Is China detaining a million Uyghur Muslims?

The country’s economic influence may be buying silence on a massive human rights violation. Nithin Coca reports

News from China’s northwest region of Xinjiang is increasingly dire. Also known as East Turkestan, it is a region larger than Britain and is home to a population of more than 20 million mostly Muslim Ugyhurs. But reports suggest that a terrible human rights violation is unfolding on a large scale. Empty Uyghur neighborhoods. Students, musicians, athletes, and peaceful academics jailed. A massive high-tech surveillance state limiting freedom of movement. Day by day more information about these events is breaking out.

‘The persecution of Muslims Uyghurs is very well documented,’ said Omer Kanat, director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. ‘More than one million Uyghurs are being kept in these so-called reeducation camps, and the first thing they are forced to do in these camps is renounce Islam.’

What began as a movement to clamp down on terrorism has increasingly become an attempt to eradicate an entire race and their religion. After months of silence, the world might finally be waking up this unfolding travesty.

Why the Uyghurs?

The Uyghurs are a Turkic people, more ethnically and linguistically close to central Asian Turkmens, Azeris, and Kazakhs than Han Chinese. Like their brethren, they mostly follow Islam. This alone makes it unsurprising that they have a tenuous relationship with Beijing, which is more than 1400 miles away. For several centuries they have been mostly under the control of China, though until relatively recently, this was a loose rule that allowed for local control and autonomy.

That changed when the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) took control in 1949 and began centralizing power. They quickly invaded Tibet and then reasserted control over Xinjiang, parts of which, during the Chinese Civil War, had a brief period of independence. The following decades would see the mass destruction of religious institutions, restrictions on freedom of movement, and the massive influx of ethnic Han Chinese into the region.

Expectedly, this exacerbated tensions. The most recent wave of repression can be traced to the July 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Around 200 people died and thousands of troops were brought into to militarize the region. Immediately after the riots, mobile phone and internet service was cut off in the entire province. In the rest of China, terms like ‘Uyghur’, ‘Urumqi’, and ‘Xinjiang’ were not searchable on Chinese social media sites. For the next 10 months, web access would be almost non-existent in Xinjiang, what was and still is one of the most widespread internet shutdowns ever.

Since then, the situation has steadily worsened. The catalyst was the appointment of Chen Quanguo as party secretary for Xinjiang. He was previously the party secretary in another volatile region – Tibet, where CPP apparatchiks praised the hardline tactics he used against 2008 protests; tactics which garnered international condemnation.

In Xinjiang, Chen has had the freedom to take whatever measures he wanted to suppress Uyghur dissent, with a seemingly unlimited flow of financial resources. The result is today’s dark reality – a tech surveillance state deploying the latest technology alongside human policing to surveil the daily lives of its citizens. Now huge, what the Chinese government describe as, ‘re-education’ centers, hold a ‘low’ estimate of 500,000 and a staggering high estimate of up to 3 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. The vast majority of those detained have never been tried and committed no crime.

Paramilitary policemen stand guard near the exit of the South Railway Station, where three people were killed and 79 wounded in a bomb and knife attack, in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, 1 May 2014.
REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic

The global response

By now, there is no doubt that what is happening in Xinjiang is a crime against humanity. Yet, there has not been a strong response from the global community. Despite a growing wave of media attention and piling evidence, no country has taken action against China for these camps, nor for its blatant attempts to destroy Uyghur culture.

One place that is stunningly silent is the Islamic world. Not a single Muslim-majority country has spoken out on behalf of the Uyghurs this decade. This is in stark contrast to what took place last year, when Myanmar’s brutal and ongoing repressions of the Muslim Rohingya sparked public and official protests from several Muslim nations, such as Indonesia and Pakistan.

Part of the reason is likely trade – China is investing heavily in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, which might have the side effect of buying silence from leaders who, in most cases, have their own human rights problems to deal with.

‘A lot of countries have not spoken up on the Uyghurs human rights issue, because it seen as so far away and irrelevant to them,’ said Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Chinese-Middle East relations expert at the University of Technology Sydney. ‘Unless it is happening in their own backyards, it is going to take a lot before any significant pressure would be applied.’

There are some small signs, however, that things might finally be changing. The United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed deep concern about the camps, one of the first statements by an international body. There is the potential for action from the United States, too, as some members of Congress are pressing for a probe or even sanctions. In early September, the expected future prime minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, brought up the Uyghur cause in an recent interview, calling out Muslim nations for being ‘scared’ of China.

Unfortunately, these actions may not be enough. China has become a major trading partner to nearly every country in the world which is buying silence. Speaking up has consequences though. As Turkey learned in 2009, when the first riots took place. Only Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke out – then prime minister and today current president, himself an autocrat widely criticized for deploying brutal tactics against the ethnic Kurdish minority.

China responded then by threatening trade ties and limiting Chinese tourism to the country. And Turkey has been mostly silent ever since, as has most of the world until recently. More leaders need to follow Anwar’s example and stand up for human rights despite China’s economic might, otherwise the plight of the Uyghurs will, unfortunately, only get worse.