Do not forget the Uighur

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.

Detention

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.

Silence

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. 

Birth prevention

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.

Cultural Erasure

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.

The Questionable Truth of Xinjiang

Throughout my undergraduate degree I spent a long time studying different aspects of China, including the ever changing human rights environment, from the Tiananmen Square massacre to the situation in Taiwan. One of the developments that captivated my interest the most came to my attention while I was writing my dissertation, and which has continued to go under-reported and due to strict Chinese policies under-investigated, is the detention of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province. The release of a video claiming to show up to 600 prisoners shackled and blindfolded on Tuesday, has prompted me to focus this post on the brief history of the Uighurs in China, the truth behind the “re-education centres”, and to outline why we should be so concerned by this.

A history of the Uighur in China. Xinjiang has long been a Muslim majority region and a history of rebellion and resistance to the Chinese rule has resulted in fraught and distant relations between the Uighur Muslim majority and Beijing, with the Party viewing the Uighur population as an ethno-nationalist threat to the Chinese state. During the infamous “cultural revolution” of 1966-1967, Mao Zedong’s government stepped up the systematic repression of the Muslim minority, closing mosques, burning religious texts and sentencing thousands of Uighur Muslims to labour camps. In 1998, 260 Uighur government officials that were seen to be sympathetic to the Uighur independence struggle were fired, and the construction of 133 mosques was halted. A number of indirect consequences to this tension were also identified, for example by 2000, the unemployment rate of Uighurs in Xinjiang was thought to be 70% whilst Han Chinese unemployment in the region was closer to 1%. 

An outbreak of violence in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi in 2009, killed at least 200 and led to the arrest of a number of Uighur people, attracting attention from Turkey, who denounced the action of the Chinese state and likened their actions to that of “genocide”. Since then, the situation has only escalated, and the so called “re-education” centres are the latest development to come out of the Xinjiang area. Estimates suggest that up to one million people have been detained in the re-education camps, where they are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, and sing the praises of the Chinese Communist Party. Whilst in the camps they are not allowed access to lawyers or family. China’s official line on the matter is that they are voluntary camps that have been set up to combat extremism, and in recent months, they have invited a small number of journalists in to see for themselves. 

“Paradise Camp”. One such journalist was the BBC’s John Sudworth, who spoke to residents inside one of the camps, a number of whom were “visibly nervous”. All of the people that he interviewed were members of the Uighur ethnic group, and all of them spoke of how they had been “infected by extremism” and that they had volunteered to enter the camps to undergo a transformation. This narrative is supported by a series of letters that were published online, written by those inside the camp and addressed to family members. In one letter from Mehmut Memet to his wife, he talks of the “great and generous Party” and their “loving kindness” in opening the centres, he admits to the illegality of his actions and further talks of the Party’s “correct guidance” and “wise leaders”. To an outsider searching for the truth behind the detention centres, the excessive positivity within the letters is somewhat unsettling, and whilst there is no way for me to find out whether the content of the letters is true, or what these individuals have been through in order to form such opinions, I find them difficult to believe.

The change in policy to allow media representatives into the camps, and the overtly pro-Party letters remind me of organised media trips to the Theresienstadt camp or “paradise camp” in Nazi Germany. Theresienstadt was described as a “Utopian experiment” to produce a self-sustaining community; where fruit and vegetables grew in abundance, where craftsmen flourished, and facilities such as a bank, post-office and hospitals were available for use by all residents. During the media visit, American-style Jazz music was playing in crowded coffee shops and flowers filled the camp with colour. However this idyllic scene was far from the normal; the camp was initially built for 7,000 people yet at times there were more than 50,000 inmates, and in reality Theresienstadt was a transit camp for prisoners that would later be transferred to death camps.

The parallels between Xinjiang’s re-education camps and Theresienstadt should be a great cause for concern, with staged media visits masquerading the sinister truth behind the camps. It is my strong belief that the international community, the UN, humanitarian groups and individual governments should be taking greater action to uncover the truth and protect the Uighur population, recognising the severity of the situation and their responsibility to protect human rights where the host country is unwilling to do so.

The Fight for Hong Kong

The potential for an easy, cooperative relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China was restricted from the moment that colonial Britain stepped foot in the region around the time of the First Opium War (1839). After more than one and a half centuries of British rule, Hong Kong was returned to mainland China in 1997, under the concept of “one country, two systems”. This ensured that Hong Kong would be governed under their own constitution – basic law – and their own judicial system. This further allowed the people of Hong Kong to enjoy a broader range of human rights than those living in mainland China, such as the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech – two rights that have been put under the microscope this summer, as unrest grew around a controversial bill. 

In February of this year, Hong Kong’s Security Bureau proposed changes to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matter Ordinance – essentially expanding the scope of extradition permissions, crucially including extradition to mainland China. This was met with resistance from Hong Kong citizens, as thousands took to the streets in protest throughout March and April. Fears arose around the safety of anyone extradited to mainland China, with concerns about the mistreatment of those accused of crime in China, including the use of torture. Amendments to the proposed bill in April and a statement from Lam detailing her government’s determination to push the bill through the legislature only heightened tensions. Small progress was made in late May, when minor concessions were proposed for the bill, which was temporarily suspended soon after, however, this was not enough for the protestors and they continued to march in hopes that the bill would be scrapped altogether. 

On June 6th the protests reached new heights, with more than half a million taking to the streets. This was met with controversial action from the police; rubber bullets were fired into the crowds in an attempt to maintain control, along with the use of tear gas. Instead of deterring protestors, the actions of the police only highlighted the issue of police brutality – something that has since become a key theme of the protests.

Another of the demands that has arisen from the movement is for Lam to step down, this is largely due to the belief that she is not acting on behalf of Hong Kong but that she is being controlled by Beijing. One of the reasons this is such an important issue to the people of Hong Kong is because of the distance that they feel between their own identities and mainland China; whilst technically Chinese citizens, very few of those living in Hong Kong identify as Chinese. Despite this, China has continued to involve itself in resisting the protests, and has even threatened military action in order to stop the movement. In recent weeks, videos surfaced of military personnel stationed in Shenzhen, a city only four miles outside of Hong Kong. Protestors have warned Beijing that should the military be deployed, they will do everything in their power to collapse the economy, severely impacting the mainland.

When I first started following this story I did not see how it could possibly develop in a peaceful way. Certain events from China’s past signalled serious cause for concern. Primarily the comparison that Beijing has made between the behaviour of the protestors and terrorism; this was alarming as the terrorism rhetoric has been central to China’s attempted justificaiton for the mis-treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province. 

Furthermore, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between these protests and those that preceded the Tiananmen Square massacre; the pro-democracy focus, the high concentration of students within the demography of the protestors, and the hardline taken by the police. Whilst I hoped that China had learned their lesson from the tragedy that unfolded in Tiananmen Square, I was not optimistic that this memory would be enough to deter such a reaction thirty years later. 

Just yesterday (September 4th) Lam announced the formal withdrawal of the temporarily suspended, catalytic extradition bill and amendments. Whilst this was one of the main demands of the protestors, and is undoubtedly a positive development for the people of Hong Kong, it looks unlikely that this move alone will be sufficient to defuse the protests. Even though it was the bill that sparked the movement, the longer the fire has been burning the more the focus of the protests have expanded. There is now a list of five demands that the protestors are calling for, including an independent inquiry into police brutality, an amnesty awarded to all those who have been arrested during the movement – an estimated 850 protestors – and a move towards a full democracy. 

It is still unclear how the situation in Hong Kong will develop in the days and weeks to come, but one thing is for sure, the people of Hong Kong are hungry for pro-democratic change and the whole world will be watching as it unfolds.