Uighurs in China: the genocide in the shadows

“I am Chinese. I am proud. I pledge allegiance to the Communist party.”

Their dormitories are barred with iron. They glimpse the sky from a tiny window that is placed too high. They are injected with medication; some have been sterilized. They are tortured and beaten. They have chains wrapped around their ankles. They have an inadequate supply of food and water. Their cells are overcrowded, so they must sleep on the floor. They are dehumanized and detained for the most benign actions: a woman who travelled to her home country, a man who worked as an English translator, a woman who wore a scarf, someone who had a photo of a girl praying on their phone, a student who messaged her friends on WhatsApp, a pop star who championed human rights. They are convicted based on the possibility that they may commit a crime against the government. There is no justice system to save them. They are made to pledge their loyalty and remain under the gaze of the flag indefinitely. They are being re-educated. 

Genocide is the intent to destroy a specific group of people through the use of killings, sterilization or other means. This does not apply to political opponents according to international criminal law but to a specific identity (religion, ethnicity, etc.) of the group. We can all point to the obvious example of the Holocaust. We think that this type of ideology is in the past. That is 2020, and now we know better. 

And yet, another genocide is upon us today. One in ten Uighurs have been imprisoned without trial in the region of Xinjiang, alongside Kazakhs and other minorities. Over one million innocent people have been sent to these camps in total. In order to fully understand the scale of this genocide, it is important to understand its background, as well as the skewed perceptions surrounding it. 

Who exactly are the Uighurs, and why are they the victims of the Chinese Communist Party? The Uighurs, a Muslim minority who reside in the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, are one of the world’s oldest Turkic-speaking people, dating back to the third century CE. Historically, Uighurs resided in villages in East Turkestan, or modern Xinjiang, although many have recently relocated to factories across China as the country has become more industrialized. In the 1950s, Han Chinese began to move into Xinjiang. The ethnic tensions and economic disparities between the Uighurs and the wealthier Han led to protests by the Uighurs. In 2009, violence escalated into the Ürümqi riots mainly due to economic inequalities. Some Uighurs turned to more extreme methods, such as stabbings, arson and suicide bombings—some of these crimes were linked to major terrorist organizations. To quell violence, the Chinese government suppressed any sign of dissent with the use of force. 

After Xi Jinping’s ascent to the presidency in 2012, China announced its Belt and Road Initiative, a series of trade routes connecting Asia, Europe and Africa with major projects in Xinjiang. By 2017, the state police had established a surveillance state in Xinjiang. According to Jen Kirby of Vox, “Authorities divide each city into squares, with about 500 people. Every square has a police station that keeps tabs on the inhabitants.” Cameras wait at every turn, police stand at every corner, facial recognition cameras invade privacy, phones are regularly confiscated and searched and detention camps are constructed. There are now approximately 260 active camps, and that number is increasing.

These “re-education” centers are seen as methods to prevent terrorism in the eyes of the Chinese government. In essence, they are prisons for pre-criminals. According to Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy of the New York Times, “Putting them in steady, supervised government-approved work, officials say, will erase poverty and slow the spread of religious extremism and ethnic violence.” However, the detainees are not terrorists. They are mothers, fathers and honest citizens. According to the hundreds of testaments on UyghurAid, family members disappear without a trace, leaving their loved ones panicked and confused. Prisoners are not allowed to communicate with those outside of the walls. Chinese officials say that the camps allow Uighurs to learn vocational skills, such as sewing and carpentry. They also learn Mandarin and proper Chinese etiquette. Sun Yijie, a former soldier and current executive of one of these centers, spoke to the New York Times about the activities practiced there. “Beginning with military drills before they start their jobs, we foster a sense of discipline,” he said. “They practice military drills, learn patriotic Chinese songs, and listen to lectures warning against Islamic zeal and preaching gratitude to the Communist Party.” Despite its appearance as a “school,” watchtowers and walls surround the facility, and detainees are not allowed to leave for any reason. Journalists who wish to survey the area have been arrested, as in the case of these France 24 reporters, who were arrested seven times and interrogated for attempting to see the compound. The interrogators told the reporters that there was no camp in the area, although satellite imagery proved this to be false. 

If these camps are truly instituted for positive educational purposes to help Uighurs, why are authorities blatantly lying about their existence? Chinese government officials denied the camps’ existence until they no longer could, changing their narrative to one of education and reform. In Chinese newspapers such as Chinadaily, the treatment of Uighurs both in the compounds and in society is painted in a positive light, in which reform is constantly being achieved. According to this German teacher in China, “The Uygur students can enjoy preferential policies given by the government, such as extra college entrance examination points, special policies for college admissions, employment policy support, etc.” Yet it is also hard to ignore the testimonies of migrants who are studying in other countries for fear of persecution, who claim that fasting during Ramadan is banned, amongst other discriminatory laws.

Within Xinjiang, some towns have been completely emptied and now stand abandoned. Neighbors and family members disappear overnight without warning. One daughter worries for her mother, because she is diabetic and relies on insulin. It has been months, but she has received no word if she is alive.

Not only are people being forcibly taken within China, but officials have been deceiving Uighurs outside China’s borders. For example, one woman living in France needed her birth certificate to renew her permit. In order to receive it, Chinese officials told her she had to come to China and physically pick it up. After she left France, Chinese officials invalidated her passport, and she lost contact with her family. They later found that she was placed in a re-education facility. 

This ethnic cleansing deserves more attention than ever, with COVID-19 threatening the prisoners in overcrowded cells. Of course, reports on this will not be disclosed for a very long time, if ever. Even before the virus, it is estimated that hundreds have died within the camps, but no numbers have been released. On top of this threat, prisoners are being made to manufacture masks: a large majority of facial coverings are currently being manufactured in Xinjiang.

While major companies are paying more attention to forced labor in the region and have begun boycotting certain product lines, this is not enough to push the Chinese government to reconsider the economic benefits of forced labor. However, Disney’s new movie, Mulan, was filmed in Xinjiang and consequently sparked outrage, drawing more attention to the region. President Trump recently signed the Uighur Human Rights Act of 2020, which can imprison officials who violate human rights and sanction those responsible for inhumane treatment towards the Uighurs, a positive step towards worldwide recognition of their captivity. According to Kirby, “It is the largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority group since World War II.” The Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighurs clearly fits the definitions of ethnic cleansing (an attempt to get rid of members of an unwanted ethnic group) and genocide, but it has not caused international upheaval. Through violence; the suppression of native culture and the enforcement of another; the separation of families and involuntary renunciation of certain faith practices, as well as forced birth control and monthly injections to numb patients, genocide is being perpetrated in the region of Xinjiang as the international community stands by. We must think about those who cannot fend for themselves. It is time we pay attention and hear their cries for freedom.

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