75 years after the infamous acts of the Nazi regime in Germany, the shockwaves of disgust persist and reverberate around the world.
However, there is still something comparable to concentration camps today. They are “Vocational Education and Training Centres” run by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). VETCs are internment punishment camps operated by the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region government alongside its CPC committee. To fully understand the reasons for the Uighur community’s persecution, we must first delve into their history and relations to China.
Uighurs, Hanzu & Xinjiang
The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking minority ethnic group originating from and culturally affiliated with the general region of Central and East Asia. They are recognized as native to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in Northwest China.
Han people (also known as Han Chinese) comprise 92% of the Chinese population and are historically native to Eastern China.
Before the heavy migration of the Han Chinese to Xinjiang began, the population residing within the region consisted of Uighurs (Muslims) who regarded themselves as ethnically, culturally and politically aligned with Central Asian nations. With Communist China’s development in 1949, Xinjiang was annexed to become an official region in China, benefiting from its Silk Road via major improvements in agriculture, energy and trade. This thriving prosperity incentivized the migration of Han Chinese (natives) towards Xinjiang who now make up 43% of the population. With Uighurs being linked culturally towards Central Asian beliefs and ideals, their religious, cultural and commercial activities have been heavily discriminated against by the Chinese government – the main root of ethnic tensions. Uighurs’ protests have been punished by Chinese authorities through 85 identified “education centres” limiting the human rights of up to 2 million Uighurs.
Evidence and Information
A plethora of leaked evidence has been released, ranging from videos to written papers, exposing the atrocities that are being committed and subsequently bringing them to light. The human rights violations being committed against the Uighurs within the camps are documented and available to all.
Chinese officials maintain that human rights are not infringed but abstain from allowing access to journalists, media and foreign investigators to report on the state of the camps and the conditions of their detainees. Not only Uighurs but ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks have been under persecution for reasons such as “having relatives abroad”, “applying for passports”, “growing long beards” and “being Muslim”.
Uighurs are forced to pledge loyalty to the CCP, denounce Islam, sing praises for Xi Jinping and learn Mandarin according to recent reports. Older evidence also sheds light on the prison-like conditions where constant monitoring, excessive torture and sexual abuse has become a regularity for “prisoners”.
With up to 18 of the 30 Human Rights being directly violated within these horrifying camps and 39 camps tripling in size between 2017 and 2018, the logical question of “why” arises.
Reason and Vision
Primarily, the establishment and growth of these camps can be attributed to 2 reasons.
Given past resentment from the Uighurs and certain terrorist attacks in Xinjiang perpetrated by Uighur militants, Chinese officials are concerned that the Uighurs hold and spread extremist, separatist and toxic ideas and hence the method to eliminate this ideology is through state-run camps. Within a series of secret speeches in Xinjiang in 2014 (later revealed by the New York Times in 2019), President Xi Jinping warned of the “toxicity of religious extremism” and advocated the termination of such beliefs via the tools of “dictatorship”, laying down the groundwork for detention centres.
After Chen Quanguo’s (Xinjiang’s Communist Party Secretary) appointment, he dramatically intensified security and began to “round everyone up” according to a New York Times report. However, the justification of detention centres trapping up to 2 million Uighurs because a few Uighurs hold and carry out extremist views does not seem valid. Given China’s vying nature for greater economic dominance, the second reason holds greater weight and is likely closer to the truth.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the mid-1990s, many Central Asian (Muslim-dominant) states rose to independence. However, Xinjiang continued to be oppressed by China whilst activists were forced underground. Over time, the Uighur population was heavily discriminated against with many losing jobs, continually being paid low wages, and mosques and halal food being made harder to find resulting in decreasing prosperity cycles. Their contrasting Han Chinese natives were being paid higher, educated in renowned facilities and hence were becoming more and more technically qualified.
Uighur labour and land are vital to the growth of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This is a global infrastructure development strategy to connect Asia with Europe and Africa via land and maritime networks along six corridors to improve regional integration, increasing trade and stimulating economic growth.
With Xinjiang becoming central to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, China hopes to eradicate any separatist ideas to continue Xinjiang’s development (home to China’s largest coal and natural gas reserves). Through the use of cheaper labour (primarily Uighur population), China’s massive development plan through Europe and Asia can be built at faster rates with greater “oppression” being used on Uighurs to speed up work rates at a minimal cost.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that (since 2017) eighty thousand (previously detained) Uighurs have been sent to factories throughout China linked to eighty-three global brands. Researchers from the Center for Strategic and International Studies say forced labour is an important element of the government’s plan for Xinjiang’s economic development, which includes making it a hub of textile and apparel manufacturing. Through such plans, China is attempting to get away with forced labour, inadequate working conditions, and human rights violations – just some of the many crimes being committed.
The primarily logical question which is raised now is how countries, organizations and individuals are responding to the plight of the Uighurs.
The Global Response
Human Rights Organizations, European Countries, and UN officials have raised questions and demanded access to the camps whilst also calling on China to respect and appreciate religious freedom, change Xinjiang policies and eliminate its Uighurs targeted discrimination. In July 2019, 22 countries signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Chief in Xinjiang condemning Chinese measures whilst Turkey became the first (and only) Muslim-majority country to call on China to ensure the “full protection of the cultural identities of the Uighurs and other Muslims”.
Muslim-majority countries, on the other hand, remain silent, applauding China’s stance as justified by the letter sent by 37 Muslim-majority countries where the “remarkable achievements” in “counter-terrorism efforts” were congratulated.
Delving deeper, many of these countries have strong political and economic ties with China through trade routes and bilateral aid agreements. China is now a more active and influential voice at the United Nations because many countries are benefiting from billions in Chinese investments through its “Belt and Road” infrastructure programme. As Norway found in 2010, and Australia found this year when it asked for an international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, those who blaspheme against China face political break-ups and threats. Political ties, international constraints and threats seem to efficiently explain the silence encompassing the distance between the Xinjiang region and the Muslim-majority countries who refuse to speak up. They’d rather extract their benefits from China’s programmes and turn a blind eye elsewhere.
Under Xi Jinping, China continues to persecute Uighurs, Kazakhs and Uzbeks for their religious beliefs and cultural ideals whilst the UN and Europe remain powerless alongside the Middle-East watching from the side-lines. The latter’s hypocrisy is almost comical if you take a brief look at the past. Iran, Egypt, Syria and dozens of other countries that could not tolerate a cartoon drawing seemingly can live with the mass sexual abuse of Muslim women. Those are the unfortunate workings of the modern world. Whilst it is a pessimistic perspective, it is, unfortunately, a true one.