In recent days, footage emerged on social media showing what appeared to be blindfolded Uighur Muslims being placed on trains and allegedly transported to ‘re-education camps’ within China’s Xinjiang province.
Evidence of the treatment of the Uighur Muslims minority within the westernmost region of China has been known about for several years, with the existence of such camps emerging in 2017, after several years of alleged abuses against the population of China’s largest semi-autonomous region.
Following the emergence of this footage, political commentator and campaigner Maajid Nawaz, promoted a petition, before going on a hunger strike until the petition reached the 100,000 signatures required for a debate to be held in parliament; the petition has since surpassed 120,000 signatures and will be considered for parliamentary debate.
Speaking in Parliament on Monday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, raised the issue of the Uighur Muslims during a statement on China and Hong Kong, before being pressed further on the issue by Shadow Foreign Secretary, Lisa Nandy.
More MPs went on to discuss the issue further in the House of Commons, with many members urging Dominic Raab to call the treatment of the Uighur Muslims a genocide; with forced abortion and other methods being reportedly applied to limit the birth rates of the Uighur people.
Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, pressed Raab to take more stringent action and work with the United Kingdom’s global allies to ensure that the issue is addressed fully, and strongly, through a global effort.
What has been happening in Xinjiang?
Xinjiang has been an autonomous region of China since 1949 when the Communist Party took power under Mao Tse-Tung [Zedong], although it is often called East Turkestan by the Uighur people – they have continually claimed that it should be independent of China.
There has been a reported 84% drop in birth rates amongst Xinjiang’s Uighur population over the last few years, thought to be as a direct result of the policies pursued by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) towards the Uighur Muslims.
In addition to the drone footage, it has recently emerged that 13 tonnes of human hair – allegedly shaved from the heads of Uighurs for use as hair extensions – had been seized by United States customs officials in recent weeks, bringing echoes of the holocaust and only deepening the calls for the United Kingdom’s government to take more stringent action against the CCP.
During his statement, Raab had announced sanctions on the Chinese Government for their actions in Hong Kong but avoided tackling the Uighur issue more deeply, beyond discussing the need for greater scrutiny and condemning the obvious “human rights violations” that had been seen in recent weeks.
The CCP has made limited comments on the issue of the Uighur Muslims, with the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom going as far as to deny that the recent drone images had shown human riots violations, during an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr.
Liu Xiaoming challenged “so-called western intelligence” and suggested that the video footage was a smear against China, going as far as to call it “fake”, despite the footage being verified by intelligence agencies and independent experts throughout the world.
China’s Communist Party have previously stated that the decision to place several million Uighurs in “re-education camps” is motivated by terrorism within the Xinjiang region, however, presented limited evidence as to the necessity of this action, whilst the forced removal of children from their parents and widespread forced sterilisation and birth control constitutes genocide under the United Nation’s definition of genocide.
Although the definition of what is happening in Xinjiang perhaps does not seem important, the use of the term genocide would be a significant step amongst the international community and would likely result in far more significant and coordinated global efforts against the Chinese Government.
Uighur people are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority within China, who have a long history of being persecuted within the country. The current internment of these people brings echoes of the holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s, where Jewish people were forced into internment camps, before being killed en-masse by the Nazi state.
China’s government insist that their internment of the Uighur people does not infringe on their human rights, claiming that they are vocational training centres; they have continually refused to allow journalists and foreign access to these camps. Leaked Chinese Government data show that the vast majority of those held have not been charged with any crime, allegedly detained for actions such as attending Mosques or practising their religion.
How is the world responding?
The UK Government are planning to introduce a Magnitsky law in response to the current actions of China – a law that will target people who commit gross human rights abuses – similar to that passed in the United States against Russia in 2012. In 2016 this was extended, with the US Congress passing Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which allows the U.S. Government to sanction foreign government officials implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world.
The Foreign Office has been criticised for acting too slowly on this, although the government insist that it is more important to focus on ensuring that the legislation is robust against legal challenge, allowing it to be enacted and hold CCP officials to account over the abhorrent treatment of the Uighur minority.
The United States Government believe that they have enough evidence against CCP officials to impose significant sanctions against China, with intelligence suggesting that up to two million people are currently being held in internment camps, with half a million children being removed from their parents and placed in state-run educational institutions – likely aimed at significant cultural genocide.
Given the recent actions by the Chinese government in Hong Kong and Xinjiang – since Xi Jinping took power in 2013 – it is likely that the CCP see these actions as part of a broader effort to bring semi-autonomous regions under centralised control.
Whilst information of activities inside the camps is limited, reports suggest that there is rampant sexual abuse, whilst interned Uighur people are forced to pledge loyalty to the CCP and renounce their religion.
Given the emergence of this footage in recent days, it appears that after three years of public knowledge, the world is finally paying more attention to the actions of China against the Uighur minority and that there is growing willingness to challenge China’s Government on their actions.