While the era of full-on totalitarian regimes is arguably over, a new era of so-called ‘political strongmen’ has arrived again. China is no exception to this, with its president Xi Jinping abolishing presidential term limits and his increasing aggression in the South China Sea alarming political analysts around the world. However, it is not on an international, but mostly on a domestic level that the Chinese Communist Party is contemptibly trying to wipe out any form of political resistance towards its policies. The most striking example today may just be that of the maltreatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, the western-most region of the republic.
The Uyghurs have long been a headache for Beijing, reaching a peak after mass protests in 2009, which led to the detainment of 1700+ protesters in Urumqi and the Uyghur-conducted 2013 car crash on Tiananmen square in Beijing, which killed 5. As a result, the government started a massive crackdown, sometimes even called a cultural genocide, on ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang and on their relatives abroad.
Examples of the arbitrary crackdown include the confiscation of passports, forced inter-ethnic marriage, high-tech surveillance as well as de-islamisation of individual persons, translating itself into the ubiquitous demolition of mosques, the prohibition to celebrate Ramadan and Eid, the cutting of long beards and criminalising the hijab and the usage of the term ‘halal’ for food products.
Most notoriously, more than 1 million Uyghurs have ‘disappeared’ into so-called re-education camps. Although Chinese authorities keep denying the existence of these, reports of the UN as well as ex-prisoner testimonials offer solid evidence of the existence and dystopian reality of a re-education camp.
Once inside, local officials do not shy away from forcing prisoners to denounce their Islamic faith, eat pork or declare loyalty to the Communist Party. People have been ruthlessly separated from their families, without any form of trial or possibility to contest their detainment. Additionally, several reports uncover how Uyghur children, after both parents were sent to the camps, are being sent to Han Chinese-led orphanages. In these orphanages, their identities are slowly being stripped away from them while they are forced to attend ‘Chinese culture’ classes and forbidden to use the Uyghur language with their peers.
Reasons for the need to be ‘re-educated’ or ‘de-radicalised’ range from having family abroad to attending Friday prayer at the mosque to engaging with foreigners to simply owning a tent.
Groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and several initiatives from Uyghur diaspora such as World Uyghur Congress, have written extensively about the so-called ‘re-education camps’, often referring to them as concentration camps. They stress their dismay at the political inaction of government leaders around the world, from whom – with the note-worthy exception of the Trump administration – political pressure to halt these human rights violations is so far reluctant.
It was only after demonstrations that the governments of Australia, Kazakhstan and the EU started to carefully address these extra-judicial human rights violations. Meanwhile, Beijing holds on tight to its ‘counter-terrorism measures’ narrative, classifying all Uyghurs as potential terrorists due to their faith or ethnicity and after several Uyghurs had gone to fight alongside ISIS several years ago.
This ‘terrorist threat’ is being used as a shameless excuse for China’s cultural homogenization policies and large-scale pervasive surveillance techniques. From the social credit system to tapping phone calls and conversations on the popular Chinese messaging app ‘WeChat’ to cameras on virtually every front door to surveillance drones in the shape of birds.
The totalitarian nature of the Chinese regime becomes even more clear when seeing the countless civilians with a cotton band around their arms that reads ‘安全’, meaning security. According to Alip Erkin*, a Uyghur journalist originally from Kashgar but now living in exile in Australia, these ‘security guards’ (often of Uyghur descent!) are assigned by local officials to keep an eye on everyone around and get paid to transfer information to officials, who then promptly send the suspects to a re-education camp for unspecified periods of time.
More recently, local officials started forcing Uyghurs to invite Han Chinese security officials into their homes and having them stay there for unspecified periods of time, so they can spy on potential ‘terrorist and extremist activities’ in private spheres too .Something about this ‘you cannot trust anyone’ rhetoric sounds suspiciously like a Stalinist regime.
If that wasn’t enough reason to be alarmed about what Xi Jinping has got in mind for the future, his words and political ideas have now constitutionally been placed on equal foot with those of Mao Zedong. The original communist party leader is – not unimportantly – being held responsible for 45 million deaths in his ‘Great Leap Forward’ strategy for China in the 1950s. Are the 11 million Uyghurs of Xinjiang next on that list?
While China may be deservedly claiming its spot among the world’s top economies, it does so at a massive human cost. However, the worst may be how most political leaders in Europe as well as the wider Muslim world turn a blind eye on these practices and prefer to keep good relations with China not to hurt their economic dependency.
In today’s interconnected world, failing to react means just as much as standing by the aggressor. Whether we stay silent and let this continue to develop into a potential genocide, or take action for history not to repeat itself, the choice is ultimately our own.
*Names in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.