By Alexandra Miranda Castellon '24
The Uighurs consist of about 12 million predominantly Muslim people who live in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. Over the past few years, China has detained more than one million Uighurs into “re-education camps” to ethnically and religiously cleanse the population; since 2017, there have been more than 85 identified camps. At first, the Chinese government denied that the camps existed but were later forced to acknowledge “re-education centers” after images of construction sites with watchtowers and barbed wire fences emerged. Since 1949, Xinjiang has been under China’s control, yet many Uighurs still refer to the land as its previous name, East Turkestan. This piece of land is considered a “special economic zone” due to its abundance of oil and mineral supplies. China has continued to ramp up investments in Xinjiang to bolster oil extraction and refining, coal production, and natural gas production and transport. Furthermore, as China’s largest producer of natural gas, the region plays a vital part in the country’s Belt and Road Initiative, the most expensive infrastructure project in history that will act as a modern-day Silk Road, helping to spread Chinese influence across the globe.
Uighur Muslims are forced to abandon Islam in completely unethical and immoral ways. Children are separated from their families to be raised without any knowledge of Islam whatsoever. Women are forced to shave their heads in acts of humiliation and are not allowed to wear hijabs. The detained populations are forced to eat pork and drink alcohol against their will. Torture methods are used to stop the practice of Islam, and the Chinese government has gradually implemented forced sterilization of women to limit the population of Uighur Muslims in the future. Even more disturbing, first-hand accounts from former detainees inside the camps either experienced or witnessed mass rape or sexual abuse. Tursunay Ziawudun, who fled Xinjiang after being forced into an internment camp for nine months, states that after midnight the ‘guards’ came to the cells and took women down to a “black room” where there were no surveillance cameras, this happened every night. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims detained and taken into these camps without trial are rarely ever heard from again.
Today, China claims that Uighur Muslims are a national security threat due to their extremist views. The Chinese government bases these claims on the 2013 Tiananmen Square and 2014 Kunming station attack attacks for which Uighur Muslims claimed responsibility. The Xinjiang documents revealed essential details regarding the maintenance and portrayal of detention centers.
The Xinjiang documents are a collection of 24 documents composed of nearly 200 pages of speeches by Xi and other officials and more than 150 pages on the surveillance of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. The documents also contained a classified directive advising local officials on answering questions of returning students or other relatives of Uighurs who were detained. The question-and-answer script included clear threats for students if they attempted to protest China’s unwarranted crackdown on the Uighur Muslim population: students were told that their behavior could either shorten or extend the detention of their relatives. When asked about the crime of their relatives, the officials are instructed to respond that their relatives are infected by the “virus” of “Islamic extremism” and that freedom from these detention centers is only possible when they can disavow Islam so that their thinking is free of this virus. This disturbing analogy posits that the spread of “Islamic extremism” is like a pandemic whose effects can only be mitigated by isolating and detaining Muslims. This ideology further advocates for eliminating the gray zone, any region of coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims.
There have been records of Uighur concentration camps since 2017 and yet have persisted with little resistance from the international community. In 2019, multiple letters backed by different countries were sent to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights that condemned China’s policies in Xinjiang or supported their efforts to combat “terrorism and extremism.” The 2019 letter included Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as signatories, whereas the 2020 statement does not. It is difficult to believe that these two countries had a change of heart regarding the Xinjiang issue. Therefore, it leaves us wondering about the real reason countries have signed in support of the Chinese government regarding this issue. In October 2020, the U.N. General Assembly called on China to “respect human rights, particularly the rights of persons belonging to religious and ethnic minorities.” Despite the statements and discussions regarding the issue, there have not been any effective steps to confront the genocide of Uighur Muslims occurring in Xinjiang. The representation of the Xinjiang concentration camps in the media is just a symptom of the misinformation, abuse, and censorship rampant within the Chinese government. The Belt and Road initiative is underway, and many countries will soon be at the will of the Chinese government. The international community must force China to take responsibility for this genocide and organize reparations for Uighur communities.
When the Axis powers were prepared to cross the English Channel, D-Day acted as a significant psychological blow that marked the shift in control for Nazi Germany. Today, the international community must once again intervene and stop another genocide from persisting.