According to recent reports out of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China, Muslim minority detainees in political “re-education” centres have been forced to eat pork, a practice which is expressly forbidden to adherents of Islam. One former inmate at a detention centre, Omir Bekali, said that those in the centres were forced to eat pork, as well as forbidden from Friday prayers and from growing beards. These and other cultural and religious practices have been denounced by the Chinese government as signs of fundamentalist ideology. Mr. Bekali, the son of Uyghur and Kazakh parents, said that he contemplated suicide after twenty days of internment in a centre. Even after release from arbitrary detention, he said that “I still think about it every night, until the sun rises. I can’t sleep. The thoughts are with me all the time.”
The abuses against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province are not just infringements of cultural rights and religious freedoms, but also take a huge psychological toll on those who are eventually released. Gulzire Awulqanqizi, an ethnic Kazakh Muslim, recounted to Radio Free Asia how she was first given pork in a meal without her knowledge, and then forced to eat the meat to create “unity among nationalities”. Pork is a staple of mainstream Han Chinese diet, and coercing Muslims to consume the meat is one particularly malicious policy in the wider crackdown on Muslims in China.
It is not just the Uyghur ethnic minority group, the Turkic heritage Muslims is the largest minority in the region, that suffers under the Strike Hard Campaign Against Extremism. Ethnic Kazakhs, also an officially recognized Muslim minority in China, have also been detained in the camps and face repression and abuse under the Chinese police state in Xinjiang. The historic Silk Road border between China and Central Asia is a particularly fluid area, with people and goods flowing in all directions. A Kazakh national, Zharqynbek Otan, was detained on a trip to China and faced two years in different centres. After release, he suffers lapses in memory and forgets the identities of his wife and even himself, it was reported on the Independent. Such is danger of lasting trauma even for nationals of neighbouring countries.
The recent stories of detention, indoctrination, and harsh cultural policies are part of the broader government initiative to crack down on religious violence and fundamentalism. The Strike Hard Campaign launched after serious rioting in the regional capital of Urumqi in July 2009. The authorities perceive this as a pan-Islamic threat instigated in part by foreign actors who are attempting to stoke ethnic tensions within Chinese borders. In a white paper published earlier this year, the State Council Information Office for the PRC claimed to have arrested 13,000 terrorists in the campaign against violent extremism.
Rooting out extremist ideology is the official reason for what amounts to cultural genocide. For some time now the plight of minorities, especially Muslims, in Xinjiang has been worsening, and the question of human rights in the region has become a proxy issue in the wider dispute between the U.S. and China. As Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities are released from the detention centres, the international media is coming to see the full extent of government-led persecution. In a recent report, CNN filmed outside some of the centres, which look more like prisons than “boarding schools”. Family members loiter outside the mesh fences, hoping to have some contact with their loved ones on the inside. Needless to say, the CNN team received an icy reception from local law enforcement.
Forcing Muslims to eat pork may be the most absurd abuses to come out of Xinjiang, but it is one among many serious violations in a policy of arbitrary cultural repression. The fact that this takes place within the borders of a world economic and military superpower is no reason not to call this what it is: a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions, and it should be treated as such. The Swedish government announced earlier this year that the country would accept Uyghur refugees, and other nations would do well to follow suit and stand in solidarity with the minority inhabitants of Xinjiang. This is suffering on a scale such that we cannot ignore and has the seeds of ethnic violence and conflict if the international community stands by and does nothing.
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