Foreign Affairs

Uyghur “Re-Education” Camps: The Overlooked Tragedy In Western China

Article by staff writer

When a million people are put into concentration camps because of their ethnic identities, and others are beaten or killed in the streets, one might expect an outcry from the international community. However, after decades of “never again” rhetoric it appears that we are all once again falling short, as we have so many times in the last 50 years. The spectre of ethnic cleansing haunts us once again in the western Xinjiang region of China. Chinese authorities are rounding up ethnic Uyghur Muslims by the thousands, killing some, and locking many others in “re-education” facilities. However, the global press and many governments remain largely silent on the issue. Who are the Uyghurs and why is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership so determined to see them out of the way?

The word Uyghur describes an ethnic group indigenous to the border region of Western China from India to Kazakhstan and all the way to Mongolia. They are generally Sunni Muslims and speak a Turkic Language. As the majority population in the region, they have a long history of self-rule with established Uyghur kingdoms found at several points in between various foreign conquests. Since the People’s Liberation Army entered Xinjiang, there has been a strong separatist movement in the region that has occasionally and regrettably resulted in violence.

Under Premier Xi, the tendency of the CCP government to “maintain territorial integrity” by any means necessary has intensified. The party leadership tend to view separatist movements as an existential threat to China as a whole.

In the past decade Chinese authorities have stoked public fears of “radical Uyghur separatists” after a number of high profile attacks. Since a particularly deadly train station attack in 2014, Beijing has intensified a brutal campaign of repression in Xinjiang. Authorities restricted ethnic and religious practices as well as religious education. They have banned or subjected fines for religious names, clothing, and long beards, and in the last year they have maintained a program of internment to “re-educate” the population. This is in addition to well-documented disappearances of dissidents and regular press blackouts. Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have both estimated that well over a million Uyghurs may be in detention today, and the events have been characterized by other watchdog organizations as active ethnic cleansing. The repression is so severe that many Uyghurs feel that it is safer for them to flee to Afghanistan than it is to stay in China.

Despite the blatant and brutal oppression of Uyghurs, this issue remains shamefully under-reported by the international press. The average person in the United States is much more likely to be familiar with the oppression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar or even with the ongoing persecution of Tibetan Buddhists just south of Xinjiang. The first factor of this dynamic is that the story of this persecution has developed slowly over years. There are far fewer clicks and views in the modern news media landscape during a slow rolling atrocity than with an acute tragedy.

In addition to this, there are problems of reporting more specific to China. Chinese authorities are notorious for shutting out foreign press while most domestic press is under state control. In this particular region, censorship is much more intense than in any other region. If it is harder to get information out, we must rely on accounts from a trickle of escaping activists and refugees. Because the CCP government has the resources to keep dissidents in and journalists out, it is able to hide its misdeeds in a way in which other governments are unable.

Take, for example, the ongoing cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Both involve the dislodging of an indigenous Muslim population that authorities see as an existential threat. Press outlets, however, were able to cover the tragedies in Myanmar in much more detail. The coverage pushed governments around the world to condemn the vicious campaign. Myanmar has no real geopolitical might compared to the United States or China, so it was convenient for leaders to criticize, condemn, or otherwise take action. Leaders win political points without having to face serious reprisals and the state had much more limited infrastructure and international reach with which to silence activists and journalists. This is not the case in China.

Journalists risk their lives or their ability to work if they report on these events from within China. Any nation that dares to criticize the CCP faces threats to any economic ties that it might have. Even prominent leaders in the Muslim world refuse to poke the bear. Not a single head of state for a Muslim majority nation has publicly condemned the persecution. While this could certainly be considered blameworthy, many of the nations of the Middle East depend on China as a key importer of oil and gas. For states in Central Asia and South Asia, the economic ties are even deeper, and many of these states depend on China for military support, making confrontation a hard sell.

The only nation that could be considered powerful enough to raise real criticisms is the United States, but American authorities have been largely silent on the issue. In addition to economic concerns, more cynical observers might come to the conclusion that the condemnation of persecution against Muslims might draw unwanted comparisons to the United States’ treatment of Muslims both at home and abroad.

Ultimately, this silence will not provide greater economic benefit, nor will it be sufficient to avoid criticism levied toward the U.S. It will only mean that future generations will once again look back and wonder why we failed to speak up. If we want to really live up to our values as a nation, then we need to rethink the way we approach these kinds of tragedies as they happen. Especially when great powers in the world engage in ethnic cleansing, it is our duty to speak up. This does not necessarily mean some kind of direct intervention; in fact, this kind of strategy often does much more harm than good. But we need to strive to do better than we have in the past if we really want to live up to the ideals that we seem to demand from others.

That is also not to say that we should ignore atrocities when they happen in less powerful states. However, if we are serious about what we claim to be our values, we need to be sure that we don’t only apply them when it is convenient for us. Otherwise, we disappoint not only those languishing unjustly in chains and in front of police rifles, but also those who come after us that will judge us through the lens of history and feel our shame.

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