ICYMI: Foreign Policy Magazine: COP26 Is Silent on Human Rights in China

Is getting China to the table worth turning a blind eye to genocide?

Berkeley, Calif. — Today, Foreign Policy published a piece about global climate organizations’ continued silence on human rights abuses in and around China, in hopes of bringing Beijing leaders to the table on climate issues. For the piece, Breakthrough Institute’s Senior Energy and Climate Analyst Dr. Seaver Wang was interviewed regarding how environmentalists ought to be responding to China’s human rights abuses, based on his blog post earlier this year on the unacceptability of ignoring Beijing’s ongoing human rights abuses for the sake of advancing climate priorities.

Click here to read the full article in Foreign Policy
Dr. Seaver Wang is available for comment or interview

The article starts, “To many Uyghurs and Tibetans in exile, a July letter sent by several climate, environmental, and anti-war organizations to the Biden administration confirmed their worst suspicions—that the climate and environmental movement did not care about them or their causes.”

This letter, which prompted Dr. Wang’s post in July, deliberately overlooked documented accounts of “the Chinese government's repressive, genocidal policies towards ethnic minorities including Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tibetan people and its suppression of activists calling for political reform in China and in Hong Kong,” and “argued U.S. President Joe Biden’s confrontational approach would harm climate change action. It made no mention of the reason for some of that confrontation — the situation in Xinjiang, Tibet, or Hong Kong — implicitly making the argument that silence on human rights was an acceptable cost for climate action.”

Click here to read the full blog post from BTI’s Dr. Wang

Signers of the letter included CODEPINK, an organization pushing genocide-denying content, and also national environmental organizations like Friends of the Earth, the Union of Concerned Scientists, 350 Action, Earthworks, and the Sunrise Movement.

The article continues, “This isn’t just a fringe issue. There’s been a continuing argument within the Biden administration about how to handle China — one in which U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has been accused of leading the argument that silence on human rights is needed to get climate cooperation. Kerry denies that claim — but at the U.N. climate change summit (known as COP26) now taking place in Glasgow, Scotland, it seems those arguing in favor of silence won. As more than 100 world leaders—though notably not the head of state of the world’s largest greenhouse gas-emitting country — gathered along with representatives from major climate and environmental groups, there wasn’t one word about the Xinjiang camps, the fact that 53 civil society groups have disbanded due to government pressure in Hong Kong, or the fact that Tibet remains closed off from the world.”

“There’s a risk that all the pageantry at [COP26] legitimizes China’s system of government,” Dr. Wang said. “Everyone pretends that China is just another normal world government… It’s very important to recognize that it is a very abnormal system.”

The article highlights a key problem with groups and signatories of this letter, such as Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Greenpeace, or Friends of the Earth, who maintain offices in China. “They mostly opened back in the 2000s and early 2010s, when the space for civil society and press was more open, assuming they were mostly silent on issues like the 3 Ts: Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. But they still have staff there, both foreign and Chinese, potentially at risk.”

This has created tension as these groups are unwilling to speak out about human rights abuses in and around China to continue work on climate issues.

The Breakthrough Institute has been one of the few western environmental organizations to date willing to write and speak out openly on such topics. “We didn’t want to self-censor, so we made a decision that we’re not that interested in having access to Chinese officials or academics or trying to develop a Chinese audience,” said Wang. “Breakthrough has traditionally been outspoken and willing to make points that we believe need to be made.”

The piece highlights the crux of this argument, “With Amnesty International announcing the closure of its Hong Kong office at the end of October — unlike environmental groups, it was never able to operate in the mainland — perhaps it’s time for climate groups to reconsider their operations with the Chinese government. For Kanat, the answer is obvious.

“‘They shouldn’t have business as usual with China,’ [Omer] Kanat, [director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project] said. ‘Climate organizations that are saying that they respect human rights, they close their eyes as if they don’t see anything and have [a] normal relationship with a country that is committing genocide.’”

As Dr. Wang writes in his blog post, “A progressive climate movement upholding commitments to equity and justice should support US policies that hold Chinese officials and corporations accountable for complicity in forced labor, environmental pollution, and other harms. If Indigenous communities in lithium-producing regions of northern Chile are not an acceptable sacrifice population in the name of climate action, then neither are Uyghur forced laborers at solar-grade polysilicon factories. If global climate justice requires achieving collective liberation and dismantling inequitable systems, then the Chinese Communist Party should be among the first institutions torn down.”

Simply put, as campaigns director Pema Dona from Students for a Free Tibet is quoted in the piece, “If China does make positive decisions for the climate, that does positively benefit humanity. But if we have genocides that we leave unspoken, what are we even fighting to protect?”