By Joe McInerney
While much of the international community has been focused on developments in the Middle East and the United States has been tuned into the impeachment battle in Congress, China has quietly escalated violence against an entire Muslim minority in its country, the Uighurs. As the extent to which the Chinese government has committed numerous crimes against humanity in its quest to repress the Uighurs and other Muslims becomes clear, the United States and the international community must do much more to hold Xi Jinping and his government accountable. Anything less than clear condemnation and the imposition of concrete consequences on the regime in Beijing would be a complete abdication of our moral authority and neglect of our responsibilities to ensure China remains within the bounds of international law.
Uighurs and the Xinjiang Province
For decades, the Chinese government has cracked down on the eleven million Uighurs living in the Xinjiang province of China. Formally known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, this region in the Northwest of China takes up one-sixth of China’s landmass, and the Chinese Government has long-held concerns that the Uighurs in Xinjiang hold extremist and separatist views. Since April 2017, the Chinese Government has greatly expanded the detention of Uighurs and other Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, in detention camps that they have euphemistically-dubbed “Vocational Training Centers.” According to a Chinese government report, these camps teach Mandarin and Chinese laws and “nip terrorist activities in the bud.” However, a grimmer reality exists as told by those who have managed to flee the repression in Xinjiang.
One such escapee, Mihrigul Tursun, with the help of a translator, told members of Congress about her own experiences in such camps. She detailed such atrocities as electric shock treatment, forced renunciation of their beliefs, and forced ingest of “a liquid that stopped her menstrual cycle and likely resulted in her sterilization, as confirmed by US doctors.” Another persecuted Uighur, Abdulsalam Mohammad, told PBS Newshour, “Every day, they’d toss us a little bread and water so that we didn’t die, and, every day, they would interrogate 15 or 20 of us with unbearable brutality.” He added, “We are a people who’ve lost their freedom. We became their target because we’d studied religion and because we had influence in our society. They locked us up in jail. Then, after taking us to a camp, they’d tell us that we hadn’t done anything wrong, that they were just educating us.”
Outside of the camps, the repression continues. China has introduced a cutting-edge system of electronic surveillance to monitor Uighur people throughout the Xinjiang province. According to the New York Times, “At the click of a mouse, a technician explained, the police can pull up live video from any surveillance camera or take a closer look at anyone passing through one of the thousands of checkpoints in the city.” This technology is in effect a virtual cage on the Muslim minorities in the province that compels ethnic minorities to submit to monitoring and data collection. The technology is so extreme that a New York Times investigation found that authorities use an app which “allows police officers to flag people they believe have stopped using a smartphone, have begun avoiding the use of the front door in coming and going from home, or have refueled someone else’s car.” Chinese authorities have also systematically destroyed mosques, cemeteries and other culturally significant spots for the Uighur population.
The Washington Post aptly described the situation in Xinjiang, writing “In China, every day is Kristallnacht.” While many human rights activists are rightfully wary of drawing comparisons to the Holocaust, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the parallels between the situation in Xinjiang today and the repression of Jews in Germany in the 1930s. A new report by Bahram K. Sintash estimates the complete or partial destruction of over 100 mosques by the Chinese Government and other sacred sites. Based on satellite imagery, Sintash estimates somewhere between 10,000 to 15,000 religious sites have been destroyed including centuries-old burial grounds. Satellite images from December 2018 show a crowded Sultanim cemetery in Hotan, Xinjiang, and only three months later the site is completely covered in what appears to be mud. Rahile Dawut, a respected scholar who disappeared in Xinjiang in December 2017, described the impact of this systematic destruction of religious sites: “If one were to remove these… shrines, the Uighur people would lose contact with Earth. They would no longer have a personal, cultural and spiritual history. After a few years, we would not have a memory of why we live here or where we belong.”
In an unprecedented leak of government papers from the Chinese Communist Party records party leaders “ordering drastic and urgent actions against extremist violence, including the mass detentions, and discussing the consequences with cool detachment.” The leaked documents reveal a regime in Beijing committed to a crackdown on “extremist” behavior and ready to purge any officials that resisted their plans. Additionally, the leak reveals the Soviet prism through which Xi Jinping views his crackdown in Xinjiang. Xi Jinping believes the collapse of the Soviet Union came from ideological laxity and spineless leadership. In comparing Xinjiang to the former Yugoslavia, Xi Jinping asserted that economic development does not prevent collapse. “We say that development is the top priority and the basis for achieving lasting security, and that’s right,” said Xi, “but it would be wrong to believe that with development every problem solves itself.” This reveals the priority Xi Jinping himself holds on maintaining stability. To ensure stability, Xi Jinping and his regime embarked on this sweeping campaign of surveillance and repression against the Uighur population in Xinjiang.
The Targeting of Uighur Women
A less-reported aspect of the Chinese government’s repression of the Uighurs is the systematic targeting of Uighur women. In an essay published in April, Zubayra Shamseden, the translator for Mihrigul Tursun who testified before Congress about the forced sterilization, wrote that the Chinese government “wants to erase Uighur culture and identity by remaking its women.” She added, “State policy now encourages marriage between Han men and Uighur women. I have begun hearing credible, though as yet unverifiable, reports that Chinese officials and local Han residents are abusing their power to make personal demands of Uighur women, especially those whose families and relatives may already be detained.” Radio Free Asia recently reported that China has begun sending men to sleep in the same beds as Uighur Muslim women while their husbands are in prison camps. Additionally, there have been reports of gang rape by officials in the camp, as well as sexual harassment and sexual assault by Han Chinese male bosses of Uighur women outside the camps. The situation in Xinjiang bares many similarities to the situation in the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian Genocide in which Ottoman soldiers raped Armenian women with impunity.
In December 2018, The Global Justice Center published a report on the gendered nature of genocides. The report argues that gender permeates the crime of genocide and is woven into the perpetrators’ planning and commission of genocidal violence. They write, “In particular, the violence directed at women and girls during genocide is fed by existing misogynistic attitudes in society, and the traumatic impacts are magnified by the financial, social, cultural inequalities to which women and girls are subjected.” The continuing failure to acknowledge the complexity of genocidal violence has undercut the progressive framework of the 1948 Genocide Convention. Put simply, “One cannot prevent and punish what one does not recognize.”
In response to the persecution of Uighurs, the Senate passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, and the Trump Administration has leveled sanctions against Chinese companies and citizens associated with these crimes. Additionally, the European Union has called on China to change its policies in Xinjiang. Despite this, China has used its economic influence to silence many other countries. Daniel Russel, the Obama administration’s assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs said, “Many, many governments are looking the other way and self-censoring on the issue of Xinjiang. Beijing is notoriously prickly about its self-declared ‘core interests,’ and few countries are willing to put the economic benefits of good relations with China at risk – let alone find themselves on the receiving end of Chinese retaliation.”
Notably, many Muslim majority countries have remained silent or even vocally supportive of the Beijing regime. After a group of mostly European countries wrote to the UN human rights chief condemning China’s persecution of Uighurs in July 2019, a group of more than three dozen states, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, praised China for its “remarkable achievements” in human rights and “counterterrorism” efforts in Xinjiang.
China’s continued persecution of Uighur people and other Muslim minorities is a stain on the conscience of every country that advocates for human rights. The United States has been one of the few countries to speak up, but the continued silence from countries around the globe has allowed China to carry out its campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Uighurs. Silence is complicity, and the international community must take much more forceful action to protect the human rights of Chinese Muslims and ensure that China stays within the bounds of international law.
Photo courtesy of Malcolm Brown (Flickr).