Examining the Violation of Human Rights in Xinjiang
Updated: Mar 15
tw: rape, sexual abuse, violence, torture, ethnic genocide
Since 2017, the Chinese government has run a campaign under the pretense of anti-terrorism efforts to carry out mass-systematic abuse against the Uyghur minority and other Muslim groups living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China. This campaign reveals an intent to target Uyghurs based on ethnicity and religion to halt their Islamic and cultural practices. The government aims to indoctrinate Uyghurs to accept state-sanctioned views and behaviors to guarantee unwavering loyalty.
For the past several years, reports have detailed the Uyghur genocide occurring in the XUAR in China. The genocide has garnered international attention as ongoing reports of human rights violations are exposed to the public. President Joe Biden signed The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into legislation to push back against the treatment of the Uyghur minority and other Muslim ethnic groups. The law would ban goods coming from Xinjiang, as it presumes that all imports were produced through forced labor. Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley said that this act would "ensure American consumers and businesses can buy goods without inadvertent complicity with China's horrific human rights abuses."
Despite this legislation and ongoing coverage, the Chinese government has denied any wrongdoing and claimed the detention camps are vocational training schools that were established to combat religious extremism and terrorism. Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C., said that the act "is a severe violation of international law and norms of international relations, and a gross interference in China's internal affairs. China strongly condemns and firmly rejects it."
Although this is the first official legislation in the United States in response to the dire situation in Xinjiang, Western companies have pushed back against products and materials originating from the region in the past. Beijing recently accused Walmart of "stupidity and shortsightedness" when Chinese news outlets reported that Xinjiang-produced items had been removed from shelves. Walmart is not the first brand to boycott goods from the region. In 2020, the Better Cotton Initiative, a fashion industry coalition that includes name brands like H&M and Adidas, promised to halt all relations with Xinjiang over the forced labor allegations. Chinese consumers were angered with Western brands, and in response, they boycotted those brands. Brands like Adidas and Puma experienced a 15% drop in third-quarter sales, while H&M lost about 37% of their sales in their latest quarterly report.
Western-based boycotts display a general awareness and understanding of the crisis in Xinjiang on a corporate economic level, but they fail to fully contextualize the human rights violation at hand. On the surface, consumers may see boycotts as brands resourcing their materials, but this is a passive method of combating the infringement of human rights. There is a humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang, and boycotts alone will not directly prevent the ethnic cleansing of Uyghurs and the other Muslim minorities detained in the camps. A deeper understanding of the humanitarian crisis is necessary for impactful efforts against it. So what exactly is happening in Xinjiang, and why does it matter?
Xinjiang is a landlocked region in northwest China, and it borders many West Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It is home to 12 million Turkic Uyghurs and many other ethnic minorities, including Kazakhs, Pamiris, and Uzbeks. In the past decades, Xinjiang has seen increased migration of Han Chinese to the area, allegedly organized by the government to dilute the minority population.
Allegations of the mass incarceration camps first emerged in 2018. However, in 2005, Human Rights Watch documented the “systematic repression of religion … in Xinjiang as a matter of considered state policy” at a “level of punitive control seemingly designed to entirely refashion Uyghur religious identity to the state’s purposes.” The repression included reports about the arrest, torture, and execution of peaceful activists. In 2009, the Chinese government accused the World Uyghur Congress of planning riots after protests in Ürümqi turned violent after six Uyghur men were subject to an unsubstantiated rumor of raping two Han women. Many of the witnesses present at the protests said that they were peaceful until the Chinese paramilitary arrived to quell the protests. Experts agree that this was the event that triggered the Chinese government's crackdown on the Turkish minority and marked a turning point in terms of the ethnic tensions in Xinjiang. The Chinese government began to pressure the Turkish Muslim minority, engaging in human rights violations including mass surveillance, arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and persecution.
In 2019, 403 internal documents were leaked to the New York Times by an anonymous Chinese politician. ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims, also known as the 'Xinjiang Papers,' reveal startling details about the crackdown. President Xi Jinping created the groundwork for the crackdown back in 2014 after Uyghur militants stabbed 150 people at a train station. Xi declared it a "struggle against terrorism" and showing "absolutely no mercy" was imperative to combat future acts of terrorism. The internment camps rapidly grew in 2016 under the new director, Chen Quanguo. When he was met with resistance and hesitancy from his officers, he purged anyone who questioned his authority and demanded that officials should "round up everyone who should be rounded up." There are believed to be a million Turkic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities detained in the camps. The documents contain reports on the surveillance and control of the Uyghur people, internal speeches from President Xi and other officials, and plans to extend restrictions on Islam to other parts of China.
Human rights groups investigated the crisis and suspected genocide occurring in Xinjiang. The Uyghur Human Rights Project told the BBC that at least 630 imams and other religious figures have been detained for "propagating extremism" and "inciting separatism" since 2014. Families of the detainees said the only crime is practicing their religion. This repression of religion is a blatant show of the government's authoritative power, directly violating their constitution and human rights. Article 36 says, "Citizens of the People’s Republic of China shall enjoy the freedom of religious belief" and that no organization or individual can coerce other citizens to believe in or not to believe in any religion. They also state that they can not discriminate against citizens for their religious beliefs.
Amnesty International compiled many first-hand accounts about the situation in Xinjiang. Some were former detainees, while others were witnesses. When detainees asked why they were being arrested, officers said they were classified as “suspicious,” “untrustworthy,” or as a “terrorist” or an “extremist.” In an interview, a former detainee explained the process, or lack thereof, of their arrest, "[After I was detained the second time] I asked the village chief [why I was detained]. He said, ‘We are doing what we are told. We don’t know why. All people who are traveling abroad go to the camp. You have no right to ask questions. If you ask why it will be seen as resistance. It will not be good for you. You will get answers in the camp."
Other reports detail the torture and abuse committed by the guards at the internment camps. A recent study conducted by the U.S. State Department and AP News claims that Uyghur women were subjects to involuntary contraceptive procedures and systematic rape after statistics revealed a drop in birth rates in Ughyur-populated areas. Women were involuntarily fitted with intrauterine devices, while others were coerced into receiving sterilization surgery. Tursunay Ziawudun, a former detainee who fled after her release, said that masked men would sexually abuse women. Gulzira Auelkhan, a Kazakh woman, said, "My job was to remove their clothes above the waist and handcuff them so they cannot move. Then I would leave the women in the room and a man would enter - some Chinese man from outside or a policeman. I sat silently next to the door, and when the man left the room I took the woman for a shower." When asked if the camps had organized rape, Auelkhan said, "Yes, rape." Uyghur women faced sexual abuse nightly, so much that they feared for their lives because they were not permitted to tell anyone. Ziawudun said that the system was designed to destroy their spirits. "Their goal is to destroy everyone," she said, "And everybody knows it."
These reports reveal a greater level of authoritative power exercised on the Uyghurs than previously assumed, and therefore, they demand action. Despite Western boycotts on Xinjiang-produced cotton and the novel legislation, these actions do not directly address the mass ethnic genocide occurring within the camps, and they don't prevent non-U.S.-based companies from sourcing goods from Xinjiang. Other brands, such as Anta Sports Products, are still sourcing their cotton from the region, rendering the U.S. legislation null. Rather than looking at economics, businesses need to focus their attention on the morality of the situation.
For almost a decade, China has been accused of mass surveillance, ethnic cleansing, torture, abuse, and several other human rights violations. Yet, the government denies all wrongdoings by claiming the allegations of genocide are unfounded. Other organizations like the United Nations are preparing to release reports about the systematic abuse occurring in Xinjiang. Humanitarian efforts ultimately lead to more effective change. The public can not turn a blind eye to the mass ethnic genocide occurring in the Xinjiang region. From Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Xinjiang Data Project, there are several sources of first-hand accounts for the public to educate themselves. With a growing amount of first-hand accounts, resources, and investigative reports, there is even more reason to pay attention to the violation of human rights in Xinjiang. The world can not ignore their voices any longer.
Editors: Rachel C., Stephanie C., Blenda Y., Amshu V.
This article was originally written in February 2022
Image Credits: Dilara Senkaya - Reuters