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As many as a million Muslims in China’s western territory of Xinjiang have been detained in “reeducation” camps designed to force them to assimilate traditional Chinese culture, according to human rights groups and media reports.
The detainees are members of the Uighur ethinic group, a Turkic-speaking minority that has been under Chinese rule since the mid-20th century. Reports of widespread detention began surfacing in 2018, but the breadth of the campaign has been difficult to verify because of China’s tight control of information within its borders.
A series of leaks in recent months have detailed what advocacy groups describe as an attempt to erase Uighur identity from the region in what some have called a “cultural genocide.” Reports from inside the camps allege human rights violations including torture, rape, sterilization and forcing Uighurs to defy their Muslim faith. Outside the camps, China has been accused of razing thousands of mosques and Uighur cultural sites while instituting a high-tech surveillance state to spy on residents.
China initially denied the existence of the camps, then later said they were necessary to prevent Islamist terrorism. On Monday the head of the Xinjiang regional government said all people detained in the camps had “graduated” and been released back into society. He offered no proof of these claims.
Why there’s debate
Pushback against China was slow to materialize after reports of the camps first started coming out last year, but the international community has become more vocal as details of the alleged abuses surface.
Officials from several countries, including the United States, have condemned China’s actions. The local government’s claim that detainees have been released, even if it proves to be untrue, shows that international pressure is working, some argue.
Advocates say that limited sanctions and finger-wagging from other nations is far too little to ensure safety and freedom for the Uighurs. Western leaders have been accused of prioritizing their economic relationship with China ahead of the human rights of the Uighur people. President Trump has been specifically criticized for remaining quiet on abuses in Xinjiang as he pursued a trade deal with China, that was reportedly reached in principle on Thursday.
The U.S. House of Representative has passed a bill that would place sanctions on Chinese officials in response to Uighur detention. It must now be approved by the Senate and signed by the president before it would go into effect. It’s uncertain whether Trump would ultimately sign the bill if it came to his desk. President Trump has been hesitant to challenge China, but he did approve legislation backing protesters in Hong Kong in late November.
A first-person view of what’s happening is critical to building a response
“European countries must insist more forcefully than they have thus far that Western diplomats be guaranteed unimpeded access to Xinjiang. It is important that they get a firsthand look at a situation that only very few journalists have thus far laid eyes on.” — Bernhard Zand, Der Spiegel
Average people can avoid buying products from China
“Would Americans be willing to pay more, or use billions of dollars in trade, to bargain for more human rights for the Chinese people who provide Americans with so much? What does it have to do with us? Look down at our shoes, our phones and our toys.” — Scott Simon, NPR
Substantial repercussions from the international community are needed
“Given that Beijing will continue to evade and obfuscate no matter the evidence put forward, the international community must now exert a real cost on China for its behaviour. No such cost has yet been levied, and this is why little has changed for Uighurs on the ground. China will have to start to hurt for anything to change.” — Peter Irwin, Independent
Muslim countries need to step up
“Leading Muslim nations are helping the Chinese cover up what is being done in Xinjiang in return for billions of dollars of investment. This is a deeply uncomfortable truth for the world’s Islamic community or Ummah. It is almost beyond belief that one country can imprison one million Uighurs because of their religion and the Muslim world remains silent.” — David O’Brien, Irish Times
No international response will sway China’s hand
“Simply put, China is big enough and powerful enough that it doesn't need to care what the rest of the world thinks of it.” — Alexandra Ma, Business Insider
Acting as if China is impervious to criticism is a mistake
“States need to be reminded that China is not the immovable object that many make it out to be. Chinese leaders have shown themselves remarkably sensitive to criticism. … It is now clear that Chinese leaders are concerned that their Orwellian experiment in Xinjiang will come undone if it is met with broad censure from the international community.” — Peter Irwin, Guardian
Western nations are too reliant on China to muster any real response
“Our leaders are not prepared to deal with China. Not only do they lack the cunning and the willpower — they lack the requisite bargaining tools. We are in too deep, and China knows it. Any concession we could possibly demand of them will require a corresponding one that we are unable to grant.” — Matthew Walther, the Week
More awareness of the issue needs to be spread
“Whether it’s a five-second repost of data concerning the number of deaths and detainments inflicted on Uyghurs, or simply creating your own post and sharing it amongst the community, you are assisting in spreading awareness.” — Bengisu Incetas, Tacoma Ledger
Western leaders must forget about the economic implications of speaking out
“America has not pushed the Uighurs' case for fear of jeopardizing the ongoing trade talks with China. But the plight of the Uighurs must not be reduced to mere numbers, figures on a balance sheet.” — Rushan Abbas, USA Today
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Kemal Aslan/Depo Photos via ZUMA Wire