Following the end of World War II, there was a distinct phrase that rang across the world and that was “never again”. The brutalities and horror experienced by Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis was so profound that the entire globe agreed to ensure no other group of people would endure persecution and genocide. Despite these words, however, “Never Again” is happening again.
Since April 2017, the Chinese government has been detaining more than a million Muslims in what they call “re-education” camps. A very big portion of the detained group is Uyghurs, a primarily Turkic-speaking ethnic group mainly from the northwestern region of China called Xinjiang. According to experts and government officials, the mass detention has involved hundreds of thousands to two million Uyghur and other ethnic Muslim groups that include Kazakhs and Uzbeks. It was discovered through the help of satellite imaging that China had built almost 400 of these so-called “re-education” camps with dozens more still in the process of construction, even as China claimed to be ending the system.
The presence of these camps was initially denied by the Chinese authorities, but later identified them as vocational training and re-education initiatives aimed at reducing poverty and counter-terrorism threats, following numerous leaked documents. According to satellite imagine obtained by the Australian Strategic Policy institute, 380 of these detention centers ranged from low-security re-education camps to reinforced prisons. Despite this, Chinese officials continue to argue that the camps fulfill two purposes: to teach Mandarin, Chinese law, and work skills while actively working to prevent influences from extremist ideas, thereby stopping terrorist activities. They have substantiated these claims, with the claim that Xinjiang has not experienced a terrorist attack since December 2016, a statistic they heavily attribute to the camps for preventing violence. Despite the numerous claims by officials to assuage the calls for these camps to be closed, they refuse to allow journalists, human rights groups, or diplomats independent access to the camps and visitors to the regions where camps are located face heavy surveillance. In early 2019, however, authorities organized several trips for foreign diplomats and allowed a tour of these centers. This is criticized by a U.S. official as being “highly choreographed.”
Cultural genocide can be defined as the deliberate destruction of a racial, religious, ethnic or national group and their cultural heritage. This is a loose term that can be used to describe the horrors that occur within the camps. This is corroborated by survivors’ accounts who have fled China, and the descriptions presented in leaked Chinese government documents and satellite images. The Uighur language is also now threatened as China faces accusations that individuals in the camps are forced to learn Mandarin and use of the language is heavily banned. These pieces of evidence paint a bleak picture of the scenes behind the camps, as individuals allege that they are forced to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and denounce Islam, as well as sing praises for communism and learn Mandarin. There have also been allegations of prison-like conditions even outside the camps, as the Xijiang region is subjected to a state of constant surveillance monitoring their every move and word. This foul treatment does not stop at cultural damage, but there are many physical horrors and descriptions of torture alleged to occur within the camps. Female prisoners have shared stories of sexual abuse, with numerous accounting that they were forced to undergo abortions or have contraceptive devices implanted against their will. There have also been claims of forced sterilization and forms of birth control in an attempt to stifle the population of Uighurs. Many have depicted harsh, detailed, and brutal experiences of torture and interrogations that utilize sleep deprivation and numerous other forms of torture tactics. It is important to note that sleep deprivation and many of the other forms of torture mentioned have been defined and declared as illegal by numerous countries all over the world and also the ICC, the international criminal court which tries individuals and countries on crimes of war.
The global response to this crisis has been swift but also slow with numerous people stating mere words but not substantiating this with their actions and swift punishments in the form of sanctions or tariffs against China. 22 countries composed of mainly European based states comprised a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council in which they admonished the actions of the Chinese government as “disturbing reports of large-scale arbitrary detentions of Uighurs.” This was however followed up with a defence from 37 countries only a mere four days later who praised China for protecting their country from “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism” applauding them for their achievements in human rights. This list of signatories notably included the Muslim-majority countries of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar. At the moment, the only Muslim-majority country to voice concern to the actions occurring in China is Turkey in a statement made during a UN Human Rights Council Session, calling on China to ensure the rights and protections of all Muslims, and Uighurs specifically, were upheld.
Other western countries have condemned the Chinese government, including the United States. Along with more than 30 other countries, the U.S. called the camps a “horrific campaign of repression,” in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly. This was swiftly followed by visa restrictions on officials believed to be involved in the imprisonment and confinement of the Xinjiang Muslims. A blacklist of more than two dozen Chinese companies and agencies who have been linked to these camps was ordered, blocking them from purchasing U.S. products. In June 2020, legislation was signed by President Donald J. Trump, with over overpowering support from Congress, which ordered a sanction on individuals who are involved in this oppression, a sanction that included Chen Quanguo, the secretary of the Communist party in the Xinjiang region, making him the highest-ranking Chinese official ever sanctioned by the United States. This legislation also affects U.S. businesses and individuals, requiring them to ensure that their products and operations in the Xinjiang region are not contributing to human rights violations, and this explicitly includes the use of forced labour.
Activists and Human Rights Watch groups have also called on the United States and other countries to grant asylum to Uighurs that have fled Xinjiang, and have advocated for greater actions to be taken by countries in order to stop the horrendous acts of the Chinese government.
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