An international rebuke of China's mass detention of an ethnic minority group has been called slander by the world's second-largest economy. But experts say New Zealand is unlikely to face serious backlash for joining the complaint.

New Zealand was one of 22 countries that last week signed a letter to the president of the United Nations Human Rights Council criticising Beijing for its treatment of ethnic Uighurs in the Xinjiang region.

Rights groups say a million Uighurs and other Muslims are being held in camps in the remote western region, with reports of detainees being forced to renounce their faith and undergoing psychological torture.

The letter also raises concerns about mass surveillance in Xinjiang and, although it was not put up as a resolution, is the first such move in the council.


China's Foreign Ministry has described the statement as slander and said it had made "stern representations" to those involved. Its Government says it's fighting extremism in the region.

Beijing has also submitted its own counter-letter, signed by 37 states including Russia and Saudi Arabia, supporting its policies.

University of Canterbury China expert Professor Anne-Marie Brady said despite the diplomatic bluster, no serious consequences would follow for New Zealand.

"There will be only positive consequences for New Zealand speaking up on this serious issue with like-minded states," she said.

University of Canterbury China expert Anne-Marie Brady says the timing is right for countries like New Zealand to raise human rights concerns with China.
University of Canterbury China expert Anne-Marie Brady says the timing is right for countries like New Zealand to raise human rights concerns with China.

"You couldn't pick a better time for small and medium states to disagree with China. Beijing is head-to-head with the United States and does not want to lose the support of 'old friends' like New Zealand."

The situation for religion believers in China was the worst it had been since the Cultural Revolution, Brady said.

"New Zealand promotes a values-based foreign policy, and among the values we promote is respect for human rights. In times like this, we need to join with like-minded states and stand up and be counted."

Other signatories included Australia, Japan, Canada and European nations.


University of Victoria strategic studies Professor Robert Ayson said while the letter was the most overt statement New Zealand had made on the situation in Xinjiang, there would have been a sense of "safety in numbers".

"If New Zealand or any other country had done this unilaterally, then they might have been much more exposed to China's pressure," he said.

"I think there might be a hope that because of the importance of the group of countries, China doesn't want to destroy its relationships with as many European countries as are signatories, that offers a bit of protection to New Zealand."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised the concerns during her recent trip to Beijing. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised the concerns during her recent trip to Beijing. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The move was not totally risk-free, he said.

"But even if there was to be a cost beyond China's public anger, I think that cost would be worth taking simply because of the seriousness of the issue," he said.

Amnesty International New Zealand's Annaliese Johnston said there were Uighur families across New Zealand who had lost contact with detained relatives.


"They're terrified of speaking out because a lot of them don't know where their families are," she said.

"It's extremely common ... Entire families have been torn apart."

Reuters reports the UN letter was not put up for a vote as a resolution because of fears of backlash from China.

Johnston said while Amnesty had been calling for a formal resolution for some time, the statement was a positive first step.

"There has been a lot of nervousness about speaking out on China and we hope there will [now] be more of the same from New Zealand," she said.

Asked about why New Zealand had signed the letter, Foreign Minister Winston Peters last week said: "Because we believe in human rights, we believe in freedom and we believe in the liberty of personal beliefs and the right to hold them."


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised the issue when she met Chinese President Xi Jinping this year, but would not detail exactly what was said.

That came amid growing pressure for her to discuss the plight of the Uighur Muslims in the wake of the March attack on two Christchurch mosques.

It also followed a period in which it was speculated China had given New Zealand the diplomatic cold shoulder after a GCSB decision to block technology from tech giant Huawei being used in internet company Spark's nationwide rollout of 5G internet.

Ayson said the letter was a "little bit bolder" than previous New Zealand representations on the issue, but noted it had be delivered in a low-key way.

In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had nothing to add to the contents of the letter.

"Ministry officials raise human rights concerns directly and in private with China and will continue to do so," a spokeswoman said.


"Our relationship is mature enough that we can manage differences constructively and in a mutually respectful manner."

Calls to the China's Embassy in Wellington were not answered on Monday.