In an unusual move by a foreign city to break ties with a Chinese sister city, a municipality in the eastern Netherlands has severed ties with China’s Wuhan over the government’s mistreatment of the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
A majority of Arnhem city council members approved a proposal to end the partnership, which has been in place since 1999, citing China’s human rights violations against the predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, according to Dutch broadcaster NOS.
Twinning, also known as sister-city agreements, pair towns or cities in different countries to encourage people-to-people contact, cultural links, and economic benefits. As a means of increasing China’s soft power and global influence, Chinese cities have more than 1,400 sister cities around the world.
The agreements promote cooperation and exchanges between Chinese and foreign cities as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s massive loan, infrastructure, and trade program spanning from the East to Europe and other continents. The Netherlands has not formally ratified the BRI.
The move comes as many Western democracies are punishing China for its repression of the Uyghurs through legislation, boycott calls for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and sanctions against officials and entities deemed responsible for rights violations against Turkic minorities in the XUAR, or that use Uyghur forced labor.
The city council decided to end the twinning arrangement in response to an appeal from Ahmedjan Kasima, a Uyghur refugee living in the Netherlands who, along with other Uyghurs, spoke with some of the town councilors during a demonstration prior to the council meeting.
The mayor of Arnhem and some councilors who supported maintaining the relationship with Wuhan and dialogue with China about human rights wanted to speak with their counterparts in Wuhan before holding the vote, but the council did not agree, according to NOS.
According to the NL#Times website, 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.
“We believe that human rights violations are occurring on a massive scale in China, and that the situation of Uyghurs and other minorities in China is deteriorating by the day, and that it is immoral to maintain city ties with China under these circumstances,” political parties said during the discussion, according to NL#Times.
Tülay Gemici, a councilor for GroenLinks, one of the parties that voted to cancel the twinning agreement, told Omroep Gelderland, a regional public broadcaster for the Dutch province of Gelderland, that the protest “played a role” in the party’s vote.
“When I see such a crowd, and a man tells me that he hasn’t seen 19 of his relatives in four years because they’ve gone missing, it adds to the overall picture and reinforces the feeling that we shouldn’t [involve] Arnhem,” she was quoted as saying by the broadcast organization.
According to a study commissioned by the municipality, the economic impact of severing ties with Wuhan would be several million euros and the loss of dozens of jobs in the region, even though the twinning arrangement did not result in any investment from China, according to Dutch media.
Ahmedjan Kasima told NOS after the vote 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 it appeared at the time that a majority of members would vote to keep it, according to the report.
Since its opening up in 1978, China has used the sister-cities arrangement as a political strategy to “infiltrate” the Western world, according to Asiya Uyghur, a Uyghur intellectual and observer based in the Netherlands.
“If the breaking of sister-city ties with Chinese cities becomes a domino effect in Western society, it could severely harm China’s strategic plan of dominating the world,” she warned.
“From this vantage point, the Netherlands’ Arnhem breaking ties with Wuhan over the Uyghur issue has profound significance and is a significant setback for China,” she said.
Arnhem, the capital of the province of Gelderland, has a population of approximately 159,300 people. Wuhan, the capital of central China’s Hubei province, with a population of about 11 million people, was the site of the first detection of the contagious COVID-19 virus in December 2019. Wuhan has sister-city relationships with 13 other countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
In February, the Dutch parliament declared that systematic persecution and mass detention of Uyghurs amounted to genocide.
The UK parliament, as well as democratic legislatures in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Canada, and Lithuania, have also determined that China’s policies in the XUAR amount to genocide, citing internment camps that have housed approximately 1.8 million people, some of whom have been tortured or subjected to other forms of abuse.
The US government determined in January that serious human rights violations against Uyghurs in the region were part of a genocide campaign, and a German parliamentary committee declared the violations to be crimes against humanity in June.
China has reacted angrily to international scrutiny and criticism of Xinjiang, claiming that its policies are aimed at combating extremism and maintaining regional stability.