China-EU Panelists Face Awkward Human-Rights Question in Hamburg

(Bloomberg) -- An uncomfortable question at Europe-China forum in Hamburg shows how Beijing’s mass detention of Muslims is complicating its diplomatic agenda around the globe.

The query came during a panel on China between six European and one Chinese businessman at the Hamburg Summit on Monday. Could China’s detention of as many as 1 million ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs in “transformation through re-education” camps in its far western region of Xinjiang undercut European-Chinese relations?

For a moment, the seven panelists sat silently, prompting laughter from the crowd. Song Hailiang, president of the state-run China Communications Construction Co., then said he was unfamiliar with the issue.

Gunnar Wiegand, managing director for Asia and the Pacific at the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic service, interjected: “The answer is yes,” he said. Many parliamentarians in EU nations are “greatly concerned about the situation in Xinjiang,” he added.

The biennial Hamburg Summit is a dialogue promoting economic relations between China and Europe, and this year’s event features a closing speech by Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, the country’s top official for economic policy.

There was a similar moment at a news conference between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, earlier this month in Beijing. Wang defended the policy, calling it a “domestic issue” and cautioning foreigners against believing “gossip and hearsay” about what was going on.

On Monday, Wiegand also confirmed that the European Union has joined other foreign delegations in Beijing in sending a letter to Xinjiang’s top official. Fifteen ambassadors, spearheaded by Canada, are seeking a meeting with the top official in the province for an explanation of alleged rights abuses, Reuters reported this month.

“This is, of course, an issue of concern,” Wiegand said. “We cannot do as if everything is all harmony.”

Song echoed the response of Chinese officials that the Muslims were being held in humane conditions.

“Sir, I have never heard of the concentration camps which you talked about,” Song said to the person posing the question. “But we have some training activities going on there. Whether you have equated those training classes with camps I’m not so sure.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.