The world is observing one of the worst humanitarian crises of the century: the Uyghur genocide.
The twentieth century brought waves of atrocities to the shores of history, demanding a complete reevaluation of how the world governs the behaviour of nations globally. Germany’s Holocaust, Stalin’s gulags, and Rwanda’s ethnic cleansing all demanded the international community to respond swiftly to the attempted erasure.
Yet, what system have we arrived at? The world finds itself again at the precipice of a new crime. The situation in East Turkistan has reached crisis levels, escalating into the worst atrocities of the century. Under the United Nations’ Genocide Convention, the People’s Republic of China has violated all provisions of genocide.
At the heart of this genocide is a fundamental “otherization” of the Uyghur people that relies on Islamophobic policy and rhetoric to dehumanise the indigenous population of East Turkistan, known to China as Xinjiang.
Meanwhile, a global trend towards Islamophobia has given the genocide some political cover in the global sphere. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) employs Islamophobia to over-police Muslim populations and curtail their civil liberties. They believe that the campaigns in Xinjiang are needed to identify and root out what they call the “three evils” of “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism”, in order to combat extremist Islamist ideology, which has “poisoned the minds of people and led to widespread violence in the Xinjiang region”. There is no excuse for such hate — whether it is perpetuated by the CCP or by any other government.
First reported at the start of 2017, Uyghur emigrants originating from Xinjiang started to hear terrifying accounts and lose contact with their friends and relatives back at home, leaving them anxious and worried. It was only in early 2018 that they had received answers to this mystery — China was locking up people who did not belong to the country’s Han ethnic majority in camps. Soon after, many allegations against Xinjiang followed, exposing the violations of humanity China had been hiding.
However, China paints a different picture of the situation. They have denied all allegations of its involvement in abusing human rights in Xinjiang. Previously, China had also repudiated the idea of such camp facilities existing, but later on defended them as retaliation and defence against the separatist violence in Xinjiang. The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China released a white paper, claiming that the mentioned facilities are vocational education and training centres.
According to the white paper, these camps are meant for people who have participated in terrorist or extremist activities and aim to provide them with occupational skills, Chinese language studies and legal rights education. China argues that these facilities are crucial in combating prevalent “Pan-Islamic” terrorism and religious extremism to “protect people’s rights to life”, and are in no way based on one’s religion or ethnicity.
Contrary to their statement, China would go on to detain millions of ethnic minority groups. In 2017, they began building massive detention centres described by government officials as re-education camps. Most people detained in the camps were never charged with crimes and had no legal avenues to challenge their detentions. They are brought in for seemingly innocuous behaviour: visiting a mosque, attending religious weddings, having more than three children, and sending texts containing Quranic verses. Often, their only crime is being human, human rights groups say, adding that many Uyghurs have been labelled as extremists for simply practising their religion.
According to US government officials, an estimated number of eight hundred thousand to two million Uyghurs and other Muslims have been detained in these camps since 2017, making them one of the largest mass interments of an ethnic-religious minority. While the information on what happened in the camps remains limited, detainees who have since fled China described harsh conditions. A report by the UN Human Rights Council, which interviewed twenty-six individuals who had been detained, described patterns of torture, rape, and other forms of cruel and inhumane treatment. In leaked Xinjiang police files, it was revealed that the camps implemented a shoot-to-kill policy if one is caught trying to escape.
Forced labour awaits many who survive these camps. According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred from Xinjiang to factories across China in 2017-2019 under a central government policy known as ‘Xinjiang Aid’. China claimed that these factories were part of a voluntary industry-based ‘poverty alleviation’ scheme, yet the work assignments appear to be extremely difficult to refuse, as they were enmeshed with the apparatus of detention and political indoctrination. In the factories, they were subjected to constant surveillance, a ban on religious activities, and ideological training outside of work hours. In addition, eighty-two major brands benefitted from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang through abusive labour transfer programs, including Adidas, Amazon, Microsoft, Uniqlo, and Zara.
In addition, in an attempt to curb the Muslim population in Xinjiang, China has also imposed forced sterilisation and IUDs in order to cut the birth rates of Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups. Uyghur women are involuntarily subjected to regular pregnancy checks, and if found pregnant, are mandated to get an abortion. These population control measures were backed with harsh punishments like mass detention if those involved refused to comply.
Perpetrators often go to great lengths to hide the nature and extent of their crimes. The limited amount of available and verified information of crimes in Xinjiang is a result of the Chinese government’s near total restrictions on access to Xinjiang.
Whilst the world debates whether China’s alleged actions fall under genocide, the barbarity of the situation is undeniable. Not only is the question of why we become bystanders critical for the Uyghurs’ survival, but it is also critical to the soul of our humanity. To destroy people for their existence is to violate basic human rights. Yet, there is time for the world to address the atrocities that are wrought. Since it was the global political establishment that gave rise to Islamophobia, it must be the global establishment that corrects course. We can start by demanding the total enforcement of universal human rights — there is still time to step up and declare the Uyghur genocide an intolerable evil.
Annabelle Siow and Gerselle Koh are students at Cedar Girls’ School, Singapore.
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