China’s ‘Core Interests’

Two weeks ago, Thailand forcibly repatriated more than 100 Uighurs, ethnically Turkic Muslims, to their home region of Xinjiang, in China’s northwest. Beijing asserted the Uighurs were aspiring Islamist terrorists, a label authorities often apply to those seeking to preserve Uighurs culture, language, and religion. One of these is Ilham Tohti, a secular professor and blogger sentenced to life in prison in 2014. His “crime” was to argue it is Beijing’s harsh policies that lead to radicalization and stoke conflict between Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese. 

These unfortunate people may be the largest known group whose return China has demanded but other countries, including Cambodia and Malaysia, have also forced back Uighurs to China, where they face imprisonment. Their plight ought to prompt greater attention to what’s happening in Xinjiang, but also to the rationale Beijing uses to justify it.

China rebuffs criticism of its policies toward Xinjiang by claiming the regions a “core interest.” The term, writes Edward Wong of the New York Times, has been understood to mean “critical issues on which there is very little room, if any, room for negotiation,” chiefly Beijing’s claims to sovereignty in Xinjiang as well as Tibet and Taiwan. Foreign governments have largely acquiesced. Partly, that’s out of deference to China’s sensitivity to Western and Japanese encroachments in the 19th century—an era China considers its “century of national humiliation.” Anyway, the US and other countries have no desire to challenge China’s control of Tibet or Xinjiang, and China has seemed far from being able to fulfill its threat to Taiwan, so perhaps they found the idea of “core interests” harmless. 

But without any pushback, Beijing’s concept of its “core interests” is becoming more elastic. In addition to pressuring Southeast Asian countries over the Uighurs, Beijing has interfered in the internal affairs of Nepal, long a way station for Tibetans fleeing to India seeking their repatriation, and also demanded Kathmandu restrict the rights of its own longstanding Tibetan refugee community.

Now the definition has been broadened again. Discussing the recently adopted national security law, a top official of the National People’s Congress defined “core interest” to encompass “the political regime; the sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of the nation; and people’s livelihoods, sustainable economic development of society, and other major interests.” This, writes Wong, can “encompass the South China Sea and any other sovereignty issues of importance to China (think Arunachal Pradesh in India, and the islands in the East China Sea that Japan calls the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu).”

“Political regime” and “unity” of the nation or “major interests” could also encompass human rights and the rule of law. Take, for example, the unprecedented roundup of around 200 lawyers and activists in the last two weeks.

Words have consequences. China’s “core interest” proliferation asserts China’s illegitimate claims, and distorted concepts of rights that serve the party’s control. Its usage should not go unchallenged in rhetorical or policy terms.

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