This Sunday, July 5th 2020, will mark the 11th anniversary of the eruption of violence between China’s Uighurs, a majority-Muslim group concentrated in the western Xinjiang province, and Han, China’s dominant ethnic group. It was initially set up as a peaceful protest that descended into rioting. To many, this day doesn’t mean much, but to the Uighurs, this day in 2009 was a turning point in their treatment by the Chinese government, marking the start of a dark chapter in our history littered with clear violations of basic international human rights laws.
For the past 11 years, the Chinese government has been determined to eradicate Uighur culture and identity. Over one million Uighur Muslims are currently held in what can only be described as internment camps designed to wipe out all forms of Islamic affinity. The official public line is that these camps provide Chinese history, language and culture classes, enforce studying Chinese Communist Party propaganda and giving thanks and swearing loyalty to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In reality, the camps have been reported to ban beards, fasting during Ramadan, celebrating Eid and praying, and to force Muslims to drink alcohol and eat pork. At worst, accounts from previous detainees show that they’ve experienced physical, mental and sexual torture and mistreatment, have been subjected to medical experiments, have been denied medical care and have witnessed numerous mysterious deaths. More recent reports also tell us that women are being forcibly sterilized or fitted with contraceptive devices and that a shipment of 13 tons of weaves and other hair products believed to be made from the hair of Uighur Muslims were recently seized by the US.
The few survivors who have managed to escape Xinjiang describe them as “concentration camps”: “stripping them of their humaneness and robbing them of their identity and dignity through denunciation of their native culture and beliefs”. Those not detained are living under constant surveillance, with mass DNA collection and the use of facial recognition technology, and are entirely cut off from other international communities. It paints a grim picture of what goes on in the region while the rest of the world goes about its life.
In the midst of current widespread social and political activism, everything from the Black Lives Matter movement and transgender issues, to police brutality in India and the planned annexation of the Palestinian West Bank, this group deserves just as much attention and representation. It’s no secret that China has a questionable human rights record, thrown under particularly harsh lighting recently with the plight of Hongkongers under China’s new National Security Law, a story which has dominated headlines this week.
So, what is the world doing about the largest mass arbitrary detention since the second world war? Sadly, not very much. There has been increasing international criticism of China’s treatment of Uighurs, most recently in the form of a statement from the UK’s Interparliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) calling for a UN investigation into the matter. However, to date, no country has taken any concrete action beyond issuing condemnations. The apathy is louder than any criticism.
Naturally, China has denied all allegations, insisting that these camps are “voluntary re-education centres” where Uighurs are being de-radicalised and cured of “extremist thoughts”. Their portrayal of these camps as a part of the fight against extremist Islamic terrorism serves as a shameful, problematic segue into the ever-growing worldwide Islamophobic narrative, and is, very possibly, why very little action has been taken by international leaders.
This, in itself, speaks volumes and demonstrates that we need to dedicate more resources to combating Islamophobia across the globe. If we aren’t willing to fight for the travesty that is the current ethnic cleansing taking place in China, there’s very little hope for Muslims in our society moving forward – this is but a glimpse into the future of oppression and repression that some of our most vulnerable will face.
Yes, China is a key ally and strategic partner for many of the world’s nations, but we must remember that it is not this untouchable, immovable entity we have built it up to be. The world must act. If you’re reading this, you can help: use this weekend to get in touch with your local MP. Ask them to do more, try harder and shout louder to help put an end to one of the greatest human rights catastrophes of the 21st century.
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