Government removes 'genocide' term from debate over Uyghur abuses

By Jessica Tyson

The New Zealand Parliament will not debate a motion that would label the abuses of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, China, as acts of genocide.

The Uyghurs are considered to be one of China's 55 official ethnic minorities, recognised as native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China.   

In March New Zealand and Australian governments reiterated their grave concerns about the growing number of credible reports of “severe human rights abuses” against ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In a statement, Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said, “There is clear evidence of severe human rights abuses that include restrictions on freedom of religion, mass surveillance, large-scale extra-judicial detentions, as well as forced labour and forced birth control, including sterilisation.”

ACT Party disappointed

ACT Party deputy leader and foreign affairs spokesperson, Brooke van Velden, filed the original motion which passed yesterday. She said the Labour Party would not support the motion unless “genocide” was removed from its wording.  

Van Velden says she is proud that her party brought the debate to Parliament but also disappointed that the language had to be “softened” so that Parliament could debate the “hard issues”.

“It was really important that we were able to have that debate at all because, let’s admit, what the issue would have been like if we didn’t have this debate, it would mean that as a sovereign country with the ability to freely speak as elected representatives for New Zealand we would be able to have freedom of speech up until the point where it would offend the Chinese communist party," Van Velden says.

“We have to start questioning what our country would look like if we didn’t do anything in our country based on the fact that we were afraid that it would offend the Chinese communist party.”

NZ's top trading partner

According to Statistics New Zealand, since 2017 China has been New Zealand’s top trading partner.

In the year ended December 2019, 23 percent of New Zealand’s total goods and services exports and 16 percent of imports by value were with China.

Van Velden acknowledges New Zealand is deeply reliant on China for exports but says there needs to be more focus on freedom of speech.

“If we’re worried about China retaliating with trade sanctions just because we had a debate about genocide it would be more concerning for us not to have that debate.”

To debate or not

She says an example where debate has been shut down was Auckland University of Technology about the Tiananmen Square massacre. She says the debate was shut down because of influence from Beijing.

"It’s a small example of AUT being reliant on international students for their revenue. If you look at New Zealand as a whole we are deeply reliant on China for our exports and I think we do need to be thinking, what does this mean if we’re afraid of what we do in our own country if we’re not having these debates, being able to freely speak our minds because of a foreign influence."

Van Velden says she is not concerned about immediate threats from China.

“I certainly haven’t heard anything from myself. It could be that the government knows more than I do because I’m obviously in opposition.”

She says New Zealand should focus on strengthening alliances with countries that have held Aotearoa in good stead in the past including “the UK and the US, the EU and helping to grow exportation into those areas so we don’t become in a position where we’re reliant on one country which is essentially run by a military dictatorship.”