Uyghur genocide proves need to confront China

Anthony Lopez, Senior Writer

Since 2017, Uyghurs, the second-largest Muslim ethnic group in China, have been sent in droves to internment camps within their native region of Xinjiang. Acts like these are an affront to human rights and tantamount to cultural erasure of millions, yet these events rarely enter the news. This is due to a potent combination of China’s successful ability to suppress information within their own country, as well as a worrying hesitance from the international community to take meaningful action against a country that has rapidly become a powerhouse in the global economy, while simultaneously stripping the rights of millions.

These steps began in 2014, when the Chinese government enacted measures to move around one million Uyghurs illegally from their homes and into internment camps, the largest since World War II. They are ripped from their families and trapped in prisons where they undergo “reeducation,” a series of indoctrination programs that forces Uyghurs from their devotion to Islam to becoming committed supporters of the Chinese Communist Party.  

The children of those taken away are sent to facilities, likened as boarding schools by the government. Yet these are far more similar to orphanages that maintain the similar philosophies of indoctrination found in the internment camps. 

Reports have arisen from within these camps that thousands of Uyghurs have been placed under forced labor, with built-in facilities specializing in shoemaking, mobile phone assembly and tea packaging.

China at first vehemently denied the existence of these camps, yet when their locations were identified, the government’s stance shifted from denial to softening their perceived severity, claiming they were nothing more than vocational education centers designed to erode extremist tendencies within the Uyghur community. These camps were officially legalized by the Chinese government in 2018, with the country’s former foreign minister arguing that these actions were intended to improve Xinjiang and crack down on ethnic separatist activities.

But it is not merely the internment camps that present the removal of human rights in Xinjiang, but also a harsh crackdown on its citizens through invasive surveillance that serves to profile Uyghurs and, essentially, preemptively condemn them for their potential to commit crimes. It is regarded as one of the first known examples of a government applying artificial intelligence programming for racial profiling, and has provided police and authorities with easier methods to identify those that they deem necessary to be sent to the region’s camps. 

Despite such brazen attempts from the Chinese government to effectively erase Uyghur culture, the international response has been a mixed-bag. Some countries, like Russia and Saudi Arabia, have defended the country’s actions. Others, such as Australia and Canada, have condemned the camps and the treatment of the Uyghurs, with the latter officially recognizing the actions as genocide and joining a handful of countries to have done so. In July 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council condemned China for their abuse of Uyghurs.

The United States was notably the first country to declare the actions as genocide near the end of January, and in July of last year passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy (UHRP) Act, which mandated that federal U.S. government bodies report on events and abuses undertaken in China while condemning the human rights violations.

Recognition is a critical first step towards meaningful action against China for their actions, even if the responses were delayed. But condemnation amounts to nothing if it is not followed by consequence. Sanctions were recently placed on senior members of China’s politburo, coordinated by the United States, European Union and several other countries. This continues steps taken by the UHRP Act, which had also placed sanctions on a few select members of China’s electing body.  

The collective condemnation of China’s actions through multilateral sanctions can hopefully be viewed as a growing movement of unity to pressure the country economically or diplomatically. Even countries which formally defended China’s actions in 2019, such as Qatar, had switched their position towards that of criticism. What remains critical is to withhold from backsliding or stagnation from these collective efforts, and countries maintain this momentum.

Let there be no mistake here: the abuses of Uyghurs in China constitute some of the worst crimes against humanity in modern history. The accounts from those within the camps detail forced sterilizations, and organ harvesting of Uyghurs are among numerous other accusations with growing evidence supporting its occurrences. There is no room for hesitance from the international community, nor notions that the job is done when a few sanctions have been made. More countries must join the effort against China for what is being undertaken in Xinjiang to free those still trapped in the camps and finally bring them back to their families. 

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