The coronavirus pandemic has allowed the Chinese Communist Party’s concentration camps to escape scrutiny from the international community. Since 2016, the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) has been systematically oppressing Uyghur people through concentration camps, where they have been subject to human rights violations like torture, forced labour, and religious “re-education.” The Uyghur are one of many Turkic peoples, a Muslim ethnic minority native to Xinjiang, an autonomous region in China’s northwest. In addition to the human rights violations it commits against the Uyghurs in its camps, the C.C.P. has adopted measures like hyper-surveillance monitoring and propaganda to ensure the Uyghur people’s complete and utter suppression.
Chen Quanguo, the Party Secretary of Xinjiang, has been orchestrating these suppressive measures since 2016, after success with similar tactics in his previous role as Party Secretary of Tibet. Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American lawyer, has described the C.C.P’s actions as “cultural genocide,” founded on the “opportunist position” that it, like the United States, is a “victim of global terrorism.” (There have indeed been a number of uprisings, most notably the Kunming Station knife attack where three Uyghur people were officially accused of “leading and organizing a terror group” and sentenced to death.) However, people of all ethnicities have committed “terror” attacks. In any case, the threat of an attack does not give a government the right to commit systematic human rights violations.
The international community’s primary response so far has been the 41st session of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (O.H.C.H.R.), which expressed “concern” over China’s treatment of its people and reminds the C.C.P. of its “obligations” as a member of the O.H.C.H.R. This is an important first step in preventing further oppression.
However, China has a duty to uphold basic human rights for all her population. A more urgent and potent international response is needed, but this is unlikely to happen. The concentration camps are highly secretive about their whereabouts and purpose. Additionally, China is the world’s largest exporting economy. Many countries who might otherwise take further action are choosing not to, in order to avoid costly “trade wars.” Furthermore, many global brands, such as Apple and Nike, have Uyghur camp workers in their global supply chains. Modern consumer behaviour is unlikely to change on a scale that would force these brands to reassess their labour force. These factors will make responding to the concentration camps difficult.
Even if the international community decides to pressure China, it will be difficult. Diplomatic efforts with Hong Kong serve as a useful proxy: China has retaliated against the United Kingdom’s attempts at diplomacy by deciding to no longer recognize British passports as a valid form of identification for Hong Kong residents.
Nevertheless, the prevalence and brutality of these rights violations necessitate a strategy to remove the camps. Personal accounts report kidnapping, detainment without fair trial, brainwashing, withholding sustenance, and forced labour. These accounts diminish C.C.P. claims that the camps facilitate voluntary re-education programmes to combat religious extremism. However, Xinjiang is a strategically important region for President Xi Jinping’s ambitions Belt and Road initiative, aimed at connecting China with Europe and Africa. Furthermore, Xinjiang has served a test site for China’s latest policing developments, like facial recognition hyper-surveillance. It is fearsome to imagine how such policing tactics might be exported along the Belt and Road initiative.
The C.C.P. is endorsing unacceptable, systematic human rights violations against the Uyghur people, and it will be very difficult to persuade Xi to change his methods. After all, under his rule, China has arguably developed into the world’s most potent economic power. Sanctions, therefore, are not a realistic option. Instead we must keep faith in our international institutions’ ability to probe, at a time when tensions with China are high.