Since 2017, multiple reports have been issued describing the brutal treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, China. As of summer 2018, the United Nations reported that at least one million Uighurs have been detained, with approximately two million having been forced into ‘re-education camps.
Amnesty International described life in those camps as a ‘dystopian hellscape.’ Uighur Muslims have been subjected to physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse in those government-controlled institutions. International organizations and various human rights groups deem the vicious treatment of the minority group as genocide as well as a crime against humanity. Yet the Chinese government refuses to acknowledge their wrongdoings. Chinese officials rebut claims of that nature by justifying their regime as a necessary procedure in warding off extremism. However, several authentic sources prove that the regime is a deliberate strategy to oppress the Uighur Muslims and erase their culture.
For more context, the Uighurs are a minority group who resided mostly in Xinjiang, China, and represented approximately half the population of the region. The Uighurs argued that their religion, language, and cultural practices are different from the rest of China and the group struggled for years in claiming independence. In 1933, they declared themselves as an independent state known as East Turkestan, however, the nationalist Chinese army defeated them. Again in 1944, the Uighurs declared the formation of the East Turkestan Republic, and yet again the Chinese annexed the region. Since 1949, thousands of Uighur Muslims have escaped to neighboring countries to avoid political and religious oppression, which led to a significant decline in their population.
In 2017, leaders of the Xinjiang Communist Party asserted they intend on using their ‘powerful fist,’ promising that ‘all separatist activities and all terrorists shall be smashed to pieces.’ Additionally, President Xi Jinping demanded all regions of China to follow the policy of sinicization, a process that demands that all Chinese communities comply with the norms of Han Chinese society. The policy’s main purpose is to spread Chinese culture and allow the Chinese government to ensure the complete dominance of the communist party. All of this went directly against the views of the Uighurs who simply wish to express their identity. Tensions continued to rise after 9/11 when Beijing officially declared its own campaign to fight extremism and used it as an excuse to target Uighurs. Uighur activists and Muslim scholars were called ‘terrorists’ and put in jail or sentenced to death.
The Uighur Muslims placed in the concentration camps have been completely stripped of the freedom to practice their religion. Men are not allowed to grow their beards, and women are not permitted to wear hijabs. Despite pork being prohibited in Islam, the Uighurs are forced to eat it. Detainees have been banned from fasting during Ramadan, the holy month for those following Islam. A pervasive surveillance system prevents the prisoners from speaking to journalists who can report what life inside the concentration camps is truly like.
The Chinese government has consistently rejected and dismissed reports which tell the truth about the concentration camps. For example, to reduce the Uighur population, many women were forced into receiving sterilization surgery and IUDs. Between 2017 and 2019, the birth rate in Xinjiang dropped by 48.7%, yet the government claims that the drop in birth rate is due to wider access to family planning services and the region’s existing birth quota.
In a statement, the Chinese Foreign Minister said that ‘the so-called genocide in Xinjiang is pure nonsense.’ They have denied accusations of genocide and all other abuses by reaffirming that their regime is dedicated to nothing but tackling extremism. To prevent further talks regarding the subject, the government contends that the ‘programme’ against extremism follows ‘the principles and spirit of a series of international counter-terrorism resolutions, including the UN global counter-terrorism strategy.’ In fact, they believe they are doing good by providing minorities with the skills they need to become more ‘employable and contribute to the economy.’ They consider re-education and training a necessary step to address their issue of poverty. Political analyst Einar Tangen said that the government ‘cannot afford to have people with no future. It is not about terrorism. They really are anti-poverty.’
Given that there is no proper way to deliver aid to the Uighurs, the most people can do is to be well informed about the topic and raise awareness through various platforms. The power of social media is evident since it has fostered the growth of many social justice movements. Apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter should continue to circulate all the articles detailing the treatment of the Uighurs in those camps. Spreading resources such as petitions and calls to international committees to boycott China will raise more awareness. Individuals should also go out of their way to support advocacy groups run by Uighurs residing outside of China such as the Uighur Human Rights Project.