TOKYO – Last summer, Halmat Rozi, a Uyghur Muslim living in Japan, received a video call from his brother in China’s western Xinjiang region. His brother said he wanted Mr. Rozi to meet someone: a Chinese security guard.
The main Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, had been invited to Japan and the officer had questions. Were Mr. Rozi and his fellow Uyghur activists planning protests? Who were the leaders of the group? What work were they doing? If Mr. Rozi cooperated, his family in China would be well taken care of, the officer assured him during a second video call.
The officer’s intention was clear – to discourage Mr. Rozi from doing anything that could damage China’s reputation in Japan. The warning had the opposite effect. Mr Rozi had invited the Japanese public broadcaster, NHK, to surreptitiously record the second call, which was then broadcast to millions of viewers.
The images provided a rare look at Beijing’s efforts to cultivate and intimidate Chinese ethnic minorities abroad, and they contributed to a growing awareness in Japan of China’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
This, in turn, has increased pressure on the Japanese government to take strong action after years of tiptoeing around China, a dance that has left it out of step with its Western allies. on the issue of Xinjiang.
So far, Japan has elicited little more than expressions of “grave concern” over the plight of the Uyghurs, hundreds of thousands of whom have been placed in re-education camps in recent years in what critics call effort to erase their ethnic identity. . Japan is the only member of the Group of 7 Industrial Powers not to participate in the coordinated sanctions imposed on Chinese officials last month over the situation in Xinjiang, which the US government has declared genocide.
The ruling Communist Party in China has rejected accusations of genocide in Xinjiang and is unlikely to give in to any pressure on its policies, which it says are necessary to combat “terrorism and extremism.” But if Japan fully joined in efforts to force China to end its human rights abuses there, it would add a crucial Asian voice to what otherwise has been a Western campaign.
After years of ambivalence towards China, “public opinion has clearly changed” and “suddenly became extremely harsh,” said Ichiro Korogi, an expert on China at Kanda University of International Studies near Tokyo.
In some ways, the Japanese government’s tone on China has already hardened. When two US cabinet officials visited Tokyo last month, their Japanese counterparts signed a joint statement criticizing China for its “coercive and destabilizing behavior” in the Asia-Pacific region and its violations of “order. international”.
But Japanese executives and businesses have powerful reasons to hold back their fire on China, a critical market for Japanese exports and investment. Any perceived criticism can quickly backfire, as Swedish fashion retailer H&M learned last month. when he became the target of a nationalist boycott in China for expressing concern over accusations of forced labor in the Xinjiang cotton industry.
On the other hand, Japanese retail company Muji, which has more than 200 stores in mainland China, recently said it would continue to use cotton from Xinjiang despite the accusations.
Yet despite the economic and geopolitical risks, a growing group of lawmakers are calling on Japan to stand up for the rights of Uyghurs. MPs are working on legislation that would give the government the power to impose sanctions for human rights violations. And a wide range of Japanese politicians were pushing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to cancel Xi’s state visit to Japan before it was delayed for the second time by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Uyghur community in Japan, although estimated at less than 3,000 people, has become more visible over the past year by pushing the government to act. Mr. Rozi’s story has played a significant role. Since his appeal with the Chinese security officer aired last year, Mr. Rozi – who is fluent in Japanese – has appeared in the news media and before a parliamentary group to discuss the abuses in Xinjiang.
The stories of other Uyghurs have also found a wider Japanese audience in recent months, most notably in a bestselling graphic novel featuring testimonies from women imprisoned in camps in Xinjiang.
As awareness has grown in Japan, concerns about human rights violations in China have grown across the political spectrum.
For years, complaints about China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities have been viewed as part of Japan’s hawkish right. Centrists and those on the left often saw them as pretexts to replace postwar Japanese pacifism with the pursuit of regional hegemony.
But China’s behavior in Xinjiang has forced a reassessment among many liberals. Even the Japanese Communist Party calls it “a serious violation of human rights.”
“China says it’s an internal problem, but we have to treat it as an international problem,” Akira Kasai, member of parliament 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 rethink Tokyo’s relationship with Beijing. In February, a long-standing conservative parliamentary committee dedicated to promoting Uyghur rights expanded its membership to include lawmakers from the country’s center-left opposition parties.
The groups, said Shiori Yamao, an opposition MP, are pushing the legislature to follow in the footsteps of the US government, as well as the parliaments of Canada and the Netherlands, declaring China’s actions in Xinjiang as genocide. .
Members of Parliament say they are also working on a Japanese version of the Global Magnitsky Act, the US law used to impose sanctions on government officials around the world involved in directing human rights violations.
We do not know what the weight of the efforts will be. Rozi doesn’t think lawmakers will go so far as to accuse China of genocide, but he hopes Japan will impose sanctions.
Mr. Rozi came to Japan in 2005 to pursue a graduate program in engineering, eventually setting up a construction company and opening a kebab shop in Chiba Prefecture, on the outskirts of Tokyo. He was not political, he said, and avoided any activity that might be viewed unfavorably by the Chinese government.
Everything changed in 2018, after learning that several members of his wife’s family had been detained. Communication with his own family had also become nearly impossible amid the security crackdown.
The experience convinced Rozi that he needed to speak out, and he soon began participating in protests calling on China to close the camps. In a short time, he had become a leading voice in the Uyghur community in Japan, making media appearances, meeting politicians, and conducting seminars on the situation in Xinjiang. When he received the surprise phone call from his brother, he knew his activism had caught the attention of Chinese authorities.
Since Mr. Rozi appeared on Japanese public broadcaster, the Chinese government has made no further attempts to contact him, he said. Phone calls to his family went unanswered.
He is afraid for those close to him. But speaking out was worth it, he said: “Now almost everyone here knows about Uyghur issues.”