A municipality in the eastern Netherlands has cut ties with Chinaâ€™s Wuhan over the governmentâ€™s mistreatment of the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in an unusual move by a foreign city to break a twinning arrangement with a Chinese sister city.
A majority of city council members in Arnhem on Wednesday approved a proposal to end the partnership which has been in place since 1999, citing China’s human rights violations targeting the predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, Dutch broadcaster NOS reported.
The twinning, or sister-city, arrangements pair towns or cities in different countries to encourage people-to-people contact and cultural links as well as economic benefits. Chinese cities have more than 1,400 sister cities around the world as a means of increasing Chinaâ€™s soft power and global influence.
The arrangements boost cooperation and exchanges among Chinese and foreign cities under the framework of Chinaâ€™s Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinpingâ€™s massive loan, infrastructure, and trade program that stretches from the East to Europe and other continents. The Netherlands has not formally signed on to the BRI.
The move comes as many Western democracies are punishing China for its repression of the Uyghurs through legislation, calls to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and sanctions on officials and entities deemed responsible for rights abuses against Turkic minorities in the XUAR, or that use Uyghur forced labor.
The city councilâ€™s decision to end the twinning arrangement came after an appeal from Ahmedjan Kasima, a Uyghur refugee living in the Netherlands who, along with other Uyghurs, talked to some of the town councilors during a demonstration prior to the council meeting.
Arnhemâ€™s mayor and some of the councilors who favored keeping the relationship with Wuhan and maintaining dialogue with China about human rights, wanted to speak to their counterparts in Wuhan before holding the vote, but the council did not agree, NOS said.
A majority of councilors from the pro-immigrant DENK party, GroenLinks green party, social-liberal Democrats 66, Socialist Party, Christian Union, Nationalist Party for Freedom, and Party for the Animals, an animal rights party, voted for the immediate severing of ties, according to a report on the NL#Times website.
â€œWe believe that human rights violations are taking place on a massive scale in China and the situation of the Uyghurs and other minorities in China is deteriorating by the day and that under these circumstances it is immoral to maintain city ties with China,â€ political parties said during the discussion, NL#Times reported.
TÃ¼lay Gemici, a councilor for GroenLinks, one of the parties that voted to cancel the twinning arrangement, told Omroep Gelderland, a regional public broadcaster for the Dutch province of Gelderland, that the demonstration â€œhad played a roleâ€ in the partyâ€™s vote.
â€œWhen I see such a group of people, and a man tells me that he has not seen 19 of his relatives in four years because they are missing, it adds to the overall picture and reinforces the feeling that we should not [involve] Arnhem,â€ the broadcast organization quoted her as saying.
An evaluation commissioned by the municipality estimated that the economic impact of cutting ties with Wuhan would amount to several millions of euros and dozens of jobs for companies in the region, though the twinning arrangement did not yield any investment from China, Dutch media reported.
After the vote, Ahmedjan Kasima told NOS that he did not expect the city council to vote to end the partnership. He had called for the twinning arrangement to be dissolved a few weeks ago, but at that time it appeared as though a majority of members would vote in favor of keeping it, the report said.
â€˜A political strategyâ€™
China has used the sister-cities arrangement since its opening up in 1978 as a political strategy to â€œinfiltrateâ€ the Western world, said Asiya Uyghur, a Uyghur intellectual and observer based in Netherlands.
â€œIf the breaking of sister-city ties with the Chinese cities develops into a domino effect in Western society, it might severely damage Chinaâ€™s strategic plan of dominating the world,â€ she said.
â€œIn this perspective, Netherlandsâ€™s Arnhemâ€™s breaking ties with Wuhan over the Uyghur issue has a profound meaning and it is a significant setback for China,â€ she said.
Arnhem, capital of the province of Gelderland, has a population of about 159,300. Wuhan, the capital of central Chinaâ€™s Hubei province with a population of about 11 million, is the location where the contagious COVID-19 virus was first detected in December 2019. Wuhan has sister-city agreements with 13 other countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
The Dutch parliament in February said that the systematic persecution and mass detention of Uyghurs amounted to genocide.
The UK parliament and other democratic legislatures in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Canada, and Lithuania also have determined that Chinaâ€™s policies in the XUAR constitute genocide, citing internment camps that have held some 1.8 million people, some of whom have been tortured or subjected to other abuse.
In January, the U.S. government determined that serious rights abuses against Uyghurs in the region were part of a campaign of genocide, and in June, a German parliamentary committee declared that the abuses constitute crimes against humanity.
China has angrily rejected international scrutiny and criticism over Xinjiang, arguing that its policies are aimed at combating extremism and maintain stability in the region.
Reported by Uyghuray for RFAs Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.