By Artemis Sianni-Wedderburn, BA Politics and Arabic
Northeastern China is home to the theoretically autonomous Xinjiang province, with a Turkic-Muslim Uyghur cultural and religious minority since the province’s 1949 incorporation into the People’s Republic of China. As one of the 55 nationally recognised minorities, they are legally endowed to group-specific rights as they have a group-specific language (Uighur) and religious beliefs (Islam) differing to primarily Buddhist China.
Xinjiang, in addition to being a geographical key for expanding Chinese economic imperialism – spearheaded by the 2013 Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – has also been subject to government galvanised migration of ethnic Han. The deliberate destruction of Uyghur cultural sites, as well as persecution on the basis of ethnicity suggests genocidal behaviour, catalysed during the 2020 pandemic through the abuse of emergency powers. Moreover, as of 2017 there are over a million Uyghurs in government ‘re-education camps’, locally and accurately known as gulags.
Chairman Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ (GLF) (1958-62), identified religion and ethnicity as ‘obstacles to progress’. Hurried land reform and collectivisation led to the ‘Great Chinese Famine’ (1959-61); as the Xinjiang province was slightly more self-governing, the GLF was not as catastrophic compared to the rest of the country. This resulted in the widespread migration of Han Chinese who make up 92% of China’s population. Migration heightened in 1980, as people fled the ‘One-Child Policy’, enlarging the Han population and subsequently ‘othering’ the Uyghurs.
Of recent, 42% of Xinjiang is Uyghur, compared to 76% in 1949, which gave the Uyghurs a minority status in the early 2000’s. Despite the supposed autonomous nature of Xinjiang, it is still party to government policies – the repressive national security law passed in June 2020 is only the beginning. Additionally, reduced numbers make it harder for Uyghurs to facilitate revolt; this works in the favour of the government who wants to Sinicise the region – and the country – with the Xi Jinping school of thought. Indoctrination presented as political theory has already begun to seep into the public schooling system.
Furthermore, by aligning the Uyghurs with the 9/11 attacks, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has effectively branded them as terrorists affected by “the virus” of Islam. The camps are justified as necessary measures to prevent separatist violence, claiming that the Uyghurs are detained willingly. As the primary method of sinicisation, inmates are beaten, forced to learn Mandarin and banned from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. There have also been several reports of live organ harvesting for public hospitals. Unfortunately, China has succeeded in making human rights about subsistence and development of the country, rather than the individual freedom of its inhabitants.
A genocide is defined as the ‘deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation and ethnic group’. Raising parliamentary and public awareness will help classify the Uyghur situation as a genocide. The ‘Foundation for Uyghur Freedom’ (@foundation4uyghurfreedom) and the ‘SOAS Uyghur Society’ (@soasuyghursociety) attempt to aid in this process. Branding the situation as a genocide will make it possible to implement international sanctions and reprimands (e.g. Magnitsky sanctions), which are key to stopping the abuses of human rights occurring.
The persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar serves as a warning to the dangers of non-acknowledgement – ethnic cleansing, government-sanctioned rape and persecution on the basis of religion have been ongoing since 2016. There are sad parallels between the Uyghur and Rohingya genocides, demonstrated through the ‘pair up and become a family’ campaign. Han men forcibly marry and subsequently rape Uyghur women with the intention of diluting bloodlines – acts that are sanctioned by the CCP. However, genocide designation will hinder China. The BRI would be called into question, and with it the growing influence of economic imperialism based in China.
By forgiving national debt of weaker countries in exchange for interconnected Chinese trade routes, China is successfully, and somewhat quietly expanding its sphere of influence. The cost is Uyghur livelihoods. In an ever capitalist world, it is important to distinguish whether trade trumps truth and how far the international community is willing to let China free, as regional domination turns global. The Beijing 2022 Olympics will bring publicly, hopefully accompanied by scrutiny. The rest is up to us.
Photo Caption: The Uighur are a Muslim group located in Xinjiang (Credit: Kemal Aslan/Rex/Shutterstock).