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OP-ED: What China’s Uighur Muslims are facing

  • Published at 05:11 pm August 15th, 2020
Brands warned China about Uighur forced labour
Photo: AFP

A systematic eradication of culture is taking place

It seems we live in an age when the term “fake news” is bandied around by heads of state, politicians, and even ambassadors to describe anything which does not suit their personal or political objectives.

A prime example is US President Donald Trump, whose school of thought prescribes that if you are confronted by a report that does not conform to your agenda, policy, or in some cases vanity, you just dismiss it as fake or alternatively, blatantly lie.

But we also live in a digital era. Drones, satellites, and, of course, phone cameras have allowed us to be privy to images that others might prefer we had not seen.

Last month on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show during an interview with the Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, disturbing video footage of blindfolded men with their hands behind their backs waiting to be boarded onto trains was shown.

Liu dismissed the images, claiming the footage to be “fake.” He refuted the accusations of human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslims, instead blaming the “so-called Western intelligence” of making repeated “false allegations” against China.

The drone video was initially posted last year and has resurfaced recently due to the ongoing claims of ethnic cleansing.

The Uighur are predominantly Turkic Muslims from the Xinjiang province of China, deep in the hinterlands in the north west. They are culturally and ethnically similar to Central Asian nations with whom they share their borders and have a population of approximately 11 million people.

In the early part of the 20th century, Uighurs declared independence, but this proved short-lived as the region was brought under the complete control of communist China in 1949.

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have maintained that the Chinese government is guilty of the mass imprisonment and torture of Uighur Muslims.

These claims have been corroborated by accounts from former prisoners and leaked government documents by the Communist Party to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The document dubbed as “The China Cables” confirms that not only are there detainment camps but that these, in fact, serve as “brainwashing centres” where Uighur Muslims are forced to renounce their religion, culture, and heritage, and embrace communism, swearing loyalty to President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party.

It is compulsory for those incarcerated to learn Mandarin. In 2018, a UN human rights committee also found that there were credible reports of a million Uighurs, almost one in ten, being held in political “counter-extremism” camps.

Torture and starvation

Chilling accounts of these internment camps in Xinjiang have emerged from those who have managed to escape the country. Detainees are said to be tortured, starved, and beaten.

It is alleged that some are made to undergo forced sterilizations. There are also claims that organs are being harvested from living prisoners.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told The Andrew Marr Show: “It is clear that there are gross, egregious human rights abuses going on. We are working with our international partners on this. It is deeply, deeply troubling.”

He went on to say: “The reports of the human aspect of it -- from forced sterilization to the education camps -- are reminiscent of something we have not seen for a long, long time” referring to the Holocaust that led to the deaths of over 6 million Jews.

Liu went on record saying: “There is no so-called massive forced sterilization among Uighur people in China. It is totally against the truth. I cannot rule out single cases for any country. There is no such concentration camp in Xinjiang.”

The Chinese government has asserted that the camps are vocational training centres for re-education purposes. But just repeating something often and vociferously does not make it so.

The fact is that whether we call it “re-training” or “education,” the eradication of culture is unthinkable and unacceptable. What appears to be happening in Xinjiang goes well beyond that and is rapidly approaching the realms of genocide.

Ethnic cleansing and genocide are not new phenomena but distressingly in the 21st century, when we consider ourselves to be more advanced and progressive than our predecessors, it appears the practices are still prevalent.

Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party also voiced his concerns about the predicament of the Uighur Muslims, urging PM Boris Johnson not to ignore the “deeply disturbing” actions of Beijing while Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy called on the government to use Britain’s new independent sanctions regime to target individuals implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Recently, the US imposed sanctions against Chinese officials who were believed to be involved in the mass internment, including a member of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo, although in the case of the current US administration it is hard not to question their motives.

It appears that China is threatening to reciprocate any sanctions imposed upon them by other countries with similar actions and in the case of the US has already imposed a tit-for-tat sanction of US officials.

The Chinese ambassador to the UK said that Beijing was ready to respond in kind should the UK go ahead with similar measures: “If the UK goes that far to impose sanctions on any individuals in China, China will certainly make a resolute response to it.”

Another tragic aspect of all this is the failure of so many countries, including many Muslim countries, to condemn the actions of the Chinese government. But many of these countries are beneficiaries of China’s expansive international trade policies. For rich and poor nations alike, however, turning a blind eye to genocide cannot be an option. This is not about economics. 

Nadia Kabir Barb is a writer, journalist, and author of the short story collection Truth or Dare.

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