World

Turkey condemns mass detention of Uygur people in China, as video is released of missing singer. Soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi returns from Thailand. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán exempts tax for women bearing four or more children. Germany plans end to all coal-power generation. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Refugee footballer back in Australia

Bahraini refugee Hakeem al-Araibi speaks to the media at Melbourne Airport this week.
Credit: William West / AFP / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Turkey: Until this week, the most famous video of the Chinese Uygur musician and poet Abdurehim Heyit showed him sitting on a hillside rock performing a seven-minute version of his song, “The Encounter”. The lyrics are haunting, especially given his recent fate: “ ‘I see death coming.’ I said/ She said, ‘It’s for me’/ … ‘What else do you have?’ I asked/ ‘I have my people,’ she answered.’ ”

Heyit disappeared about nine years ago, apparently imprisoned by Chinese authorities for performing a song that mentioned “martyrs of war”. For this, he was deemed a terrorist threat. He is one of an estimated million Uygurs being detained in north-west China. Most are held in secret detention centres and forced to undergo what China calls “education programs”.

Last weekend Turkey issued a scathing condemnation of the mass detention, saying the systematic torture and political brainwashing of Uygurs was “a great embarrassment for humanity”. Turkey’s statement broke its long silence on the Uygurs. Most Muslim-majority countries, which tend to speak out on behalf of Muslim minorities elsewhere, have remained noticeably reluctant to criticise Beijing over the camps – a silence credited by most analysts to fear of commercial retribution.

But many people in Turkey identify with the Turkic-speaking Uygurs. There were reports that Heyit, who is well known there, had died.

Then, on Tuesday, a fresh video emerged of the singer. The disturbing 26-second clip, released by Chinese state media, showed him staring at the camera, stating the date and saying he had never been abused. But the proof-of-life video – which some claimed appeared to be fake – only further demonstrated the scale of Beijing’s appalling disregard for basic rights. It is unlikely the statement was voluntary. And the fake report of Heyit’s death only showed that he, like so many other Uygurs, had, until this week, no contact with the outside world. His family, and fans, have received almost no details about his whereabouts or treatment. He said in the video he is being “investigated”.

China’s oppression in its north-west has continued for years, aided by its best weapons: darkness and silence.

AUSTRALIA’S BACKYARD

Thailand: After more than two months in prison in Thailand, Hakeem al-Araibi, a soccer player and Australian-recognised refugee who is wanted in Bahrain, was finally freed this week. He arrived at Melbourne Airport to cries of “Welcome home, Hakeem.” But questions remain about his treatment in Thailand, and Bahrain’s efforts to pursue him, and the precise reasons for his sudden release.

Bahrain was seeking to extradite al-Araibi to serve a 10-year jail sentence for an alleged arson attack against a police station in 2012. He denies involvement, pointing out that he was playing soccer in a league game broadcast on Bahraini television until about 30 minutes before the alleged offence occurred.

Al-Araibi, who is Shiite, believes he was targeted because his brother was active in protests by the Shiite majority against the ruling Sunni monarchy. In addition, al-Araibi may have been pursued because he publicly criticised a member of the ruling family who was trying to become president of FIFA, soccer’s governing body.

On November 27, al-Araibi arrived for a honeymoon in Bangkok and was swiftly detained on the basis of an Interpol red notice that turned out to be invalid. Thai authorities then continued to hold him and to insist that local courts decide his fate, despite growing international pressure.

Finally, on Monday, the Thai government announced al-Araibi was being released after Bahrain reportedly dropped its bid to extradite him. The reasons remain unclear. In the days before, there were talks between the prime ministers of both countries and between Bahrain’s crown prince and the Thai foreign minister. Clearly, the international pressure was being felt in Bangkok. Immediately after Thai authorities announced the release on Monday night, Scott Morrison addressed the media and thanked the Thai government. On Tuesday morning, he said he also wanted to thank Bahrain.

As al-Araibi now prepares to rejoin his teammates at Melbourne’s Pascoe Vale FC, the saga is not over. Following his release, Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry released a statement saying the guilty verdict still stands. “The Kingdom of Bahrain … reiterates its sovereign right to pursue legal action against Mr Al Araibi,” the statement said.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Hungary: In his self-described mission to turn his country into an “illiberal democracy”, Hungary’s far-right prime minister Viktor Orbán has undermined the media, the judiciary and civil society institutions. To justify this assault, he has painted himself as a Christian saviour and pointed to various enemies that he says pose a threat to Hungarian society and culture, including the European Union, the Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros and, above all, migrants.

But the real demographic problem facing Orbán is not a migrant influx – it is the emigration of well-educated Hungarians who have fled for countries with stronger economies and less contemptible leaders. Facing a shortage of workers, Orbán now needs to increase the population without inviting migrants. So, earlier this week, he announced his solution: any Hungarian woman who has four children or more will be exempt from paying income tax. “We want Hungarian children,” he said.

Orbán, who has five children, also announced paid parental leave for grandparents, extra childcare places and subsidies for purchases of seven-seat vehicles. Most experts said the new measures are unlikely to boost Hungary’s low fertility rates or address the sharp decline in its population, which is expected to fall from 9.7 million in 2017 to 8.3 million in 2050. But the move could prove popular with middle-class families and assist Orbán’s electoral prospects, especially ahead of European Parliament elections in May.

Orbán was easily re-elected last year but has faced criticism over a law allowing employers to demand an extra 400 hours a year of overtime from workers. Opponents say this so-called “slave law” will increase corporate profits at the expense of workers and is particularly harsh on parents, who will have less time to spend with their children.

SPOTLIGHT: GERMAN COAL

Germany has long championed renewable energy and backed global efforts to combat climate change but has struggled to wean off cars, heavy industry and a reliance on coal. To the embarrassment of Angela Merkel, who holds a doctorate in quantum chemistry and has been dubbed the “climate chancellor”, Germany is set to fall short of its 2020 carbon emissions targets.

But the country now plans to end all coal-power generation by 2038, part of a plan to meet its emissions targets in 2030 and beyond. Merkel revealed on February 5 that she accepted the recommendations of a commission that included scientists, environmental campaigners, union officials and power sector representatives. Her government and the 16 states must now prepare plans to go “zero coal” and shut down all of Germany’s 120-odd coal-fired power plants.

It is a gamble, particularly as Merkel, following Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, committed to closing Germany’s nuclear plants by 2022. So the country, which has the world’s fourth-largest economy, will soon need to depend on renewables and natural gas. Some German politicians have already expressed concern about trusting the country’s energy security to Russia and Turkey, which are the most practical suppliers of gas.

Germany’s shift from coal has been seen as a symbolic step that could encourage other countries to follow, though some critics have suggested 2038 is too long to wait. For faster results, the country will need to end its reliance on another legacy industry: cars. Germany’s population are big car users and it is the fourth-largest automobile manufacturer after China and Japan. If the government cannot shift cars from the autobahn, it will at least need to ensure they become electric.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 16, 2019 as "Refugee footballer back in Australia ". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.