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37 states, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea, sent a letter to the United Nations last Friday in support of China’s policies in Xinjiang. The letter praised China for its “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights,” despite strong criticism from the West and the reported detainment, persecution, and torture of more than a million Muslims and ethnic Uyghurs in the region since 2014. “We appreciate China’s commitment to openness and transparency,” it read. (China has been accused of falsifying reports, restricting journalists from government-operated facilities in Xinjiang, and preventing witnesses from speaking with the media.) “We call on relevant countries to refrain from employing unfounded charges against China based on unconfirmed information before they visit Xinjiang.”
Uyghur Muslims in the region, officially referred to as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), are prohibited from observing Islam. They are stopped at random at police checkpoints or on the street, and must submit to demands for ID or to plugging scanners into their phones without explanation. If they’re lucky, they’ll get to leave afterwards. “Everyone knows someone who’s been detained or at least harassed,” CNN reports.
Sayragul Sauytbay, a former detention camp employee, says she was made to sinicize inmates. “They once said, ‘We will turn the best of them into Hans [the dominant Chinese ethnic group], while repressing and destroying the bad,” she told CNN. “They told me to tell them, ‘The Communist Party has led you to this day. The fact that you are living is thanks to the Communist Party. You have made a mistake by failing to know the Chinese language. The lack of your knowledge of the Chinese language is a treachery of the state.’” Those who don’t make enough “progress” in their education are deprived of food and sleep, or receive forced injections and drugs. Waste elimination is done into overflowing buckets, and women are subject to sexual violence.
China has not acknowledged the reports of what goes on in its detention centres. The country prefers to call them “re-education camps”, and claims their presence is necessary to deter terrorist activities. According to CNN, Han Chinese residents of the XUAR buy into the narrative. “Life has gotten so much safer in the past few years,” said one taxi driver. “Even if I leave my car on the street unlocked, I don’t worry about it getting stolen.”
It’s a depressingly familiar tale, one that calls to mind 50,000 Mexican immigrants detained without explanation in ICE cells and 350 American “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” boarding schools. In all cases, the cause can be traced to rampant, xenophobic nationalism and a profound lack of empathy.
In our modern global community, it should be easier than ever to stop these fits of violence. But as advocates have discovered over and over again, the politics of self-interest often come between governments and doing the right thing. China’s huge buying and lending power makes other countries, even those who say they believe in Muslim solidarity, wary of crossing the economic giant – more than half of the signatory countries in support of China’s Xinjiang policy were majority Muslim. H.A. Hellyer, senior associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute in London and the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., says state sovereignty is another factor. “Authoritarian leaders in general … have an interest in upholding this idea that states ought to do what they want within their own borders,” he told CNN. “They are providing cover for this persecution.”
Criminalization and dehumanization are dangerous weapons in the hands of the powerful, and what works against one population will soon be turned against them all. We must fight against this enforced distrust with empathy and determination – as the Qur’an writes, “Do not let your dislike of a people lead you to be unjust.”