It is with tears in my eyes, shocked, that I discovered the crimes against humanity perpetuated by the Chinese government in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs, one of the largest ethnic groups present in the northwestern region, have undergone continuous and increasingly violent repression from the ruling Communist Party since the end of the Cold war. In one of the rare videos capturing the current horrific situation, you can see hundreds of lined Uyghurs men with their shaved heads down, black blindfolds on their eyes, handcuffed while wearing detention clothes. They then walk up to a train that will bring them to the internment camps.
It is an unknown number of Uyghurs (for obvious reasons), who are being imprisoned in “re-education camps” but, according to a Reuters report, it ranges from a million up to 3 million. Patrick Poon, a former researcher for Amnesty International, explains that the existence of these overpopulated camps in which Uyghurs face numerous acts of psychological and physical violence makes it difficult to manage the impact of Covid-19 in the region. As we know, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends maintaining physical distance due to the easy transmission of Covid-19 through close physical contact and in low hygiene environments. However, these internment camps are far from places where Uyghurs would be treated in accordance with the WHO guidelines.
Uyghurs are persecuted by the Chinese regime because of the language they speak, which is comparable to a mix of Uzbek and Turkish, as well as for their Muslim religion – both of which are important markers of their identity. It is their very existence that the regime aims to erase in these “re-education” camps. Within the high-security enclosure of the camps, internees are forced to study Mandarin Chinese and the regime ideology, hence depriving them of their own culture. But the camps are not only the scene of generalised brainwashing and indoctrination. According to survivors, internees also undergo torture and are almost completely alienated from their basic needs by being refused sufficient nutrition or basic health care.
In a recent interview conducted by the Irish Times, the Chinese ambassador He Xiangdong states that he “personally” does “not accept the word ‘camps’, because it will remind people of the camps at the time of Nazi Germany.” However, the removal of Uyghurs from society and the construction of internment camps that increased in size by around 400% between 2016 and 2018, demonstrates definite similarity with the Nazi and Soviet totalitarian regimes. Professor Jörg Friedrichs, from St. Cross College, Oxford notes the similarities with the Stalinist model in “systematically erasing the history, culture and identity” of Uyghurs.
In response, the Uyghurs have been conducting rebellious political actions since their forceful inclusion to the Chinese territory under Mao. From their fight for independence by the East Turkestan People’s Party to protests during 1995 in Yining or murderous riots such as in 2009 in Urumqi, Xinjiang has been the scene of growing resistance. This has led China to characterize Uyghurs as a “terrorist threat”, prioritised in the regime that launched the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in 2014. Moving away from trying to manage the region through economic development, the systematic repression of the Uyghurs is unprecedented. Such measures include the generalized use of advanced surveillance technology with face recognition that tracks individuals and the people they are in contact with in order to predict their future activities. The regime also collects DNA samples, fingerprints and voice recordings of Uyghurs, according to Professor Chung. Calling out the regime for its violent repression and disregard of basic human rights, as formerly done by Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, puts whistle-blowers at risk of “disappearing” or facing life sentences in internment camps.
It is for its mountainous geographics, working as a natural barrier to invasion, and for its resources – namely Xinjiang’s qualification as the “national energy strategy base” – that the region is of strategic importance. Additionally, Uyghurs have been “used” as additional labour force through their transfer from internment camps to what can be considered forced labour factories. According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, around 80,000 Uyghurs were moved to such factories between 2017 and 2019. Should the production of goods for tech companies such as Apple and Samsung, car constructors like BMW or other well-known brands such as Nike be revealed, we, as consumers, are testifying that economic interests prevail over the protection of basic human rights.
China’s economic liberalisation was not followed by political democratisation. Instead, the regime is committing a form of genocide as shown by the reduction in the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, diminishing from 82% in 1949 to only 46% in 2010. As shown by Professor Fallon, multiple articles of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide are violated by the Chinese government. They have colonized the region, implemented measures to forcefully separate families and have taken other physically and psychologically traumatic measures aiming at making Uyghurs a minority in their own homeland.
How can we claim to have learned the lessons from the past when we choose to look away from this reality in order to carry on economic activities? While Turkey is regularly blamed for not recognising the Armenian genocide, we ourselves are not taking action to prevent the Chinese regime from conducting one. Although in December 2019 the European Parliament condemned the Chinese “anti-terrorist” actions, this is not enough. Awarding the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Ilham Tohti, who undertook a life sentence in one of the many Uyghur camps, did not lead yet to any concrete actions against the Chinese dictatorship.
While US lawmakers try to respond to the forced labour factories by imposing a trade ban on Xinjiang, European democracies must take the responsibility of protecting the Uyghurs in and out of China. Even beyond the Chinese borders, the Uyghur diaspora is not protected, as shown by several dozens of students in Egypt who were deported back to China, as well as Uyghurs living in France and Australia who received anonymous calls asking them to pick up a package in the Chinese embassy. Leaders must prevent the massacre of ethnic groups from happening again. They must prioritise human lives and human rights protection over economic interests with China.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
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