In the wake of a global pandemic, it is easy for human rights abuses happening on the other side of the world to slip our minds. But for those affected, the abuse, the torture, the detention and killings, have not subsided. For one of the most persecuted groups, the Uighur Muslims, arbitrary detention and cultural erasure continues with the Xinjiang region’s campaign of genocide.
Since 2017, the Xinjiang region has seen the expansion or creation of 380 separate detention facilities, and most estimates suggest that at least 10% of all Uighur and other muslim populations in Xinjiang have been arbitrarily detained here. Experts who have been studying satellite images of the region in an exploration of human rights abuses believe the total number of detention centres may be much higher. In December 2019 the governor in Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, claimed that all “students” from the camps had “completed their studies” and “returned to society”. In January 2020 a newly built 60-acre detention camp opened near the city of Kashgar. The camp is entirely surrounded by a 14-metre-high wall accompanied by 10-metre watchtowers. It is estimated that this camp could detain 10,000 people. So, I ask you, does it sound like the detention of innocent “students” has ended? Or does it sound like the Xinjiang governor is continuing to tell lies? Contrary to Zakir’s statement, satellite evidence and victim testimony suggest a very different picture, one in which tens of thousands of detainees are being forcibly relocated to higher security centres.
This mass incarceration of Chinese citizens based solely on ethnicity and religion has created an atmosphere of terror and silence Xinjiang. The prospect of detention has created a culture in which it is impossible for the ethnic minority to dissent in any way, to resist any request made by someone seen as loyal to the party, or to give any reasonable consent.
Alongside the culture of fear, the arbitrary detention and forced disappearances are reports of forced sterilization and birth control. An investigation by the AP News Agency combined government statistics, state documents and interviews to find that women were regularly subjected to pregnancy checks, forced intrauterine devices, sterilization and abortion. In the Xinjiang region birth rates plummeted by nearly 24% in the last year alone, compared to the 4.2% national average. This undoubtedly meets the definition of genocide as outlined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; article II sections (d) states that “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” constitutes genocide when committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part an ethnic or religious group, such as the Uighur and other ethnic Muslims.
Furthermore, the Chinese government has embarked on a deliberate and strategic mission to erase and rewrite the cultural heritage of the ethnic minorities of Xinjiang. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that around 16000 mosques in the Xinjiang region have been destroyed or damaged in line with government policy. A further 30% of sacred Islamic sites in the region have been demolished, with another 28% damaged or altered since 2017. This intentional attempt at cultural erasure adds to the hostile environment Uighur and other ethnic Muslims are faced with in Xinjiang today.
In the last two months the international community has finally increased calls on the UN and the ICC to probe and prosecute the situation in Xinjiang as a genocide. A task complicated by international diplomacy and structural inefficiencies, declaring the Chinese government’s actions as genocide would legally demand international action as per the Genocide Convention. However, the relative media silence over this ongoing atrocity is unacceptable. We must continue to expose the atrocities in China and pressure multinational organisations to take action. We must not forget the Uighurs.