The “22 vs. 50” Diplomatic Split Between the West and China Over Xinjiang and Human Rights

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 22

Image: Chen Xu (陈旭) (speaker’s table, third from left), the PRC’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. Office at Geneva, speaks at a July 9 side-event during the 41st session of the U.N. Human Rights Council. The event, co-sponsored by the PRC and representatives of African states, focused on the theme of economic development as the core concern of human rights—a theme consistently promoted by the PRC in international fora. (Source: Xinhua)


On July 8, 2019, a group of 22 states issued a joint letter to the 41st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which condemned China’s mass detention of Uyghurs and other minorities in the Xinjiang region of northwest China. [1] In the letter, the signatories expressed their countries’ concerns about “credible reports of arbitrary detention in large scale places of detention” in the region and “widespread surveillance and restrictions” targeting Uyghurs and other minorities. The letter (hereafter “First Letter”) called upon the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to uphold its national laws and international commitments, and to “refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uyghurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang” (UNHRC, July 8).

Just four days later, on July 12, 2019, another group of 37 states issued a competing letter to the UNHRC that backed the PRC’s policies in the Xinjiang region (Xinhua, July 13). This letter (hereafter “Second Letter”) asserted that “the work of [UNHRC] should be conducted in an objective… non-confrontational and non-politicized matter,” and expressed “firm opposition to relevant countries’ practice of politicizing human rights issues, by naming and shaming, and publicly exerting pressures on other countries.” This Second Letter commended “China’s remarkable achievements” in “protecting and promoting human rights through development.” The letter further “call[ed] on relevant countries to refrain from employing unfounded charges against China,” and urged the UNHRC to approach the Xinjiang situation “in an objective and impartial manner… with true and genuinely credible information” (UNHRC, July 12).

One signatory state, Qatar, subsequently withdrew its support. [2] However, by the time the Second Letter was re-issued later in July, representatives of thirteen additional states and the Palestinian Authority had added their support, bringing the total number of signatories to fifty. [3] This letter exchange between 22 critics and 50 supporters of the PRC’s policies in Xinjiang demonstrates how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has leveraged its economic and political influence over other voting members at the UNHCR to advocate for its own positions, and to weaken legal and procedural frameworks of the international human rights regime.

The “Like-Minded Group” in the United Nations, and Beijing’s Campaign for Influence in the Developing World

The PRC has been working for many years to cultivate a sympathetic voting block in the United Nations, particularly in regards to the sensitive issue of human rights. Beginning in the early 2010s, China began voting on UNHCR resolutions alongside a loose coalition of developing states usually referred to as the “Like-Minded Group of Developing Countries,” or simply the “Like-Minded Group” (LMG). [4] This grouping, comprised in the main of authoritarian (or semi-authoritarian) states from the developing world, has sought to deflect criticism of its members, and to promote a view of human rights as centered in state sovereignty and economic development (PRC Mission to the UN in Geneva, June 25).

The LMG has been led at various points by Russia, China, and Egypt; but Beijing, in particular, has sought to align developing states with the PRC’s own diplomatic interests in the United Nations and other fora. Ahead of a March 13 U.N. panel discussion event on human rights violations in Xinjiang (hosted by the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom), PRC diplomats directly approached delegates from developing states, and sent letters to other ambassadors. The letter decried the event as “based on groundless accusations,” which “aim[ed] at interfering in China’s domestic affairs and provoking confrontations.” Making a veiled threat, the letter advised recipients “in the interest of our bilateral relations and continued multilateral cooperation… not to co-sponsor, participate in, or be present at this side event.” [5]

Image: A letter dated March 7, 2019 from the PRC Mission to the U.N. Office at Geneva, which was disseminated to other diplomatic representatives in Geneva. The letter warns recipients not to participate in a planned discussion event on human rights in Xinjiang, which was sponsored by the United States and four other Western governments. (Source: Human Rights Watch)

The Role of Muslim States in Supporting the PRC

Looking at the “22” and “50” groups of countries brings us to two key observations. The first observation is that, in the latter group, 23 Islamic-majority states backed the PRC, thereby supporting Chinese actions that oppress their Muslim brethren. [6] This continues a pattern in which Islamic-majority states have long been resistant to criticizing the PRC over its treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities, and have even provided Beijing with diplomatic support. The attitude held by these states towards the Xinjiang issue is unlikely to change: for these governments, relations with China are far more important than supporting the Uyghurs (China Brief, March 5).

Turkey, which shares ethno-linguistic ties with the Uyghurs, has a complex history with the PRC—and in recent years has shifted its stances between supporting either the Uyghur minority or China’s policies towards them (BESA Center, September 1, 2017). More recently, the Turkish government has backed away from even limited rhetorical support for the Uyghurs. Turkey did not sign the Second Letter, but only a few days before the statement was published Turkey’s President Erdogan claimed that “residents of various ethnicities living happily in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region thanks to China’s prosperity is a hard fact, and Turkey will not allow anyone to drive a wedge in its relations with China” (Al-Araby, July 3).

Table 1 (left): The list of 22 states that signed a July 8, 2019 letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which expressed concerns over the treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in the PRC. Table 2 (right): The list of 50 states that signed a July 12, 2019 letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which expressed support for PRC policies in Xinjiang. (37 states signed the original letter; 1 then withdrew; and then 13 states and the Palestinian Authority subsequently signed on.) (Source: UNHRC)

The Split Between the “22” Western Countries and the “50” Chinese-Led Countries

The second observation is that a clear divide over human rights exists between Western states and the loose network of developing-world governments lending diplomatic support to China. The 22 signatories of the First Letter were all developed democracies—and with the exception of Japan, all were either European or English-speaking Western countries. Most were also either NATO members, or else hold other security relationships with the United States. The 50 signatories of the Second Letter, by contrast, were mostly states from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—many of them authoritarian, and concerned about criticism of their own records on human rights. Many of the 50 states are also now reliant on the PRC for investment and other development projects. The fact that the PRC has been able to organize and leverage this latter group illustrates the growing economic and diplomatic influence now wielded by Beijing around the globe.

It is noteworthy that the United States itself did not participate in the “22” group letter. This was despite the fact that senior U.S. officials have made strong statements on the Uyghur issue—for example,  accusing China in May of putting more than a million minority Muslims in “concentration camps” (Haaretz, May 5). The appointment of Elnigar Iltebir, an American-Uyghur, to be China Director on the U.S. National Security Council is also a signal of a firm stance on the Uyghur issue (UNPO, August 19). However, it may be that senior U.S. administration officials did not want to complicate what was already a heated trade struggle with the PRC, and therefore avoided the First Letter.


Two separate blocks are emerging in the world: one led by the United States, and the other by China. (Russia is also a significant player in this arena, but because of its difficult economic situation, it cannot lead the latter group of countries.) When great powers want to expand their sphere of influence, smaller countries may receive a great deal of attention—sometimes far beyond their objective importance—and Beijing has successfully cultivated many of these states. China has even brought into its diplomatic fold countries actively supported by the United States—including traditional allies that host U.S. military bases, such as Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Security relationships with the United States did not prevent the leaders of these states from opposing the United States and backing China on this symbolic but important issue.

The PRC’s growing influence over developing states may affect what the world will look like in the next few decades. Chinese economic growth has allowed it to establish itself as a leading diplomatic player alongside the United States—and as such, it increasingly sets the rules of the game in the international arena. Many countries from all over the world are in the process of redefining their international relationships and alliances. The fact that China has won the support of 50 countries for its Xinjiang policies, as opposed to 22 who voiced opposition, is a telling example of Beijing’s growing clout in the international arena.

Roie Yellinek is a Ph.D. student at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan (Israel), a doctoral researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and adjunct researcher at IDF Dado Center. He is a specialist in the growing relationship between the Middle East, Central Asia and China, especially in regards to the soft power component of Chinese diplomacy. His research is based on fieldwork conducted in China, Israel and other countries. He has authored numerous articles that have been published by research institutions and newspapers in both Israeli and international media outlets.

Elizabeth Chen is the China Program Assistant at the Jamestown Foundation.


[1] The signatories to the July 8, 2019 letter were: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

[2] Ambassador Ali Al-Mansouri, Qatar’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, explained Qatar’s withdrawal of support by stating that “Taking into account our focus on compromise and mediation, we believe that co-authorizing the aforementioned letter would compromise our foreign policy key priorities… In this regard, we wish to maintain a neutral stance and we offer our mediation and facilitation services” (Al-Jazeera, August 21).

[3] The final list of signatories to the Second Letter (dated August 9) were the ambassadors of: Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Comoros, the Congo, Cuba, North Korea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Laos, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, the Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Togo, Turkmenistan, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe; as well as the observer mission of Palestine.

[4] The LMG commonly includes: Bangladesh, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Syria, and Vietnam. However, the LMG is a loose grouping rather than a formal organization, and its membership is fluid.

[5] Letter from the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva, dated March 7, 2019. Obtained by Human Rights Watch, and posted at:

[6] The 23 Muslim-majority signatories to the Second Letter were: Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, UAE, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and the Palestinian Authority).