat Altay, a Uyghur activist and former president of the Uyghur American Association, said on Twitter that Abbas' statements "further legitimize" Uyghur genocide.

According to Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow and director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, China's repression of the Uyghur population undermines its ability to portray itself as an advocate for Islam or human rights.

"China's interests in Israel-Palestine and in the region more broadly are strictly transactional rather than ideological - whether in terms of enhancing [its] international standing or its potential trade and other economic ties. The same goes for Abbas and other regional leaders, for whom China represents an important counterweight to the United States," Elgindy told VOA in an email.

Elgindy said China is unlikely to play a significant role in mediating peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians because of its limited influence with both parties.

"Chinese-sponsored peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians would be a major diplomatic breakthrough. However, there is no chance of that happening. China simply does not have the kind of influence with both parties - particularly the Israeli side -needed to broker such an agreement," Elgindy said.

Posturing seen

China's overtures and Abbas' visit to China, according to Elgindy, are posturing to enhance China's global standing and express dissatisfaction with the Biden administration's approach to the Palestinian issue.

Ghulam Yaghma, president of the East Turkistan Government in Exile in Washington, views Abbas' visit as part of China's broader objective to secure leverage over Israel and establish a stronger presence in the Middle East. East Turkistan is another name for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

"The broader strategic goal of China is no secret, as its aspiration to strengthen its position among the Arab world and gain dominance in the Persian Gulf is an essential part of its Belt and Road Initiative, aiming for global economic and political superiority," Yaghma told VOA.

Salih Hudayar, prime minister of the East Turkistan Government in Exile in Washington, told VOA that China's support for the Palestinian cause is a deliberate strategy to divert attention from China's own occupation and alleged genocide in Xinjiang.

"The support rendered by China to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian cause serves as a smokescreen to camouflage the Chinese occupation and genocide carried out in East Turkistan," Hudayar said.