- Ophelia Merali
What is happening in Xinjiang?
by FEE MERALI
In 2018, the UN became aware that Uyghur Muslims' possible detainment for "re-education" and other minority groups in the western Xinjiang region was taking place, right under the noses of the international community. In February, a BBC report was released detailing accounts of the crimes that have been and are currently being committed against Uyghur Muslims. The report was followed by statements from both the Trump and Biden administrations as well as the British and Australian governments, who all condemn the legitimisation of these centres under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Later on, BBC broadcasts were banned in China, with the government denying all allegations of human rights misconduct against minorities.
Genocide, as defined under international law, embodies the intent to destroy a part of the population. In January, the State Department released a report in which the previous Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticised China for carrying out 'genocide' against the Uyghur population: "We are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state." Reports also followed the premise that coercive and forceful measures, including allegedly forced sterilisations and abortions, were being carried out in Xinjiang. Pompeo's statement reflected the increasingly tense relationship between the US and China under the Trump administration, where cotton and tomato products manufactured in Xinjiang were banned due to concern over the use of forced labour.
The new Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated that the Biden administration is keen on continuing the hard-line approach to the alleged crimes committed by the CCP. President Biden has confirmed that the US will maintain its role as a human rights ambassador on the international platform and has alerted President Xi Jinping of repercussions in the case of on-going human rights violations. However, Biden's statement that "culturally, there are different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow," has come under fire for appearing insensitive to the horrors being experienced by Uyghurs in Xinjiang – alleged persecution against minorities is not, culturally or otherwise, an acceptable norm.
Around 10 to 12 million Uyghurs reside in the Xinjiang region. The remainder consists of China's majority population, the Han Chinese. The Uyghurs speak their own Turkic language, and they share just as much a physical resemblance to the Central Asian population as they do to Han people. As a result of its unique cultural characteristics, the minority group stands out as a target as it is. However, Xinjiang has historically had an uncomfortable relationship with the rest of China, having slipped in and out of periods of independence since before Communist rule. Years of uneven wealth distribution between the Han Chinese and the Uyghurs, due to large mineral resource monopoly in the region, has led to protests, as many Uyghurs feel that both their welfare and culture are under threat.
In 2009, around 200 people died in a series of violent altercations. As a result, the Xinjiang region is subject to some of the country's harshest security measures, including legal penalties for the practice of certain elements of Islam. The banning of some practices, such as growing long beards and religious education of children, was implemented; meanwhile, the fundamental shift towards separatism and the tightening of societal control emerged under Xi Jinping's presidency.
The reality of the situation in Xinjiang is becoming increasingly evident. It has been reported that between one and three million Uyghurs are being held in Xinjiang camps for re-education purposes. The Chinese government, with the use of the "war on terror" justification, has claimed that the purpose of these facilities is to combat radicalisation in order to prevent extreme conflicts of interests between the two halves of the population in the region and to create unity through a program of cultural assimilation.
However, accounts from survivors who have fled Xinjiang following their release detail of alleged systematic rape and sexual abuse of detainees by camp guards, measures including forced abortions and sterilisations, coercive family planning, brainwashing, and electric torture. In an interview with the BBC, a woman survivor agreed to the description of the camps as a 'system of organised rape.' In addition to sexual torture intended to crack the souls of detainees, the camps also allegedly consist of schools in which Uyghur detainees are subject to indoctrination into the Chinese culture as well as processes designed to strip them of their culture, language, and religious beliefs.
The Chinese government insistently refutes these as false accounts, but there is little doubt that the leaders of the CCP are unaware of the alleged systematic sexual abuse and other horrors in these camps. Despite a spokesperson's statement that the protection of women's rights is of great importance to the government, the camps in Xinjiang are meant to tackle extremism within the minority group and utterly crush what it is to be Uyghur beneath the fist of Chinese communism. It is now the duty of the US government, UN members, human rights activist groups, and agents with international influence to ensure that the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang is not ignored and that the CCP's regime does not continue to remain unpunished.