In China, more than one million people are being detained indefinitely, without trial or access to lawyers, on suspicion of extremism based upon their ethnic identity. These people are the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim population, of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in the north-west region.
In March 2017, China adopted the “Regulation of De-Extremification” in the XUAR which launched a new wave of repressive policies and discrimination in the region. Displays of religious affiliation such as growing an “abnormal” beard, wearing a headscarf, practicing prayer, or owning books about Islam could be considered extremist. Traveling outside of China or communicating with anyone outside of the country can also make one a target of suspicion. Any of these actions can result in detainment in a “re-education camp”.
Inside these camps, people are forced to learn and speak only in Mandarin, sing propaganda political songs, praise Communist party leaders before meals, and participate in flag-raising ceremonies. Those who refuse are beaten, shackled, or deprived of food. There are reports of deaths from inside the camps including suicides, of an unknown total.
China has screened and allowed specific journalists to enter some of the camps and report on what they saw. However, many suspect what they were shown to be propaganda and not reflective of true conditions or treatment.
Intense surveillance across China and the XUAR has enabled the detention of Uyghurs on a massive scale. Checkpoints that use facial recognition to detect Uyghurs are frequent across cities. These security checks that have become a part of daily life in the region are also subject to phone scans for any material that could be deemed linked to “extremism”, such as the popular messaging app Whatsapp that bypasses China’s firewall.
The international response to the atrocities committed against the Uyghurs has been underwhelming.
This October, the United States passed several sanctions against surveillance tech companies in China involved in developing facial recognition as well as other technology for security checkpoints. The sanctions are the first tangible act in response to the re-education camps. However, future sanctions could be made under the US Global Magnitsky Act, which allows for economic sanctions against companies for human rights violations. This would be far more damaging to a company internationally and send a stronger message to China to close the camps.
In the United Nations, China holds a seat on the Security Council, which makes direct action extremely difficult, and as a result, little action has been taken aside from an investigation by the UN Human Rights Council. In July, 22 countries wrote an open letter to the High Commissioner for Human Rights calling on China to close the camps. This letter was unique in that no country took the lead in denouncing China or calling to action. Most countries are afraid of economic backlash or retaliation from China.
China has heavily wielded its economic influence in the international field to keep the world silent on the suffering of the Uyghur people. Ten years ago, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a foremost critic of China’s treatment of Uyghurs, stating that it was “simply put, genocide.” A year ago, China secured Turkey a $3.6 energy loan, and this summer while in Beijing, Erdogan praised China’s Belt and Road projects and did not address the camps.
Succumbing to the fear of China’s economic power will only allow the illegal detainment, discrimination, and attempted erasure of the Uyghur people to continue. Any country or world leader taking the lead in calling on China to close the camps could inspire more to follow and start a much larger and more public dialogue to end the atrocities.
Read more about the detention of Uyghurs here: