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Politics & Security

INTERVIEW | Japan Must Lead the World in Challenging China's Human Rights Violations

"We cannot just let China act as it wants," warns Japanese Diet member Keiji Furuya, leader of a cross-parliamentary human rights group in Tokyo.

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A detention facility with high walls, barbed wire, and watchtowers, has a sign indicating its purpose in Chinese. May 2021, in Artush, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China (© Kyodo)

In the view of many politicians in Japan, outrageous human rights abuses have been carried out by China's Communist government against people living in Xinjiang, Tibet and Southern Mongolia.

Now parliamentarians in Tokyo have rallied in an effort to challenge such behavior. 

Keiji Furuya is chairman of a new committee within the Diet (Japan's parliament) which will listen to the accounts of people from oppressed communities and raise awareness of their plight. 

Mr Furuya intends to host a major conference this spring, involving speakers from many ethnic groups. "We think such an event will send a clear message to the international community that people in Japan really care about these issues," he told JAPAN Forward in an interview. 

Keiji Furuya is chairman of a new committee within the Diet, he sits down for an interview with JAPAN Forward in December 2022.

No Sign of Improvement 

Mr Furuya says he has seen no improvement in China's treatment of ethnic minorities and marginalized groups since Xi Jinping secured a third term in office in 2022. 

Indeed, there is evidence that large numbers of Uyghurs are still forced into labor or held in detention. Mr Furuya believes this is a matter which should be high on the agenda for the G7, a group of the world's advanced democracies. Japan currently holds the presidency of the G7 and its leaders will attend a summit in Hiroshima in May.

In Mr Furuya's view, Japanese companies should be more cautious about doing business with China and should think especially carefully about the source of materials from the Xinjiang region. 

"We are not setting out to pick a fight with China," he says, pointing out that both countries have extensive trade and business relations. However, he maintains that in order not to become dependent on China, it is important for Japan to nurture its relations with other countries in Asia. 

Covering Up Atrocities

Mr Furuya is particularly alarmed by China's attempts to cover up human rights violations by manipulating the media, or spreading fake news. For example, last November (2022) - during the zero COVID lockdowns in China - a serious fire broke out in an apartment block in the Uyghur capital of Urumqi. 

Chinese state media insisted the death toll was only ten people. However, independent reports say as many as one hundred people may have perished because the exits to the building were locked. The incident was a catalyst for unprecedented protests in other parts of China, which were quickly suppressed by the authorities.

In his interview with JAPAN Forward, Mr Furuya told us that the new committee - officially known as the "Council to Investigate and Act on the Human Rights Violations by China" - will gather data and then make recommendations to the Diet. 

Mr Furuya is an experienced politician with close connections to Prime Minister Kishida. He is a former cabinet minister and chairman of the National Public Safety Commission. And he has also campaigned for the release from North Korea of Japanese abductees who were kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s.

People hold white sheets of paper in protest over coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in mainland China, during a commemoration of the victims of a fire in Urumqi, in Hong Kong, China November 28, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Widespread Support

The new committee on China's human rights record includes more than seventy members of parliament. "Aside from members of the Liberal Democratic Party, we also have representatives from most other parties such as the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Japan Innovation Party, and some representatives who are not affiliated," explains Mr Furuya.

The only major group which is excluded is the Komeito Party. "We are not in a position to criticize their position, but we are still working to negotiate with them," he says.

The committee will include representatives from four parliamentary groups which have been active for some time: the Japan Uyghur Parliamentary League, the Southern Mongolia Parliamentary Alliance, the Japan Tibet Parliamentary Group, and the Bipartisan Parliamentary Group for Human Rights Diplomacy. 

The hope is to create a coherent approach by drawing together all these organizations.

In February 2022, the Lower House of Japan's parliament passed a resolution expressing concern over the human rights situation in the Xinjiang region but the wording did not expressly mention China. Mr Furuya acknowledges that some people may have thought this sounded soft but points out that any resolution adopted by the National Diet requires consensus from all parties. However, he is certain that even with somewhat ambiguous wording, the Chinese Communist Party will have understood the message.

So could the matter be debated again, potentially with a different outcome?

"It's difficult to do that because the rules of parliament prevent the same topic being debated again in the National Diet for a certain period of time," Mr Furuya explains. 

Sanctions Debate

We also asked Mr Furuya about sanctions. Could Japan sanction Chinese officials who are deemed to have been responsible for human rights violations? The United States took such action against Chinese Communist Party members deemed to be responsible for the mistreatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and for those involved in the autocratic response to the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Mr Furuya says that although such sanctions have become a central tool of US foreign policy "there are certain aspects of this approach that are not easily compatible with the Japanese legal system."

The new council is committed to work in conjunction with countries and organizations that share the common values of democracy, respect for fundamental human rights, and the rule of law.

"Ultimately, any country that values human rights cannot allow such violations to continue," says Mr Furuya.

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