TOKYO-Last summer, Halmat Rozi, a Uighur Muslim living in Japan, received a video call from his brother in the Xinjiang region of western China. His brother said he had a person he wanted to meet with Mr. Rhodes: a Chinese security officer.
China’s top leader Xi Jinping has been invited to visit Japan, and the official has some questions. Are Mr. Luo Qi and his Uyghur rights activists planning a protest? Who is in charge of the group? What are they doing? If Mr. Rozi cooperates, his family will be well taken care of in China, the official assured him in the second video call.
The video is a rare demonstration of Beijing’s efforts to cultivate and intimidate Chinese ethnic minorities overseas, and it helps Japan raise awareness of China’s suppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
In turn, this has also increased the pressure on the Japanese government to take tough actions after years in China. This dance has made it out of step with the Western allies on the Xinjiang issue.
So far, Japan has only expressed “serious concern” about the fate of the Uyghurs. In recent years, thousands of Uyghurs have been sent to re-education camps. Critics say this is eliminating their ethnic identity. . Japan is the only country in the G7 that did not participate in the coordinated sanctions imposed on Chinese officials on the situation in Xinjiang last month. The US government has declared genocide against the situation in Xinjiang.
The ruling Communist Party in China has rejected allegations of genocide in Xinjiang and is unlikely to bear any pressure on its policies, which China believes is necessary to combat “terrorism and extremism.” But if Japan goes all out to force China to end its human rights violations there, it will increase the key voices in Asia in the Western movement.
Ichiro Korogi, a China expert at Tokyo Kanda University of Foreign Studies, said that after years of conflict with China, “public opinion has clearly shifted” and “suddenly became extremely severe.”
In some respects, the Japanese government’s attitude towards China has strengthened. When two U.S. cabinet officials visited Tokyo last month, Japanese colleagues signed a joint statement criticizing China’s “coercive and destabilizing behavior” in the Asia-Pacific region and its violation of “international order”.
However, Japanese leaders and companies have strong reasons to be angry with China, and China is an important market for Japanese exports and investment. Swedish fashion retailer H&M learned last month that any perceptible criticism will quickly have counterproductive effects. When it became the target of a nationalist boycott of China, it expressed concern about the allegations of forced labor in the Xinjiang cotton industry.
In contrast, Japanese retail company MUJI, which has more than 200 stores in mainland China, recently announced that it will continue to use Xinjiang cotton despite allegations.
Nevertheless, despite the economic and geopolitical risks, more and more groups of lawmakers are still calling on Japan to defend the rights of the Uighurs. Members of Congress are enacting legislation to give the government the power to impose sanctions on human rights violations. Politicians from all walks of life in Japan are pushing Prime Minister Junhide Yoshihide to cancel Xi Jinping’s state visit to Japan, and later postponed his state visit to Japan for the second time due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although the Uyghur community in Japan is estimated to have fewer than 3,000 people, this phenomenon has become more apparent in the past year as it forced the government to take action. Mr. Rhodes’s story plays a big role. Since calling Chinese security officials last year, Rozi, a fluent Japanese spokesman, has appeared in the news media and parliamentary groups to discuss abuses in Xinjiang.
In recent months, the stories of other Uyghurs have also attracted more Japanese readers, including a best-selling graphic novel depicting the testimony of women detained in refugee camps in Xinjiang.
As Japan’s awareness has increased, concerns about China’s human rights violations in the entire political field have also increased.
For many years, people’s complaints about China’s treatment of ethnic minorities have been regarded as the right wing of the Japanese hawks. Centrists and leftists often see them as an excuse to replace Japan’s post-war pacifism by pursuing regional hegemony.
But China’s actions in Xinjiang forced many liberals to reassess. Even the Communist Party of Japan called it a “serious violation of human rights.”
“China says this is an internal issue, but we must treat it as an international issue,” Akira Kasai, a member of Congress and one of the party’s top strategists, said in a recent interview.
Last summer, nearly 40 members of the Japanese legislature formed a committee to reconsider the relationship between Tokyo and Beijing. In February, a long-term conservative parliamentary committee dedicated to promoting Uyghur rights expanded its membership to include lawmakers from the country’s center-left opposition party.
Opposition lawmaker Shiori Yamao said that by declaring China’s actions in Xinjiang as genocide, these organizations pushed the legislature to follow in the footsteps of the US government and the Canadian and Dutch parliaments.
Members of Congress said they are still studying the Japanese version of the Global Magnitsky Act, a US law designed to impose sanctions on government officials around the world who participate in directing human rights violations.
It is not clear how much traction these efforts will gain. Mr. Rozi does not believe that lawmakers will accuse China of genocide, but he hopes that Japan will impose sanctions.
Mr. Rozi came to Japan in 2005 to study a graduate course in engineering, and eventually established a construction company and opened a barbecue restaurant in Chiba Prefecture, a suburb of Tokyo. He said that he did not participate in political activities and avoided any activities that might be considered unfavorable by the Chinese government.
After he learned that several members of his wife’s family were detained, everything changed in 2018. Under security measures, communication with his own family has also become almost impossible.
This experience convinced Mr. Rhodes that he needed to speak out, and he soon began participating in protests, calling on China to close the refugee camps. Soon after, he became an important voice in Japanese Uyghur society, participating in media appearances, meeting with politicians and holding seminars on the situation in Xinjiang. When he received a surprise call from his brother, he knew that his active actions attracted the attention of Chinese officials.
He said that since Mr. Luo Qi appeared on Japan Public Radio, the Chinese government has not tried to contact him again. The phone call to his family was not answered.
He was terrified for his relatives. But it is worthwhile for him to say it. He said: “Almost everyone here now knows about the Uyghur problem.”