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Protestors take part in Brussels, on October 1, 2019 on the day of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, in a protest organized by the World Uyghur Congress, the International Campaign for Tibet, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, the Belgian Uyghur Association and the Tibetan Community in Belgium.

The Uighurs of China: A Silent Genocide

September 21, 2020

The Uighurs (pronounced WE-GERS) are an ethnic minority group that primarily speaks Turkish and practices Islam. 12 million Uighurs live in China, with 11 million in the North-East region of Xinjiang. The region has been a hotbed of religious violence and ethnic tensions between the most recently settled Han Chinese and the local Uighur Muslims. The secular Chinese government has imprisoned up to 1 million Uighurs, along with Kazaks and other religious minorities. The Chinese government has claimed that these are merely “vocational training centers,” but eyewitness accounts tell a far different story.

The crisis in Xinjiang began in 2017 and is still ongoing, but it has been reignited in recent months due to of reports and videos leaked of Uighur prisoners sent from reeducation camps to factories to perform forced labor. About one-fifth of the world’s cotton comes from Uighur laborers in Xinjiang (according to The Guardian), and many big brands–– such as Nike, H&M, and Amazon–– have been accused by up to 180 human rights organizations of being complicit with these practices.

The conditions in the Xinjiang reeducation camps are, according to several eyewitness accounts, brutal. Notable descriptions detail inmates being forced to sing Communist Party songs, torture inflicted on those who refuse to submit to protocol (including waterboarding and cuffing people by their arms and legs for up to 12 hours), and inmates being force-fed pork and alcohol, which is forbidden to be consumed according to Islamic law.

Despite public outrage across the globe, many countries, especially those outside the West, have been either silent on or actively supportive of China’s policies. China has major economic influence in the Third World, and, therefore, such countries do not wish to make such a powerful enemy by speaking out. Many powerful people bear motivations to silence this crisis, whether they be CEOs of wealthy corporations who profit off Uighur slave labor, reporters for Chinese state propaganda networks, political leaders allied with Beijing, or members of the Chinese Communist Party. The crimes against the Uighur people must be swiftly and ruthlessly called out by all who support the rights of vulnerable peoples, religious freedom, and human rights, regardless of their political persuasion.

Many Han Chinese, who make up 90% of China’s population, are prejudiced against the Uighurs, who display different features and dress than them. In a 2008 interview titled “The Xinjiang Man,” a Han Chinese woman describes Uighurs as “not very good” and “robbers and thieves.” The Chinese government encouraged Han Chinese people to immigrate to Xinjiang and favored them for top jobs. In 2009, riots began in the capital of Xinjiang, Ürümqi, protesting the killing of two Uighurs and injuring some 118 by a group of Han Chinese men. During these riots that lasted several days, about 200 people were killed, mostly Han Chinese. These riots, reported as religious terrorism, later lead to efforts to tighten protocols with regards to religious minorities and the Strike Hard against Violent Terrorism act of 2014.

During the time after the act was passed, Xinjiang became one of the most heavily policed regions in the world. The act allowed religious minorities to be treated with high suspicion and as possible terrorists, with cameras placed throughout Uighur communities. The government created a list of 75 behavioral indications for religious extremism, including storing large amounts of food, people who smoke or drink and quit suddenly, and putting gas in someone else’s car. This information is put into a predictive AI system which has been programmed to identify “threats.”

In just a week, over 24,000 people were flagged by the system as “suspicious” and 15,000 of them were sent to re-education camps. Initially, the Chinese government denied all existence of these camps. However, they later claimed that the camps were merely vocational training facilities. Even government-supervised tours of the facilities seem to show a different story; During a tour, one Uighur stated that “all of us found that we have something wrong with ourselves, luckily, the Communist Party offers this school for free.”

Leaked documents from the Chinese government state that staff at the centers should prevent students from contacting the outside world and strictly control them to prevent possible escapes. In a 2019 BBC interview, a former detainee described her experience: “Each woman has two minutes to go to the toilet. They tell you to be ‘quick, quick, quick.’ If you are not quick, they shock you with an electric baton in the back of your head. It really hurt and they did it a lot. Even after being shocked, we had to say ‘Thank you, teacher. We will not be late next time.’”

The government has begun forcibly sterilizing and aborting the fetuses of Uighur women, forbidding Uighur children to attend mosques or be given a name that is deemed too “Islamic,” and destroying many Uighur cemeteries.

While the Chinese government has begun to shut down some of these “re-education camps,” the Uighurs are far from free. Instead of forced internment, the Chinese government has begun to stage sham trials and has imprisoned many Uighurs in traditional prisons. Others have been sent to factories and other labor sectors in the hundreds of thousands, along with many additional Uighurs, forcing them into work.

To combat this, the US has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and the House of Representatives passed a Uighur human rights bill. However, President Trump told President Xi Jinping that he should “go ahead with building camps” as he thought it was “exactly the right thing to do.” 54 countries in the UN (including China) have rejected allegations against China and supported their policies, with only 23 nations finding China to be at fault.

At least 1 in 10 Uighurs were estimated to be detained in November of 2019, with the count supposed to be even higher today. Notwithstanding, the Uighur genocide has received very little press, with even less action taken against it. One can see that one way or another China is not innocent and neither are many other countries and numerous corporations, yet Uighurs are still silently taken away from their families for years, tortured, and killed.

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