Turning a Blind Eye: The Forgotten Persecution of Muslims in North-West China

Turning a Blind Eye: The Forgotten Persecution of Muslims in North-West China

[Written by Beth Leishman]

[Image Credit: China Stringer Network/Reuters]

The Xinjiang region in North-West China has become infamous for large-scale ‘re-education camps’ established by the central government, where up to 1 million people are allegedly held without trial. Most of these people are Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority. The first claims about the camps surfaced in 2015, and since then satellite photos have revealed that the internment camps across the Xinjiang region have markedly increased in size, almost doubling on the Dabancheng site between April and October 2018. No longer able to deny their existence, the Chinese state has launched a media campaign to negate international criticism. Interestingly, it is not just official agencies bolstering the campaign, but many Han Chinese individuals themselves. A recent case reported in The Washington Post, for example, involved Chinese students at McMaster University in Canada coordinating with Chinese Embassy officials to threaten a Uyghur activist speaking on campus against the Xinjiang camps. The Chinese government is branding these camps as ‘legalised, self-referral education centres’, aimed at combating Islamic extremism and unifying the inhabitants of a historically rebellious region under government control. However, testimonies from ex-inmates suggest a much darker reality lurks behind closed doors.

Mihrigul Tursun, a 29-year-old Uyghur woman and ex-Xinjiang detainee, spoke out at a U.S. hearing in November last year about the abuse which she suffered whilst living in one of the camps for a total of ten months over the course of three years. In footage of the hearing made available by ‘Hong Kong Free Press’, Tursun explained that upon her return to China from Egypt in 2015, she was swiftly arrested, handcuffed, blindfolded, and separated from her two-month-old triplets. Upon her release three months later, she found out that her eldest son had died whilst in the hands of her captors. In April 2017, Tursun was detained for a second time, and recalls suffering ongoing seizures following an interrogation for four consecutive days and nights without sleep. Her third internment came in January 2018. Tursun was blindfolded, chained at the wrists and ankles, and taken to a hospital. Stripped naked, she underwent tests on a computerised machine, before being taken to one of the camps dressed in a blue prison uniform.

The positive picture that Chinese state propaganda paints of these ‘education’ camps is a far cry from the horror and torture described by ex-prisoners. Tursun recalls the underground cell in which she and around sixty other people were placed, and how fifteen of them had to rotationally stand, in order to allow the rest to lie down on the floor. The ‘education’ provided in the camps consists of memorising Chinese Communist rhetoric, and pleading repentance for transgressing against state order. Food is scarce, and those who are not able to commit the book of Communist slogans to memory quick enough experience beatings. Prisoners are forced to take hallucinatory pills and to drink an unknown white liquid, which combine to limit cognition and reduce conscious awareness. Tursun’s account reveals how this concoction of chemical substances stopped menstruation in some women, caused excessive bleeding for others, and in some cases even resulted in death. When detailing the excruciating pain of the torture suffered at these camps—which included electrocution—Tursun recalls how ‘I begged them to kill me’. Upon asking a guard what crime she had committed that justified this treatment, they replied that simply being a Uyghur was reason enough. In light of testimonies such as these, official statements like the one made in the Summer of 2017 by Xinjiang’s deputy foreign publicity director, Ailiti Saliyev, that “the happiest Muslims in the world live in Xinjiang”, ought to be exposed as the unadulterated lies they are.

The large-scale, state-funded project of persecution currently carried out in Xinjiang against the Uyghur people is one of the biggest human rights impeachments of modern time. The Chinese government, however, maintain that the camps are legal, necessary, and for a noble cause—even in the face of mounting international speculation. Public officials, as well as complicit Han Chinese citizens, purport that the camps serve a precautionary, anti-extremist function, primarily in response to the string of Uyghur terrorist attacks staged against the state in recent years, such as the 2009 riots in Ürümqi, Xinjiang’s capital, and the 2013 attack in Tiananmen Square. Nevertheless, activists like Rukiye Turdush claim the real motivation behind the camps to be the ethnocentric ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and that the ultimate goal at hand is the complete erasure of Uyghur identity. This interpretation has led some observers to brand the activity in Xinjiang as ‘cultural genocide’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’, as many that disappear into the camps fail to return, and those that do get released are often irreparably changed. For— as well as serving President Xi Jinping’s hard-line policy of persecution and detainment—the ‘re-education’ camps also have an agenda of indoctrination. The state’s multi-million-pound gulags—which are under constant constructional expansion and installed with the most advanced surveillance systems—intend to infiltrate the minds of those detained there, in order to induce brainwashing effects. In conversation with a BBC reporter, an anonymous ex-Xinjiang detainee described how he witnessed the transformation of inmates into ‘robots’, who ‘seemed to have lost their souls’ or ‘lost their memory after a car crash’. The Uyghur community in the Xinjiang region are irrefutably being denied their rights, their dignity, and their cultural identity.

Arguably, the most shocking element to the systematic torture taking place in Xinjiang is the lack of any serious opposition to it. Although global awareness of the persecution against Uyghurs in Xinjiang has risen significantly – despite China’s best efforts to keep it concealed – the response of foreign governments remains seemingly complacent and uncaring. A large number have questioned why the Muslim world in particular have remained so silent on the issue, accusing countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia for prioritising their economic interdependence with China over religious solidarity with the victimised Muslims of North-West China. This criticism gains credence considering China’s status as the second largest global economy, and Xi Jinping’s pledge of $20 billion in loans, and about $106 million in financial aid, to Middle Eastern nations last year.

However, seeing the onus of challenging China’s torturous regime against the Uyghur people as reserved to those who share their cultural/religious affinities is both reductive and irresponsible. A pertinent article in The Independent last August concluded that ‘the horror in Xinjiang is not a China issue, it’s a global issue’. The evidence for the injustices currently taking place in Xinjiang, from witness accounts to satellite photos, is now undeniable; despite stirring a media uproar, few real political or administrative actions have been enacted. Anyone opting to ignore this issue is, by default, passively complicit in the ongoing persecution of the Uyghur people. Our hesitation as a global community in admonishing this blatant human rights infringement is shameful, and beyond excuse.

Click here for a petition against the treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang 

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