Earlier this week, I posted a tweet that drew a lot of attention:
After Christchurch, New Zealand PM went to great lengths to stand up for muslims and their right to practice Islam. Merely two weeks later, on a trip to China, she doesn't say a critical word in public on the one million muslims in Xinjiang prison camps. https://t.co/O6Eon47W6W
— Jojje Olsson (@jojjeols) April 2, 2019
The purpose of this tweet was not to question the response of Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, after the mosque shootings in Christchurch that left 50 people dead last months. Rather, it was to highlight an almost parodical example of how western leaders fear China’s wrath.
Even though I must admit that I haven’t followed the issue closely, it seems that Ardern was handling the aftermath of Christchurch in a way that was appealing to many.
Political leaders as well as media and organisations all over the world was so impressed by the prime minister’s compassionate response after the attack that local journalists are talking about an “international fascination with Jacinda Ardern“.
Ardern was also praised by Muslims not only in New Zealand but also globally, after having showed up at Christchurch’s Muslim and refugee community wearing a black headscarf already the day after the attack, conveying a message of “love and support” on behalf of her country.
This only one of many quotes from Muslim leaders after the Christchurch attacks:
Speaking to Newshub Nation, Aliya Danzeisen from the Waikato Muslim Association called the Prime Minister “inspirational”.
“I feel like she understands us, and she understands what we need… It’s her comments and understanding how she really has connected with us. She’s talking to the world about how you should be treating your Muslim population.”
If Ardern was really talking to the world about how Muslim populations should be treated, that didn’t come through when she was visiting China only a couple of weeks after the horrifying shootings in her own country.
Because during the China trip, Ardern was muted on the political prison camps in the Xinjiang region, where over one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been taken in the past two years against their will and without any preceding judicial process.
Before her China visit, organisations like Human Rights Watch called on Ardern to raise in public the concerns of those prison camps, as to increase the pressure on the Chinese regime to relax the repression against Muslim minorities in the western part of the country.
According to Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson, Ardern’s popularity among Muslim communities across the world would potentially give her words more meaning than that of other western politicians.
But Ardern choose to do the exact opposite, and not mention in public at all what many organisations view as the single biggest assault on a Muslim minority in the world today.
Instead, Ardern claimed to have raised the topic in private meetings with president Xi Jinping and prime minister Li Keqiang. When asked at a press conference, Ardern was not willing to answer the journalists’ questions regarding what she said to the Chinese leaders about this issue.
As a response, Ardern was referring the journalists back to the United Nations response on the repression in Xinjiang, which she called “a comprehensive one” with a range of expectations.
In other words: Ardern during her visit to China exactly what the Chinese leaders preferred her to do. To raise the issue behind closed doors only, and then not even answering questions on the sensitive topic of political prison camps public.
Indeed, state newspaper Global Times praised Ardern for her “pragmatic approach” on the issue, pointing out the difference from the public criticism many other western politicians have expressed:
Before Ardern’s visit to China, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO, asked New Zealand’s Prime Minister to “publicly express concern” about China’s policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, according to the NGO’s website on Friday.
New Zealand has not followed other Western countries to launch groundless accusations or criticism over China’s Xinjiang policies in public or on international occasions so far.
“New Zealand’s approach in dealing with China is wiser and more pragmatic than other Western countries, because it did not let the differences between the two countries interrupt normal cooperation and exchanges,” Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University’s Institute of International Relations in Beijing, told the Global Times on Sunday.
So, what I wanted to point out with my above tweet was the following hypocrisy: Ardern went to great lengths to comfort Muslim communities after the Christchurch attack. If she really cared about religious freedom and civil rights in a global perspective, she could have used her newly gained influence to at least mention the one million imprisoned Muslims in Xinjiang during her China trip.
My tweet got mostly positive reactions, but was also meet with a fury of angry responses for me having the guts to deliver any criticism to New Zealand’s progressive prime minister.
Apart from an academic that labelled me a “white supremacist” and later deleted his tweets and blocked me, I got the following comments:
She stood by her citizens and won everyone's respect. Protecting other country's citizens isn't her job. She has done a brilliant job. By the way, how many Muslim countries have expressed their concern to China?
— Abu Saeed Khan (@ask1681) April 2, 2019
Seems a bit of a strained comparison. She acted very well to avoid a breakdown in social cohesion in her own country after a terrorist attack. That hardly commits her to acting on one of the world's major human rights abuses.
— Chris Wilson (@Chris___Wilson) April 2, 2019
Coz they ain’t Kiwis, they’re Chinese.
She’s just a premier respecting another country’s sovereignty & minding her own country & looking after minorities in her own land, which we should all do. https://t.co/TFwhrZixG3
— ??????? ?? (@diandujour) April 2, 2019
Isn’t it her first duty to safeguard her country’s interest? You are suggesting that to maintain consistency she should abandon that duty?
— Leslie Quah (@Leslie_Quah) April 2, 2019
Many people pointed out that Ardern’s response in New Zealand doesn’t necessarily commit her to stand up for Muslims globally. Fair enough. But that would question her status a a truly progressive leader. Also, this argument rings rather hollow when Ardern herself criticise other foreign political leaders for their treatment of Muslims.
While not going on the record with her comments about Xinjiang to the Chinese leaders, Ardern was quick to go public with a phone call she had with Donald Trump when the American president called her to offer condolences after the attack.
In an article with the headline “PM Jacinda Ardern told Donald Trump: Send love to Muslims after mosque shooting“, the following remarks from Ardern is quoted:
She said Trump passed on his condolences, and asked if there was any help the United States could provide.
“He asked what offer of support the United States could provide. My message was: ‘Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities,'” Ardern said.
Asked how he received the message, Ardern said he “acknowledged that and agreed.”
“He asked what he could do and I simply conveyed, I think, the sentiment that exists here in New Zealand,” Ardern said.
So while Ardern is quiet when meeting Xi Jinping in China, it is obvious that she is hoping to pick some political points by criticising Donald Trump about his mindset on Muslims.
All this becomes all the more awkward considering – as Financial Times recently pointed out in the article “Donald Trump presses allies to confront China over Uighur rights” – that the Trump administration have been calling on other western countries to speak up about the repression of Muslims in China.
So why then, is a progressive and compassionate leader like Ardern displaying this kind of double standard on the treatment of Muslims? Follow the money!
The economic exchange with China is extremely important for New Zealand. The two countries economies are intertwined to the point that several warnings have been issued in recent times about a growing Chinese political clout in New Zealand.
Put simply, Ardern’s trip was a business trip. A New Zealand’s economy are getting increasingly reliant on the relation to China, new deals were signed and discussed, as reported by South China Morning Post and others:
In her meeting with Premier Li, Ardern said her visit – which was shortened to a day of meetings because of the recent terrorist attack in Christchurch – “underlies the importance that we place on our relationship with China”.
“It is one of our most important and far-reaching relationships … we are committed to advancing our ties,” Ardern said.
Ardern and Li also witnessed the signing of agreements on eliminating double taxation and tax avoidance, and on increasing cooperation in agriculture, finance, science and technology.
The New Zealand prime minister said she also discussed with Li the upgrading of the two nations’ free-trade agreement.
Of course, signing those kind of deals and advance the economic relationship would not be compatible with criticising China for locking up one million muslims.
In fact, the New Zealand Herald reports, Ardern even had the conscience to “thank Xi for the condolences” over the Christchurch shootings(!)
So much then, for a progressive and compassionate PM when money and trade deals are on the table.