Business as usual for European museums operating in China, despite genocide ruling

A London panel has assembled the largest cache of evidence on the concentration camps in Xinjiang, but museums will not say if they have examined it

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A witness to Uyghur Tribunal holds a photo of the hospital where she says she was forcibly sterilised Photo: Tolga Akmen / AFP

A witness to Uyghur Tribunal holds a photo of the hospital where she says she was forcibly sterilised Photo: Tolga Akmen / AFP

The Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, both of which have major partnerships with the Chinese state, reacted with apparent indifference to the ruling of an independent London panel which has found “beyond all reasonable doubt” that China is guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. The Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which also have major collaborations with state-owned partners in China, declined to comment altogether on the finding.

On 9 December, the Uyghur Tribunal, set up to investigate China’s detention of one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim groups in detention camps in the Xinjiang region, announced its judgment. Sir Geoffrey Nice, the British barrister who chaired the panel, said it had reached a determination of crimes against humanity after establishing “beyond all reasonable doubt” that China is guilty of acts of deportation or forcible transfer; imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty; torture; rape, and other sexual violence, enforced sterilisation; persecution; enforced disappearance; and other inhumane acts.

The tribunal also found China guilty of genocide “by the imposition of measures to prevent births intended to destroy a significant part of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang”.

The verdict of genocide was reached after the panel heard testimony on the forced abortions performed on women before they are imprisoned in camps; the forced sterilisation of women and men inside the detention centres; the removal of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur children from their families to state-run orphanages where they are forced to speak Chinese, and the examination of Xinjiang family planning documents which show that China aims to resettle 300,000 Han Chinese migrants in Xinjiang by offering incentives such as free land and well-paid jobs. This migration, combined with widespread birth prevention policies for Uyghurs, are an effort “to totally and brutally integrate the Uyghurs,” Adrian Zenz, an anthropologist who has studied the Xinjiang detention camps, told the tribunal in his testimony. 

This is the first time a determination of genocide has been made by considering crimes against the unborn.

The UK has never acknowledged a genocide while it was happening. With today’s verdict, we have a chance to put that right

Sir Geoffrey, who previously led the UN prosecution of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague, linked the crimes against the Uyghurs and other Muslim groups directly to Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior figures in the Chinese Communist Party noting that “this vast apparatus of state repression could not exist if a plan was not authorised at the highest levels.”

The evidence assembled by the tribunal is the most comprehensive yet gathered on the Xinjiang camps and encompasses written and oral testimony from hundreds of witnesses, including Uyghurs who have survived them, a police officer who worked in one and is now in hiding in Europe, and numerous experts on aspects of Chinese policy. All of the evidence is available on the Uyghur Tribunal website. At the opening of the first set of hearings in June, Sir Geoffrey said he hoped governments, companies and institutions that deal with China, including museums, would review this evidence so it informs their decisions going forward.

The Uyghur Tribunal heard evidence that hundreds of thousands of Uyghur children are being removed from their parents and raised in state-run orphanages

The four European museums with major partnerships with the Chinese State all declined to say if they had done that. Following the tribunal’s judgment, the director of Tate, Maria Balshaw, said that the museum “has an ongoing relationship with Lujiazui Group [a leading State-owned property developer] to help share museum expertise and stage exhibitions with the Museum of Art Pudong. All such agreements are made with the oversight and approval of our trustees and, as a public institution, we work with the backing of the UK government.” She declined to comment on the tribunal’s verdict.

The V&A, which helped establish a new cultural centre in Shenzhen, also declined to comment on the tribunal’s verdict. It said: “Our history of working in and with China stems back to our earliest years, as a new museum building a collection celebrating the finest examples of art and design from across the world. We have one of the most significant collections of Chinese art outside East Asia, of approximately 18,000 objects. We take a careful interest in the external context in which we work outside the UK. Today, our international strategy focuses on sharing the V&A’s collections, knowledge and expertise with the widest possible audience, ensuring greater access and open communication across the global cultural and academic sector. Our work is rooted in the belief that cultural exchange—particularly at museum to museum level—can be highly impactful as a means of generating greater understanding between globalcultures and communities.”

What museums could do

Human rights campaigners have called on European museums to speak out against the torture and abuse of the Uyghurs. Speaking to us last September when The Art Newspaper first raised the Uyghur issue with museums, Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, argued that Western museums in China “should use their leverage. The Chinese government wants them there, they want the prestige of the association with some of the best-known museums in the world. If all museums got together and took a stand, they would have quite a lot of power. China could kick one museum out but they wouldn’t want to kick out everyone.”

The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei noted at the time that “any state or organisation, business or culture alike, involved with a state with such an extremely poor record on human rights, with divisive ideas about those most important values such as free speech, becomes a part of this power. If you do not question that power you become complicit with it,” he said. He also dismissed Western museums’ claims to be promoting values of tolerance and free expression in China noting that many of them are there purely to make money. “Most of them are in China purely for strategies of self-development, attempting to get away from the struggles facing institutions in the West,” the artist said.

Like Tate, the V&A also defended its work in China by pointing to the British government’s support of this and the fact that “other international museums are developing links with a range of overseas institutions.” It said its trustees would continue to monitor the risks of such partnerships.

Whether British government support of museum collaborations in China persists in the face of parliamentary pressure remains to be seen. In April, British parliamentarians voted to declare that China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs and prominent members of parliament, like Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative party and co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary alliance on China, have said they are concerned that museums are following a similar path to Britain’s universities by establishing economic ties which cannot be easily undone, leaving them open to “bullying” by Beijing.

At the press conference following the Uyghur Tribunal judgment, Nusrat Ghani, a Conservative Member of Parliament; Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Alton, a campaigner against human rights abuses around the world, said in a statement: “we are demanding that the British government make time for debate in both Houses of Parliament to discuss what urgent actions they will take next. We urge our government to carry out the review of export controls they promised in January; they must put in place sanctions on the architects of this genocide, including Chen Quanguo [Chinese Communist Party Regional Secretary in Xinjiang]; they must put import controls on the products of Uyghur slave labour and they must acknowledge in public that the Chinese authorities are committing genocide against the Uyghurs and engage with their legal duties to protect the Uyghur people...The UK has never acknowledged a genocide while it was happening. With today’s verdict, we have a chance to put that right.”

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