For decades, the Uyghur people in the Chinese region of Xinjiang have been oppressed by their own state. This oppression has intensified since 2014, and more recent activities threaten the whole culture. Muslim-majority countries turn a blind eye, and the world has been primarily focused on their own issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in the Uyghur population “suffering in silence.”
Who are the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?
Uyghurs are members of a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, mainly Muslims, with historic and cultural ties to Central Asian countries. An estimated 12 million Uyghurs are native to the Xinjiang region in Northwest China, which has its own language and culture. Xinjiang is larger than France, Germany, and Spain combined, and along with Tibet, is two of the five supposedly “autonomous” regions in China. In reality, however, the Communist Party exercises absolute authority over Xinjiang.
As it did in Tibet, after gaining control of the Xinjiang territory in 1949, the Chinese government migrated and settled thousands of Han Chinese (the dominant ethnic group of mainland China) into the region. This was done in order to counterbalance the native populations and to crush any notions of separatism and independence.
Oppression & Injustice
Since 2014, the Chinese government has imposed a “Strike Hard Campaign” in Xinjiang to “eradicate ideological viruses of Islamic extremism” from the Turkic Muslim population. Since then, rights activists, journalists and academics have been attempting to highlight the suffering of Xinjiang’s Muslims, who are being “forced to shed their ethnic, religious and cultural identity.” Xinjiang is a key route in China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative, bordering countries such as Kazakhstan, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. Therefore, analysts believe China has been attempting to dispel any notions of separatism to avoid future freedom movements such as the one currently raging in Hong Kong.
According to the Human Rights Watch, the Chinese government considers a wide variety of inoffensive religious behaviour to be “extremist,” including giving babies traditional Muslim names such as Ayesha or Ali, fasting during Ramadan, wearing a veil, and growing a beard. The region is monitored by one of the most advanced and intrusive surveillance systems in the world, with China performing regular checks. In some cases, the government has even installed surveillance cameras in private residences.
Reports have emerged regarding the methods used to bring down numbers of the predominately Muslim population of Xinjiang. Along with the government-sponsored mass migration of Han Chinese settlements throughout the region, China scholar Adrian Zenz reports that the government is “forcing women to be sterilized or fitted with contraceptive devices in order to not reproduce.” The forced sterilizations have allegedly increased since the COVID-19 outbreak.
Additionally, a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) investigation found that the Chinese government has been separating children from their families, placing them in “special” boarding schools to be raised without knowledge of their culture or Islam. At least 500,000 children have been so institutionalized. Their families may only visit twice a week, and, once at the school, are forbidden from speaking the Uyghur language. If families show any form of resistance, they are taken to join the “political re-education” detention camps placed throughout the region.
The “Re-education” Camps
The re-education camps in Xinjiang, officially called Vocational Education and Training Centers by the Communist Party of China were established under General Secretary Xi Jinping’s administration. The government denied the camps’ existence until recently when they confirmed the camps existed and justified them as a response to “a threat of extremism and terrorism.” Almost none of the detainees or inmates have a trial. Most are sent straight to the camps without being given a reason for their detainment. With the lack of access to and news coverage of the camps, the official number of detainees is unknown; however, the United Nations estimates the current number of Muslim detainees in excess of 1.5 million.
Numerous eyewitness accounts from people who have escaped the camp have emerged, highlighting the inhumane conditions they are kept in.
According to Time, Bakitali Nur was arrested because authorities were suspicious of his frequent trips abroad. Without trial, he was sent to a re-education camp in Khorgos, Xinjiang, where he stayed in a cell with 7 other men for a year. Nur and other escaped detainees detail how they face endless brainwashing and humiliation, and “are forced to study communist propaganda for hours every day and chant slogans giving thanks and wishing for a long life to Xi Jinping.” Before escaping to Kazakhstan and after being released, Bakitali said he was forced to make daily self-criticisms, work for negligible payment in government factories, and continuously send reports of any plans. “The entire system,” Nur said, “is designed to suppress us.”
There are many other eyewitness reports from people who were once in these camps, as well as relatives who haven’t seen their detained loved ones in years. Ghalipjan, a 35-year-old Uyghur man, died in a camp, with the official report claiming his death was due to a heart attack. However, multiple reports from released members of his cell state that he was brutally beaten to death. By the end of 2018, a former police chief at Kuqa, Himit Qari, said that at least 150 people in his county alone had died to unspecified causes and under mysterious circumstances in the re-education camp. Ghalipjan’s family was not allowed to carry out Islamic funeral rites.
A common theme in the eyewitness reports is brainwashing to “forget where one originally came from.” The camps expect constant adherence to and praise towards the norms established by mainland China’s Communist government. Failing this, punishments include being handcuffed for hours, strapped to chairs, beaten and tortured, waterboarded, and forced to only consume pork and alcohol. (Both are forbidden in Islam.) These tortures are accompanied by long lectures by officials who warn them not to embrace Islam, support Uyghur independence, or defy orders from the Communist Party. Female prisoners have alleged widespread sexual abuse, including rape, forced abortions, forced use of contraceptive devices, and compulsory sterilization.
The reeducation camps, Adrian Zenz reports, also function as forced labour camps. Detainees are forced to work for free producing various products used for exports, especially those made from cotton grown in Xinjiang. It has also been reported Han officials reside in the homes of Uyghurs who are in the camps. Rushan Abbas of the Campaign for Uyghurs claims the “actions of the Chinese government amount to genocide,” according to United Nations definitions laid out in the Genocide Convention.
Islamic Countries Turn a Blind Eye
The situation in Xinjiang differs from the predicaments of Palestinians, Kashmiris, and Rohingyas because of how Muslim-majority countries have reacted to it. The leaders of the Islamic nations have largely ignored the cries of their brethren in Xinjiang, which has to do with economic and political reasons. In essence, China has quickly made herself a key trade and diplomatic partner to nearly all the powerful Islamic nations.
Many of the nations which uphold themselves as “guardians of the faith” are participating in China’s Belt and Road initiative, benefiting from Chinese infrastructure investment. These countries see China as an ally over the “infidels in the West.” According to Bloomberg, China is Malaysia’s top source of foreign investment, accounts for one-tenth of Saudi Arabia’s oil exports (with future infrastructure deals worth billions), and buys roughly a third of Iran’s oil exports. The usually vocal administration in Iran has been largely silent on the mass detention in Xinjiang since Donald Trump assumed the U.S. Presidency, seeking Chinese support against the Trump administration.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor infrastructure investment, worth over $60 billion, has brought hope to Pakistan’s dream of transforming its coastline in the fashion of Dubai. Decades of Chinese investment, coupled with a mutual distaste of both India and the U.S.A, have silenced government Pakistan on the Uyghur struggle.
Turkey would have seemed like a natural ally in the fight for Uyghur rights. The Turks and Uyghurs share historical and cultural ties, as well as a similar language. The country has become a harbour for over 50,000 Uyghurs who fled their homes in Xinjiang, gaining tremendous sympathy from the Turkish public. President Erdogan’s administration, however, has chosen to remain silent. According to The Diplomat, Erdogan’s compliance with and support of China’s policies comes at a time when Western capital is fleeing Turkish markets. Turkey’s economy is suffering a chronic current account deficit, and Erdogan’s own questionable policies have largely decreased Western investment, severely straining the country’s currency. Erdogan hoped his administration’s silence would lead to massive capital investment by China. This came to fruition in June 2019, when the People’s Bank of China transferred $1 billion in funds to help the Turkish economy, with future deals in place.
The other Muslim-majority countries in Asia and Africa benefit from billions of dollars of investment through China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, and cooperation in political matters. The leaders of even the most powerful Muslim countries have decided it is more important to side with China’s economic might than to stand for human rights. These countries do not want to risk their relations with China, or its veto power in the United Nations Security Council, by critiquing Chinese policies, even if said “policy” amounts to genocide.
All of these powers have turned a blind eye to the Uyghurs’ suffering.
International Condemnation – Support for China
In July 2019, the United Nations and 22 members of the U.N. Human Rights Council urged China to stop its mass detention of Uyghur and other Muslims. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also expressed grave concern, saying, “[o]ne of the great crimes of the 21st century is being committed in front of our eyes.”
The ambassadors from those 22 countries, which included the U.K., France, Germany, Australia and Japan, sent a letter to the U.N.: “We call on China to uphold its national laws and international obligations and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief in Xinjiang and across China.” The United States went so far as to impose sanctions on China for human rights violations after satellite imagery revealed evidence of the mass encampments and official documents were leaked detailing the immense abuse taking place against Muslims across Xinjiang.
In response to this criticism, 30 countries signed a letter in defence of China’s policies, choosing to praise China’s “contribution to the international human rights cause.” The signatories, including Cambodia, Egypt, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and the United Arab Emirates, also blocked a motion that would allow independent international observers into the Xinjiang region. It is no coincidence that most of the signatories opposing U.N. observers from entering Xinjiang have at one point or another also been accused of similar human rights violations. Their defence of China’s inhumanity is an attempt to keep the U.N. observers at bay from their own atrocities.
Every country dealing with China needs to consider the human rights concern surrounding the Xinjiang region. China has seemingly bought off the viable “Muslim opposers” and has built a coalition of human rights violators to defend its record in Xinjiang. With several nations already vulnerable prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries will only have more incentive to overlook the atrocities committed against the Uyghur.
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