Massive crimes against the Uyghurs are in focus as Western nations and human rights groups take on an unyielding China
By Anna Hayes
On May 12 at the United Nations, Western nations led by the United States, Britain and Germany clashed with China over growing allegations against its crimes on the Uyghur minority and demanded unimpeded access for UN experts to Xinjiang.
At the meeting, Britain’s UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward called the situation in Xinjiang “one of the worst human rights crises of our time. The evidence, from a growing number of credible sources — including satellite imagery, survivor testimony and publicly available Chinese Government documents — is of grave concern. The evidence points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups. Expressions of religion have been criminalised and Uyghur language and culture are discriminated against systematically and at scale,” said Woodward, who previously was UK ambassador in China.
US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield stressed the Biden administration “will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crime against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.”
China’s UN Mission had sent notes to many of the UN’s 193 member-nations the previous week urging them not to participate in the “anti-China event.” And China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun sent messages to the 15 Western co-sponsors of the meeting urging them to “think twice” and withdraw it. The meeting went ahead nevertheless.
Germany’s UN Ambassador Christoph Heusgen thanked “all the co-sponsors who came together despite some massive Chinese threats” and urged them to remain committed “until the Uyghurs can live again in freedom, until they are no longer detained, no longer victims of forced labour and other human rights abuses, until they can exercise freedom of religion and freedom of speech” and asked China to “tear down the detention camps. If you have nothing to hide, why don’t you grant unimpeded access to the (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights?”
On May 13, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken used the release of the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report to lambast China for severe restrictions on its citizens’ ability to worship freely. “China broadly criminalises religious expression and continues to commit crimes against humanity and genocide against Muslim Uyghurs,” Blinken said as he unveiled the report for the year 2020.
Another US State Department official, said China is turning Xinjiang into an “open-air prison“. Daniel Nadel, a senior official in the State Department’s Office of International Freedom, said the population was being closely monitored. “People’s movements are closely tracked. “You have minders who have been assigned to live with Uighurs to keep tabs on them. You have people going to the market who have to check in every time they go to a different market stall.”
The latest Human Rights Watch report draws on newly available data from Chinese government documents and other evidence to assess Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang and holds the Chinese leadership responsible for widespread and systematic policies of mass detention, torture, and cultural persecution, among other offences.
An estimated one million people have been confined in camps in Xinjiang. Most are Uyghurs. Xinjiang had been a hotbed of anti-government violence, but Beijing claims its massive security crackdown has brought peace in recent years.
According to sources, Uyghur workers have been subjected to exploitative working and abusive living conditions, including arbitrary detention, human trafficking, forced labour and enslavement. UN human rights experts have raised serious concerns about the alleged detention and forced labour of Uyghurs, calling for unhindered access to conduct fact-finding missions while urging global and domestic companies to closely scrutinise their supply chains.
The Chinese government has flatly rejected the allegations, characterising the camps, which it says are now closed, as vocational training centres to teach Chinese language and job skills, support economic development and combat extremism.
Xinjiang in far western China had the sharpest known decline in birthrates between 2017 and 2019 of any territory in recent history, according to a report by the Australian Strategy Policy Institute. Based on Chinese government statistics over nearly a decade, the report showed the 48.74% decline was concentrated in areas with many Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim ethnic minorities. Birthrates in largely minority counties fell 43.7% between 2017 and 2018 alone, with over 1,60,000 fewer babies born.
Such an extreme drop in birthrates is unprecedented in the 71 years since the UN began collecting global fertility statistics, beating out even declines during the Syrian civil war and the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia, pointed out Nathan Ruser, a co-author of the report adding that the two-year decline in birthrates in Xinjiang is far larger than that of China over the entire 36-year length of the ‘one child’ policy.
Earlier, on March 22, the European Union, Britain, Canada and the United States had launched coordinated sanctions against officials in China over human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, provoking swift retaliation from Beijing.
The EU targeted four senior officials in Xinjiang, freezing their assets and banning them from traveling in the bloc. It froze the assets of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau, which it describes as a “state-owned economic and paramilitary organisation” that runs Xinjiang and controls its economy. China responded by slapping sanctions on 10 European individuals and four institutions that it said had damaged China’s interests and “maliciously spread lies and disinformation.”
China also slapped sanctions on several British politicians and organisations after the UK joined the EU in sanctioning Chinese officials. The UK responded by accusing China of violating human rights on an “industrial scale” against Uyghur Muslims. “Freedom to speak out in opposition to abuse is fundamental and I stand firmly with them,” tweeted British Prime Minister Johnson.
The Biden administration is considering sanctions over China’s alleged use of forced labour in production of solar panels and other components in renewable energy, climate envoy John Kerry said on May 13. Much of the world’s polysilicon, used in photovoltaic cells for solar panels, comes through the Xinjiang province. Republicans have cited human rights concerns about Chinese-made renewable-energy components, and China’s status as the world’s largest emitter of climate-wrecking fossil fuel pollution.
Brands including Swedish retailer H&M, Adidas and Nike to Burberry that have well-established presences in China have been targeted by demands online for consumer boycotts. These came after Chinese state media criticised them for expressing concern about reports of possible forced labour by ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and some Chinese celebrities saying they were severing endorsement deals.
“China has nothing to hide on Xinjiang,” said Chinese diplomat Guo Jiakun. “Xinjiang is always open. We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt.”
Earlier, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying accused the US, the UK, allied nations and portions of the Western media of collaborating to subvert China’s unity and development. “For a lengthy period of time, the US, UK and others have felt free to say whatever they like without allowing others to do the same,” Hua said adding “those days are over and the West will have to gradually get used to it.”
The harsh tone of Beijing’s comments reflects China’s unyielding stand despite increasing international pressure and tough diplomacy. —
With Inputs from Associated Press
The Uyghurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims from the Central Asian region. Their largest population live in China’s autonomous Xinjiang region. Many Uyghur communities also live in countries neighbouring China, such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
The region’s name suggests the Uyghurs have autonomy and self-governance. But similar to Tibet, Xinjiang is a tightly-controlled region. Members of the Uyghur diaspora have been reported as requesting “proof of life” from Beijing over disappeared family members back in Xinjiang.
China annexed Xinjiang in 1949. At this time, it was estimated the Uyghurs numbered around 76% of the region’s population. Han Chinese – the country’s majority ethnic group – accounted for just 6.2%, with other minority groups making up the remaining total.
Since 1949, Han migration to the region has diluted the ethnic ratio. Official statistics show the population is now made up of 42% Uyghurs and 40% Han. Beijing does not recognise the region as a colony but segments of the population have resisted Beijing’s rule. Many refuse to speak Mandarin, while others campaign for independence.
Beijing has long considered Xinjiang and the Muslim minorities such as the Uyghurs to be “backward”. During the Communist Party’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), ethnicity and religion were singled out as both “obstacles to progress” and “backwards custom”. Brutal crackdowns in the 1980s and 90s led to significant numbers of Uyghurs fleeing China.
Repeated attempts at rapid and forced assimilation, discriminatory and oppressive policies, and a cycle of “repression-violence-repression” have led to periodic protests across Xinjiang and in extreme cases, acts of terrorism – such as the Kunming train station attack – have been carried out both inside Xinjiang and in other parts of China.
In recent decades, Beijing has recast the Uyghur ethnic group as a terrorist collective. This has allowed Beijing to justify its transformation of Xinjiang into a surveillance state. Some Uyghurs have been employed by the state to spy on other Uyghurs, reporting any suspicious behaviour. This includes if someone has given up smoking, refuses to drink alcohol or even if a Uyghur refuses to watch Chinese news broadcasts.
Beijing’s surveillance includes face and voice recognition, iris scanners, DNA sampling and 3D identification imagery of Uyghurs. These were introduced following Xi’s 2016 appointment of Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang Party Chief. Chen’s previous appointment was in Tibet, where he implemented similar control measures over the Buddhist population.
Anna Hayes – (The author is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, James Cook University. www.theconversation.com)
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