If you have been active at all on social media for the past few weeks, you’ve probably come across a slew of sympathetic messages for the Uyghur, a people who have been systematically oppressed in the Xinjiang region of China.  The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has sought to shut down this discussion, being evasive and dismissive. But to their dismay, the New York Times published a report on 16 November 2019 on a leak of about four hundred pages of official Chinese documents [6]. In these leaked papers, President Xi Jinping is recorded as insisting that they “must be as harsh as them and show absolutely no mercy” [6]. This report, due to its finality and credibility in establishing the merciless treatment of Uyghurs, has been suggested as a further read in the footnotes.  

According to researchers and some highly choreographed statements made by government officials, there are somewhere between eight-hundred thousand to two million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities currently detained in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang, China [1].  Yet, there are numerous reports that these camps externally and internally resemble prisons more than the state-spread euphemisms of “vocational training centres” and “boarding schools” [2]. As Canadians, this should ring a bell; perhaps a black mark on Canadian history such as the utterly shameful residential schools that sought to ‘educate’ Indigenous children with ‘Canadian’ values. Just as the “Indian in the child” became the premise for the need for such education, Uyghurs are being targeted for potential extremist ideologies, which, in political jargon, is often synonymous with Islamic values. While many countries and organizations have condemned the human rights abuses against Uyghurs, most Muslim-majority nations have maintained an eerie silence. Why isn’t this surprising? To answer this question, let us first delve into the details of this crisis.  

China has significantly increased its crackdown on the Uyghurs of Xinjiang in the last decade, especially under the freshly appointed, iron-fisted secretary of the region, Chen Quanguo.  Chen was moved to the province in 2016. Prior to this, he held a top government post in Tibet. He has a track record for taking state-empowering measures to ensure compliance, such as expanding the police force of the region and installing frequent security checkpoints. In Tibet, he also transferred control of Buddhist monasteries to the state. Unsurprisingly, he has taken a similar route in Xinjiang—Chen has since drastically “intensified security in Xinjiang” [1]. However, Chen’s agenda does not stop at the streets; under his governance of the region, arbitrary detention has become commonplace as a tool used by regional authorities at their whim. Although Xinjiang holds just 1.5% of the country’s 1.3 billion people, there were 227,000 people arrested in the region in just 2017 [4]. To put that horrifying statistic into perspective, one in five arrests in China occurred in Xinjiang – there was a ghastly 731% increase in arrests since 2016 [4]. What’s worse is that this statistic doesn’t even include the approximately 1 million Uyghurs currently detained in concentration camps.

Uyghurs are forced to face the reality that all Islamic expression in Xinjiang is recognized by the state as extremism. The CCP passed an anti-extremism law in March 2017 which any sane person could decipher as a ban on Islamic values: Uyghurs were banned from fasting during Ramadan, banned from wearing burqas or growing “abnormal” beards, banned from performing religious funeral rites, traveling overseas, and even naming their children names such as Mohamed and Medina. In fact, the CCP has gone to record heights of repression by prohibiting Uyghurs from refusing to eat pork, refusing to drink alcohol, and refusing to watch state TV or listen to state radio. In other words, the state forbade Uyghurs from practicing basic tenets of Islam. In the past few years, Chinese officials have closed and destroyed several mosques. Almost all the remaining mosques have communist slogans and Chinese flags installed on them, of which around a thousand have facial recognition security cameras installed [4]. It would be unfair to ignore the absence of standard rights in China, as it is not at all a free country. The country lacks fundamental human rights: there are no free and fair (real) elections, the CCP controls virtually all media outlets and censors major foreign news outlets, and the justice system is controlled by the CCP, a political party [5]. There are real issues in China for all citizens, but the Uyghurs are taking the brunt of it.   

Human rights have been explicitly violated, even outside of concentration camps. Yet, Chinese officials continue to claim that these “vocational training centres” or “boarding schools” – whatever their euphemistic tongues fancy – do not violate the Uyghur’s human rights. Supposing that a sane person would concede this argument, how can the CCP explain the refusal to share information about the camps, and the prevention of journalists and foreign investigators from examining them? This refusal to be transparent is not productive in answering why 10,000 new police officer jobs were advertised in the Xinjiang region in just January and February 2017 [4]. It would not justify the more than 90% jump in Xinjiang’s security spending from 2016; the CCP currently spends significantly more on domestic security than defence [4].

Olsi Jazexhi is an Albanian-Canadian historian who had doubts about reports that China was systematically detaining its Uyghur Muslim minority. He initially believed it was an attempt by the West to rile up hateful sentiments against China. Olsi was absolutely stunned to find that his attempt to debunk the claims of widespread human rights violations ended up proving them instead. There have been several waves of journalists who have been admitted to tours of the camps. Granted, these tours were choreographed to the second, and the filming of it was scrutinizingly monitored. Olsi was amongst these selected journalists. He was shocked by the “concentration camps”, and the fact that Muslims were prohibited from praying, were forced to speak Mandarin, and were in fact held in camps for at least a year of Communist brainwashing and indoctrination [2]. Essentially, if you visibly practice Islam or hold to your ethnic customs in the Xinjiang region, you will be forcefully subjected to indoctrination.  

What makes the Uyghur repression particularly unsettling is the refusal of Muslim-majority countries to speak out against the CCP, implying their seeming support of the camps.  Muslim nations are putting an emphasis and priority on their economic and strategic relationships with China, choosing to ignore the disastrous human rights violations against other Muslims.  If physical torture, sexual abuse, and separation from family weren’t enough for the Uyghurs to bear, now they must also suffer from the knowledge that their Muslim community has abandoned them. In July 2019, a group of almost exclusively European countries signed a letter to the United Nations human rights chief in an effort to condemn China’s repression of Uyghurs [1]. This is all while more than three dozen Muslim states, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, do not partake in this response. Instead, they do the exact opposite: these nations signed their own letter to China praising their “remarkable achievements” in human rights and its “counterterrorism” efforts in Xinjiang [1].

We often wonder how people could’ve been so passive during the Holocaust and other genocides, allowing unspeakable horrors to be committed right before their eyes. But that is pure hypocrisy – we must ask ourselves the same question when it comes to the Uyghurs: how can we, in this day and age, turn a blind eye to the mass detentions of a particular faith group who have often committed no crimes except demonstrating religiosity.  There could be nothing more ironic than the fact that the United States has taken the toughest stance on the Uyghur concentration camps, while the country itself, has proudly constructed its own concentration camps: “immigrant detention centres”. Muslim-majority nations must recognize this as an issue that they must act on to resolve. Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to name a few, should not turn a blind eye to the Uyghurs because of their  economic interest in China’s “Belt and Road” development project [2]. Perhaps they should be reminded of the Islamic value that is especially timely today: selective justice is a form of injustice. The Uyghurs are being repressed in camps for the same beliefs that many of these states claim to uphold, that alone should be the uniting factor for all Muslim-majority countries to take a bold stance on this issue. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that many Muslim states will give up their desire for quick coal and gas profits to fulfill their moral obligation to their Uyghur brothers and sisters. If this remains the case, then the most effective way for us to bring some form of relief for the Uyghurs may lie, as odd as it sounds, with our star-spangled neighbours to the south. The United States should use its power to encourage its close allies, including Canada, to impose sanctions on China. The withdrawal of economic support for a nation may often be enough to push them to reconsider their decisions: they must identify whether they prioritize the need to survive in the global community, or whether they want to continue their base behaviour in isolation. 

[1] https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-repression-uighurs-xinjiang

[2] https://nationalpost.com/news/canadian-went-to-china-to-debunk-reports-of-anti-muslim-repression-but-was-shocked-by-treatment-of-uyghurs

[3] https://theconversation.com/explainer-who-are-the-uyghurs-and-why-is-the-chinese-government-detaining-them-111843

[4] https://www.businessinsider.com.au/xianjiang-province-china-police-state-surveillance-2018-7?r=US&IR=T

[5] https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/china

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/16/world/asia/china-xinjiang-documents.html