On June 30, Minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine Oleksandr Kubrakov and Minister of Commerce of China Wang Wentao signed a secret agreement regulating the participation of Chinese companies in large infrastructure projects in Ukraine. This happened just a few weeks after Kyiv, allegedly being pressured by China, dropped its signature from a UN complaint about the rights of Uyghurs, an ethnic minority China has been accused of conducting genocide on. The move sparked discussions on Zelenskyy’s possible foreign-policy shift from the West to Beijing. What implications of the incident should Ukraine expect?
The controversial agreement allows for China’s investments in Ukrainian railway transit, airports and ports infrastructure construction, communications and municipal engineering projects. And it has already been clinched that China will take part in building the first part of a beltway around Kyiv and a driveway to Kremenchuk city. The Government of Ukraine did not disclose the deal until 6 June, a week after it was concluded. Why so?
The reasonable judgement would be that earlier, Canada initiated a call on China to allow immediate access of independent observers to Xinjiang.
Washington DC – 25 September 2015: Stand up for Uyghur rights demonstration against Chinese President Xi Jinping at Lafayette Park across from the White House. Photo: Elvert Barnes / Flickr.com
Xinjiang is an autonomous territory in northwest China, home to many ethnic minority groups, including the Turkic Uyghurs who come in the crosshairs of the Chinese repressive machine. Those who disagree end up in internment camps, numbering some 400 in the region. It is estimated that one out of ten million, or 10 % of Uyghurs in Xinjiang are arbitrarily held in the camps under brutal conditions aimed at erasing their national, religious (as Uyghurs profess Islam), and cultural identity. The detainees are indoctrinated and forcibly taught Mandarin to become more “Chinese.” They are constantly intimidated by mass surveillance, torture, sterilization, rape, the taking away of their children, and forced organ harvesting.
11 September 2005: Uyghurs performing Meshrep, a traditional male gathering that includes poetry, music, dance, and talking. Photo: flickr.com
The situation in Xinjiang is alarming and needs greater scrutiny on the side of the international community. On 22 June, in Geneva, Canadian Ambassador Leslie Norton in the name of a coalition of 45 countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Lithuania, and the United States, read the statement on the human rights situation in Xinjiang at the 47th Session of U.N. Human Rights Council. Ukraine also joined this document calling on China to provide independent observers with “immediate, meaningful and unfettered” access to Xinjiang and release detained Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities.
The sitting of the 47th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC), 21 June – 15 July 2021. Photo: gchragd.org
Some two days later, Kyiv withdrew its signature, creating an uproar. And this exposes the alleged reason behind the “secrecy” around the Ukraine-China intergovernmental investment deal of 30 June. Another “carrot” Beijing gave to Ukraine is a visa-free regime declared by China’s Ambassador at the event dedicated to the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party on 24 June.
Celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, Tiananmen Square. Photo: commons.wikimedia.org
The question arises: were China’s yuans and promised visa waiver the only presumptive incentive to spur Ukraine to revocation of its signature from a U.N. human rights document? It appears that it was not.
The Organization’s senior diplomats told the Associated Press that China compelled Ukraine to abandon support for a call for monitoring of human rights abuses in Xinjiang by threatening to suspend the delivery of at least 500,000 Chinese CoronaVac COVID-19 vaccines designed for Kyiv. Previously, Ukraine agreed to purchase 1.9 million doses of vaccine from Sinovac Biotech and already received 1.2 million doses, Minister of Health Maksym Stepanov said.
Beijing is not new to exerting pressure over other states to get support or, on the contrary, prevent the adoption of statements on the human rights situation in the country. Yet, this very incident has been severely lambasted by the fact that this time China resorted to blackmail at the cost of the health and lives of the Ukrainians. The diplomatic officials called China’s action “bare-knuckles diplomacy,” spoke of “significant pressure in Kyiv,” and that “last night the delegation told us they needed to pull out, ” the Associated Press reports.
The South China Morning Post, however, claims another story. Its journalist anonymously interviewed a senior official who alleged it was not Chinese vaccine diplomacy to blame Zelenskyy’s foreign policy shift towards China. He said:
“Statistics show the Ukrainian government is not experiencing a vaccine shortage. …Indeed, this year Ukraine received about 5 million doses of different vaccines, but only about half was used.”
The diplomat said it was crucial for Kyiv to maintain Beijing’s support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. He said: “But if Ukraine joined Canada’s statement on Xinjiang, China could lift the ban on doing business with Crimea.”
Such an argument can be countered by the fact that Ukraine’s interests never really resonated with China’s. Beijing has never backed Kyiv concerning Donbas and Crimea, yet it showed support to Russia, its ally.
While Kyiv’s real motivation is now shrouded in controversy, one fact remains clear: Ukraine has found itself in the circle of authoritarian countries. Such as Belarus that read a pro-China joint statement allegedly backed by 64 states defending its right to conduct its internal affairs without interference with regard to Xinjiang and Hong Kong. What does this spat mean for Kyiv?
One of the consequences of the row is a huge blow to Ukraine’s image. Artur Kharytonov, President of Liberal Democratic League of Ukraine NGO, commented on the event:
“Not only have we betrayed our Western allies but also allowed for the communists who had been expelled by our ancestors to again control Ukrainian politics and international relations.
20 May 2013: The signing ceremony of the Agreement between headquarters of Confucius Institutes (HANBAN) in China and Kyiv National Linguistic University (KNLU) on the establishment on this leading Ukrainian university of a new Confucius Institute. Photo: mfa.gov.ua
And all of this is amid granting visa-free regime to the People’s Republic of China (while all our allies do not provide it), opening Confucius Institutes all over the state (when our allies close them because of the threat to national security), implementing the reforms of Chinese communist education in Ukraine, China’s economic expansion and its cooperation with the Opposition Platform — For Life [a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine] and the Kremlin, etc.”
While official Kyiv remains tight-lipped about the scandal the Ukrainian civil society speaks up, many organizations are calling on Ukraine to return its signature to the statement on the rights of Uyghurs.
The Congress of Ethnic Communities of Ukraine in its appeal warns that “maintaining hesitation as for upholding the international system of human rights protection, Ukraine hardly has a right to claim fully-fledged membership in value-driven communities, such as European Union or NATO.”
They also state that should Ukraine ignore the rules and principles of international law, it may lose support from its allies, especially with regard to sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Two of those allies, NATO and the US, have recognised China as a threat. Considering this, Ukrainian political analyst Taras Berezovets fears the US President might regard such a move from Kyiv as a red line prior to the Zelenskyy-Biden meeting in late July.
The Congress of Ethnic Communities of Ukraine also brings up an ethical perspective on this incident:
“Without taking an unequivocal and clear stance in this confrontation [of the democratic and authoritarian regimes], Ukraine has no moral right to call on others to champion for Crimean Tatars persecuted on the territory of Russia-occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea.”
These perspectives are endorsed by the Crimean Tatar Resource Center in their statement.
A coalition of 16 national human rights NGOs also urges Kyiv not to “compromise with evil” and apart from that to declare the grounds for revoking the signature and ensure transparency in international human rights policy.
There are hopes that the status quo may yet change, as Ukraine still has two weeks to return its name on the statement after the session of the Council ends on 13 July.
Kyiv, Ukraine – 1 September 2020: Ukraine-China video conference on political dialogue and enhancing practical cooperation. Photo: mfa.gov.ua
From a global perspective, the scandal only indicates that while the West is dealing with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, China continues to expand its economic and, therefore, political influence. Only for the past years, China gave to the countries of Africa and Latin America a $200bn low-interest loan in exchange for Beijing’s control over, among other things, strategic industries in the indebted states.
In a global situation of heightened tension between Western democracies and authoritarian regimes, such as Russia and China, Ukraine is embroiled in a scandal, a harbinger of a divided world. It now stands at a crossroads: to join its allies in championing human rights (also for the sake of its own statehood) or to line up with the dictatorships, neglecting fundamental values in fear of blackmail.
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