2022 Olympics Shine a Spotlight on China’s Record with Human Rights

The Olympics serve a global spotlight for the world’s best athletes. The tradition was born out of Ancient Greece over 3,000 years ago. After not being held for over a millennium, The Modern Olympics began once more in Athens, Greece in 1896, and have been held in alternating cities every four years since. The Winter Olympics began being held as a separate set of games in between each occurrence of the Summer Olympics in 1994.

The Olympics were famed not only for bringing the world’s most power athletes together for weeks of competition, but also for the prosperity they would bring to the host city. The Olympics bring in hundreds of thousands of tourists, and provide cities incentives to build state-of-the-art stadiums, creating new jobs locally. Despite this, the Olympics have also come under scrutiny in the last few years because they also bring major disadvantages to the host cities and nations.

To make way for new Olympic facilities, impoverished neighborhoods within cities are often demolished. This occurred in Beijing just fourteen years ago when they hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, and this mass eviction of the urban poor became an extremely hot topic during the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Games, when the city had to use Police Pacification Units to clear out the city’s favelas in a highly militarized way.

used to show one of china's new construction projects
The Olympics brings temporary economic prosperity to the host nation via the need for elaborate new construction projects, such as depicted in this image. SOURCE : Google Images

These acts of forced removal have been called out by human rights activists as dangerous violations of human rights, but this is not the only way human rights affects the Olympic games and their respective host cities. The worldwide attention the Olympics receive every two years highlights not only the host city, but the host nation. The 2022 Winter Olympics, hosted once again by Beijing, have put China into hot water as international press have scrutinized China’s alleged human rights violations. So what has been going on in China?

China’s Crackdown on Dissent

News outlets across the globe were fascinated by China’s COVID-19 protocols for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which began in early February. Using a massive amount of manpower and resources, China constructed an Olympic “bubble”, or quarantine zone which will house over 11,000 athletes from all over the world. The bubble consists of a “closed loop” of stadiums, conference centers, and over seventy hotels, and all athletes inside this bubble will have no contact with the wider Chinese population. The Chinese central government is taking precautions to absolute extremes, even warning citizens not to intervene if an Olympic vehicle is involved in a car crash while transporting athletes between facilities.

But China’s Olympic “bubble” serves a dual purpose – it also keeps Chinese human rights activists away from the games. Prominent human rights activist Hu Jia was placed under house arrest in order to keep him out of the public eye for the duration of the Winter games. In an interview with CNN, he wrote that “In China, people like me are called ‘domestic hostile forces’… that’s why they have to cut me off from the outside world”. Jia has been under house arrest since January 15.

Human rights activists, who have monitoring China for decades, report that crackdowns on activists and speech — which can range from shutting down social media accounts to house arrests, detentions or enforced disappearances — are typical in the lead up to high-profile events in China, where the Communist Party keeps a tight lid on dissent. But the situation continues to deteriorate in China as controls on dissent tighten year-round, and the protocols for “sensitive” and “normal” periods have begun to blur.

China’s Record with Human Rights 

The Human Rights Watch continues to watch China and their increased authoritarianism in the past few decades. Their 2021 report overviews several alarming trends in the Communist nation.

After the COVID-19 pandemic originated in the nation in the late fall of 2019, it was reported that “The Chinese government’s authoritarianism was on full display in 2020“. Authorities in China were criticized globally for initially trying to cover up the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan province. China has all refused to comply with international requests for an independent investigation into the government’s initial handling of the pandemic. It has also been alleged that Chinese authorities placed families of COVID victims under harsh surveillance.

But China’s recent rise in authoritarian behavior even predates the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, Hong Kong experienced six months of intense antigovernmental protests, leading to the adoption of a new “National Security Law” on June 30 that was labelled by Human Rights Watch as “draconian”. Activists were deeply alarmed by the broad and sweeping language of the new legislation, which penalizes “secession”, “subversion”, “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces” with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Under the National Security Law, even the use of common political phrases such as “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” have been outright banned, stifling free speech throughout China.

Perhaps most alarmingly, China has also come under international scrutiny for allegations of genocide and other crimes against humanity enacted against the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority ethnic group who mostly reside in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Activists have reported the presence of “re-education camps” which have allegedly been used to detain over one million Uyghurs in recent years, with hundreds of thousands more being sentenced to prison. Evidence has also been brought forth showing the Chinese government’s use of Uyghur people for forced labor, and some women have been forced to undergo sterilization. The re-education camps have also been reportedly rife with sexual violence against Uyghur women, as reported by survivors. Cultural genocide has also been reported, as several Uyghur religious practices have been banned in the region, and China has demolished Uyghur mosques and tombs.

shows a re-education camp
An image captured of a Uyghur “re-education” camp in the Xinjiang region. It is alleged that over one million Uyghurs have been placed into these camps.

As China continues to project power on the global stage through their economic successes, military prowess, and spotlight events such as the Olympics, it is important to remember that authoritarianism does not protect human rights. China, from a surface-level perspective, may be viewed as one of the biggest success stories of our modern age. Their economy is the second-largest in the world, and many in China are enjoying an amount of prosperity not seen in the regions in centuries. Their citizens, especially those who want a better future for China, are paying the price for this alleged “success”, as their rights to freedom and privacy are infringed daily by the robust Chinese surveillance state. Modern states should be based on robust human rights, and China will need to enact several heavy reforms to move away from their current authoritarianism. China can become one of the world’s leading powers in the 21st century, but they can only do so if they uphold the rights of their citizens.

A Humanitarian Crisis in Xinjiang

by Dianna Bai

Uyghur children in old town Kashgar, China.
Child’s play – Uyghur children in old town Kashgar, China. Source: Sherpas 428, Creative Commons

Among the corpses frozen in exodus over the icy mountain pass, will you recognize me? Our brothers 

we begged for shelter took our clothes. Pass by there even now and you will see our naked 

corpses. When they force me to accept the massacre as love 

Do you know that I am with you. Perhat Tursun, translated by Joshua L. Freeman

In the arid and ashen deserts of Xinjiang, the northwestern province of China, as many as 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in internment camps by the Chinese government for mandatory “re-education.” Scores of the compounds can be seen vividly from satellite images. Enclosed by concrete walls, barbed wire, and guard stations, they have the imposing sterility of prisons. Inside, the detainees, Uyghurs, and members of a few other ethnic groups who practice the Muslim faith, are forced to participate in a program of indoctrination, listening to lectures, singing songs that praise the Communist Party of China, and writing essays of “self-criticism.” They are also coerced into abandoning traditional practices tied to Islam: praying, growing a beard, wearing a headscarf, and abstaining from pork and alcohol.

The stated aim of the campaign is to eliminate extremism in a region that has been marked by unrest and separatist violence, to produce “transformation by education.” One revealing official document reviewed by Agence-France Press states that to produce this change, the centers must “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” It’s clear that in Xinjiang, China has gone far beyond fighting separatism and works actively to erase a great cultural tradition for the purposes of political stability. The mass detention underway is a reflection of the Xi Jinping government, a nationalistic, hardline regime that often glorifies the practices of the Mao years. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, millions of youth from Chinese cities were sent to the countryside for “re-education.” The recent spate of mass detentions should come as no surprise.

Who are the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?

Xinjiang is a province in China that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. China is dominated by the Han majority, which comprises over 90 percent of the population, but is also home to 55 ethnic minorities. About 10 million Muslim Uyghurs (and other Muslim minorities) live in the Xinjiang province. The Uyghurs, who feel a stronger kinship with the peoples of Central Asia than with the Han Chinese, speak a distinct Turkic language similar to Uzbek and practice a form of Sunni Islam. They have left a distinct mark on the history of Inner Asia, having ruled their own kingdom that stretched from Manchuria to the Caspian Sea in the eighth and ninth centuries but is now concentrated in Xinjiang. Since the Communist Party took over China in 1949, Xinjiang has been ruled by China as an “autonomous” region that is not truly autonomous. Freedoms and liberties for the Uyghurs have been curtailed heavily – the recent mass detentions are only a piece of the larger picture of repression that Uyghurs face.

Uyghurs are divided in opinion over their political autonomy. Some support remaining a distinct culture within the Xinjiang Autonomous Region or integrating into the Chinese system, while others call for becoming a separate state called “East Turkestan.”  For China, Xinjiang is an important province, the biggest domestic producer of oil and gas that is also a critical logistics hub for the “Belt and Road Initiative,” an ambitious trillion dollar infrastructure plan meant to strengthen China’s global influence. China is also concerned that unrest in Xinjiang will spark unrest in other provinces such as Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Taiwan.

The brutal measures toward the Muslims in Xinjiang are only one aspect of the broader repression levied against religious groups in China under Xi Jinping. The U.S. State Department has long designated China as a “particular country of concern” with regards to religious freedom. An authoritarian state that fears the rise of civil society, China has placed restrictions on all religious groups—from the Tibetan Buddhists to Christians to Falun Gong practitioners. Throughout the history of the PRC, the state has been monitoring the activities of major religious organizations and even banning groups such as the popular spiritual movement Falun Gong, which had gained approximately 70 million followers in China before it was declared illegal. On the Tibetan plateau, where there are six million adherents of Tibetan Buddhism and its exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, we see some of the most extreme measures. Paramilitary police patrol the streets to monitor the movements ethnic Tibetans, reinforced by a fleet of video cameras recording all events for review. The “grid management” system that Xinjiang now employs was tried and tested first in Tibet, where an army of community workers oversee sections of the city divided into “grids” to provide security officials with real-time data that could uncover the first signs of potential unrest.

Since Xi Jinping has consolidated power, the crackdown on religion has intensified. The uptick in repression has been especially visible for Protestant churches and quasi-Christian groups since 2016. Reports from Christians in China tell of an alarming increase in Bibles burned, churches demolished, and pastors detained. As Heritage Foundation fellow Olivia Enos explains, “I think that the Chinese government, like so many authoritarian governments around the world, recognizes that religion gives an alternative authority to the government and it requires the allegiance of the people to an authority that is, frankly, far higher than the government.”

a Uyghur man
Uyghur man. Source: Todenhoff, Creative Commons

A Police State Emerges in Xinjiang

Maintaining political stability in Xinjiang has been paramount for China, especially as discontent has flared up in recent years. As Xinjiang has developed economically since 1949, the government has encouraged the migration of Han Chinese into the region. Tensions have arisen as many Uyghurs resent discrimination by the government and the Han Chinese. Uyghurs have watched the higher paying jobs go to the ethnically Han Chinese while the Uyghur “minorities” have been given the labor-intensive jobs for lesser pay.  Long-simmering tensions exploded in 2008 and 2009 when thousands of Uyghurs took to the streets to riot in Xinjiang over the unfair treatment by the government and the Han Chinese.

Blaming the 2008 and 2009 riots on Uyghur separatists, China has since implemented increasingly repressive policies to control the Uyghurs in Xinjiang under the guise of combating terrorism and extremism.  Several Uyghur-led rebellions against the Chinese government have punctuated the history of Xinjiang, dating back to the early 1900s. During the Qing Dynasty, the imperial government’s attempt to assimilate the Uyghur people into China created antagonism between Uyghurs and the Chinese government that became a foundation of the newly formed Uyghur identity. Today, there also exist extreme separatist groups in Xinjiang with ties to global jihad, including the Turkestan Islamic Party, which took credit for a series of attacks in 2008. In one sense, it is easy to see why the current government of China would be vigilant about violence and ensuring that the Uyghurs never rise up again as they have in history. They fear that China will splinter if regional separatist movements gain traction and inspire each other. Yet China has gone far beyond fighting the perceived threat, now detaining innocent people and infringing on so many aspects of their daily lives.

The brutal repression of the Uyghurs expanded dramatically in 2016 with the installation of a new Party chief, Chen Quanguo, who has brought his experience quelling unrest as the former Party chief of Tibet. In 2017, Xinjiang’s security spending increased by more than 90 percent to $8.52 billion. Xinjiang is now a police state where the government intrudes into many aspects of people’s lives. According to one detailed report that summarizes the findings of numerous accounts in the media:

  • “Uyghurs have been banned from fasting during Ramadan, refusing to eat pork, refusing to wear shorts, refusing to watch state TV or listen to state radio, wearing burqas, having “abnormal” beards, performing traditional funeral rites, speaking to family members overseas, travelling overseas, and giving their children Islamic names such as Mohammad and Fatima.”
  • Chinese flags and Communist slogans have been installed in mosques.
  • “Convenience police stations” have been set up every 500 meters in the capital city of Urumqi
  • Local officials have been required to “live, eat, and study” with local families.
  • Volunteers are assigned households to monitor. They are charged with finding out what organizations people belong and “the sort of lives they lead” including their political opinions.
  • 40,000 face-recognition cameras have been installed to track Uyghurs
  • All drivers in Xinjiang have been required to install GPS trackers in their cars that will monitor their movements
  • Police have taken voice samples, DNA samples, fingerprints, and iris scans.
  • Uyghurs are regularly required to have their ID cards checked doing typical activities in a day such as traveling and filling up gas.

Perhaps the most drastic measures have been the mass detentions. Uyghurs who have committed no crime other than practicing their religion – activities such as reading an Islamic verse at a funeral or making a pilgrimage to Mecca – have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang. As former detainees tell their stories, the world has gotten a sense of what takes place inside of the camps. It’s not the sunny “vocational education” that Chinese officials and state television have propagated. Part of the detention involves education: former detainees have described being taught daily lessons in Pinyin, the Romanized system of Chinese. Other lessons are less innocuous—songs praising Xi Jinping, curriculum about the hero Lei Feng to inspire devotion to communism. Detainees have reported being forced to recite “126 lies” about religion. “Religion is opium, religion is bad, you must believe in no religion, you must believe in the Communist Party,” one former detainee remembers.

The use of force is not uncommon in the camps. Official documents obtained about the camps include a procurement order for 2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray. Another detainee has told the BBC that they were forced to wake before sunrise every morning for mandatory runs. Those who didn’t run fast enough were beaten and kicked by guards. More beatings were in store for detainees who couldn’t recite correctly the laws they were forced to memorize. In one case, an ethnically Kazakh man who had been detained revealed to NPR that he had been tortured for resisting the orders of a guard to make his bed and throwing the mattress at the guard—though he was the only one at his camp to actually be tortured rather than just threatened. He’d been forced to wear a suit made of metal weighing over 50 lbs that stretched out his limbs and caused him immense pain in his back. “They made people wear this thing to break their spirits,” he told NPR. “After 12 hours, I became so soft, quiet and lawful.”

The humanitarian crisis against Muslims in Xinjiang can hold lessons for the United States as well, especially with regards to the recent travel ban against five Muslim majority countries. In the name of national security, China has swept a broad swath of society into one vilified category and carried out massive human rights violations against their own citizens on the basis of faith. China doesn’t honor religious freedom or the rights of minorities. To the Chinese government, there is no sense that these rights should be protected when larger objectives are at stake. These protections, however, are a defining characteristic of the United States as a democracy. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal. Honoring the fundamental rights of one group means honoring the rights of all. It ensures that there will be no “tyranny of the majority.” While the travel ban does not compare to the vast violation of civil liberties in China, it undermines the spirit of democracy and contributes to the widespread prejudice and discrimination against people of religious faith in America.

 

Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.