Content Warnings: imprisonment, religious persecution, torture, trafficking, rape, brainwashing
Falun Gong, officially known as Falun Dafa, is a form of qigong, which roughly translates to ‘cultivation.’ Qigong is similar to yoga or tai chi and focuses on the perfection and refinement of mind and body. Falun Gong takes this a step further and incorporates the cultivation of morality and virtue. In 1992, Li Hongzhi introduced the practice to China. As the practice grew in popularity, excitement about the health and wellness benefits associated with the tradition have flourished. Not only this, but the culture of Falun Gong experienced a rediscovery of ancient Chinese philosophies combining elements of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
The Chinese government largely celebrated the practice throughout the 1990s, but on April 25th, 1999, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), led by Jiang Zemin, launched a violent campaign against Falun Gong by issuing a letter expressing their wish to see Falun Gong destroyed. The atheist communist regime, which notoriously rules by the threat of force, was itself threatened by the emphasis on morality and traditional Chinese culture found in practitioners.
Since 1999, an organization called Friends of Falun Gong has reported cases of torture, disappearance, brainwashing, rape, and death of Falun Gong practitioners by the CCP. When a person dies while imprisoned, families are told that their loved one committed suicide or died of a disease, but the bodies are cremated before evidence can be gathered. Notably, a relatively new development alleges that many of these detainees are victims of organ trafficking.
Through propaganda campaigns, the CCP has classified Falun Gong as a xiejiao, which in some contexts has similar implications to the word ‘cult.’ Personally, as someone who actively studies religion and cults, I would not qualify the practice as a cult, as it does not pass any widely accepted tests qualifying organizations as cults.
Propaganda and Unclear Beliefs of Americanized Version
In my research about Falun Gong, I found very conflicting information about the moral beliefs of practitioners. Officially, they have three significant tenets: Zhen, Shan, and Ren, which translate to truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, respectively. They emphasize ancient Chinese values and, by my evaluation, hold a form of virtue ethics. As far as I can tell, the version being practiced in China is unharmful and beneficial to its practitioners. The relationship between Chinese practitioners of Falun Gong and the Americanized version based in New York is unclear. The following are productions of the official organization of Falun Dafa.
Shen Yun is a dance-based performance/production sponsored and organized by Falun Dafa. They are based in New York City and perform internationally but do not perform in China for fear of persecution. The performance has themes of anti-Marxism, anti-atheism, and a passing instance of homophobia. Jio Tolentino, a writer for the New Yorker, saw the show twice in New York and calls the production uncanny and unsettling. Throughout my research, I have not found any instances of China-based practitioners personally expressing the themes seen in Shen Yun.
The Epoch Times is a newspaper sponsored by and associated with Falun Dafa. While claiming to be “unbiased,” they post far-right opinion pieces and side with Trump in many of their political articles. To anyone with an ear tuned to the sound of right-wing dog whistles, the Epoch Times website is loud, high-pitched, and painful. Again, I have not found any instances of China-based practitioners expressing the harmful themes found in the Epoch Times. It seems to me that the Americanized version of Falun Gong is a harmful version of what is being practiced and persecuted in China.
Religious Rights and Persecution
Human rights, with respect to a person’s religion, is a complicated subject. Too often, we see people using the excuse of religious freedom to act in a bigoted way toward certain communities. Religion is a personal practice meant, consciously or otherwise, to help a person cope with and understand the trials and tribulations of existing as a human in this world. Sometimes, that religion will come with a set of morals that each practitioner decides to follow. People have a natural right to practice their own religion and to determine their own moral codes without persecution or intervention. But, as with every right, this only extends insofar as it does not impede the rights of others.
The CCP must be held accountable for imprisoning, torturing, and trafficking the organs of Falun Gong practitioners in China. These people are not impeding on the rights of others. They peacefully practice truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance while aligning their body and mind through qigong. In accordance with my working definition of religion, nobody deserves to face religious persecution. Everyone has a right to decide how they will come to terms with and cope with their own existence. It is important that, as humans, we keep certain spaces safe for people to cultivate their spirituality. By taking away every space that may be safe for these people to practice, the CCP is violating their rights.
Note from the author: This post is the fourth of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. I recommend reading the other parts before this one for understanding, but doing so is optional. To find the other parts, scroll down and click on “View all posts by A. Price.”
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) consistently acts like a toddler in its negotiations and diplomatic relations with other countries. They consistently refuse food and humanitarian aid that their citizens desperately need for petty political reasons. The World Food Program (WFP) was denied access to North Korea in 2005 because its monitoring process was too intrusive for North Korea’s standards. Because of this type of behavior, it is apparent that the DPRK wishes to mishandle food aid and allow their rural citizens to starve and die before accepting the WFP’s guidelines.
Food and Humanitarian Aid
The Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK; the regime) insists on inserting itself into food aid distribution and consistently passes policies that would manipulate citizens into subservience to the regime. One such policy would make the receipt of food aid contingent on reporting to one’s government-sanctioned job. This effectively stifles any chance at economic mobility for poor and rural people. Such a policy is against the conditions of the World Food Program, but instead of complying with the WFP to receive the aid, they let their citizens starve. The WFP has a humanitarian interest in feeding these people, so they are left at a crossroads: supply food aid according to North Korea’s standards or allow North Korea to starve its rural citizens.
Because of the WPK’s toddler-like nature, it is imperative that food and humanitarian aid are not contingent on the government’s cooperation. Historically, the US has made food aid contingent on the dismantling of specified nuclear programs. This leaves the WPK with the choice: give up our nuclear program or let our citizens starve. For them, this is a no-brainer. The WPK cares much more about politics and big blow-up things than the starvation and suffering of its citizens. This is why it is increasingly important that food and humanitarian aid are not contingent on the cooperation of the government.
Because of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, China is the only country directly bordering North Korea. This means that China has the highest amount of undocumented North Korean refugees. China is compliant with the North Korean regime’s disgusting agenda. Instead of complying with the United Nations (UN) guidelines for refugees, China heavily polices bordering towns and consistently returns refugees to the abusive DPRK. Because of this, refugees must travel all the way through China to another country before being able to fly to a safe place such as South Korea where they can seek asylum.
Because of the threat of being deported back to North Korea and subsequently thrown into a prison camp, many refugees, specifically those assigned ‘female’ at birth (AFAB), fall victim to human trafficking. Because of the One-Child policy and selective abortions, China now has a disproportionate level of people in male bodies as opposed to those in female bodies. This incongruence means that many men cannot find or afford brides and many North Korean AFAB people are sold as brides to poor Chinese men. The people in these situations rarely feel safe in their new homes and often fall victim to abuse, blackmail, and rape.
The UN must step into China to enforce its guidelines for refugees. China must become a safe place for North Korean refugees to seek asylum. Until then, these people will continuously fall victim to deportation and human trafficking.
The DPRK is a participant of the UN. The UN has treaties and guidelines surrounding the topic of human rights, but they are not enforced. The DPRK has signed seven different human rights treaties including the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). As you have seen throughout this series, these treaties are not enforced by the United Nations or any other organization interested in human rights.
As a participant of the UN, the US should apply pressure for the enforcement of the UN’s treaties and policies. North Korea consistently fails in its Responsibility to Protect (R2P) its citizens, calling for international actors to step in and protect these citizens. The WPK has proven that it does not care about these people and will not let go of its power without a fight. North Korea’s citizens will continue to be treated terribly as the collective group of outside countries chooses not to intervene, constituting one of the most significant and worst human rights situations in recent history.
How You Can Help
North Korea is one of my special interests. I could write about this topic for the rest of my life. I encourage you to look into this issue (resources linked below) and spark your own interest in the North Korean human rights situation. I encourage you to consider, if you can, donating to an organization that I really believe in. They are called Liberty in North Korea. They are working on the ground to help North Koreans escape the regime through a 3,000-mile secret escape route. Their website includes many resources and even a blog written by people personally affected by the North Korean regime.
Below I have linked some resources for you to explore at your leisure.
Since the pandemic began, you might have seen multiple different snippets of Chinese citizens in their homes under complete lockdown. You might have even seen drones patrolling the streets and citizens shouting lamentations out of their window.
What you may not have known is that all of these scenarios mentioned above are a direct result of China’s COVID protocols. Currently, China is imposing a “zero-COVID” policy on all of its citizens. However, as President Xi Jinping was just re-elected for a third five-year term, we can assume that the policy will not be going anywhere anytime soon.
The “zero-COVID” Policy: Prevention
Let us now evaluate what this so-called “zero-COVID” policy is and what it entails. Supposedly, China “recognizes domestic outbreaks are inevitable, and its policies are not geared towards having zero cases at all times but instead, are about “dynamically” taking actions when cases surface.”
China’s policy can be split into two distinct features: prevention and containment. In the case of prevention, China ensures PCR tests (which are fast and highly accurate ways to diagnose COVID) are readily available for anyone at any given time. The normality and presence of tests has in turn caused certain businesses and buildings to require individuals to show proof of being COVID negative to enter these public spaces. However inconvenient this might be to those who are not tested, this notion has definitely kept cases low—after all, if functioning in life requires having a negative test, why would one risk getting sick? One surely would not want to risk getting sick since it would mean they would be practically unable to enter any public places. Hence, prevention of COVID prevails in China.
The “zero-COVID” Policy: Containment
Prevention of COVID seems to be rather successful in China. However, the other part of China’s zero-COVID policy seems to be the one that sparks controversy and frequently makes its way into mainstream media: containment.
Allegedly, China’s “[control tactics] aimed at swiftly cutting off transmission chains to forestall outbreaks, involve quarantining cases at government-supervised facilities and locking down buildings, communities or even entire cities.”
Picture this: you wake up, get dressed, and are having your typical morning routine. Perhaps you might be feasting on some waffles or eggs as you prepare for your day. In any case, you eat your breakfast, and then head out to work. You get to your office around 10 minutes early, anticipating it will be a good day.
About halfway through your work day, you receive word that you will not be heading home to your family that night. Someone in that building (a coworker of yours), tested positive for COVID, and the city decided to place your entire office building on lockdown.
Swiftly, within hours, government officials are shoving mattress and bed materials through the window. Additionally, food supplies are en route to the office. The basic necessities of human survival are all now being prepared to be delivered to your office, which, for the next couple of days, will be your home.
This scenario is one that many people living in China have experienced. Starting your day normally to simply head to work and be told that you would not be allowed to go back home for a couple of days is a harsh reality in China.
This ability for the government to impose this upon its citizens is all, as one would expect, due to China’s commitment to its zero-COVID policy.
However, in addition to putting entire office buildings under lockdown for days, China is also able to put entire cities on lockdown. The population of the cities which fall victim to China’s harsh quarantine policies matters not—Shanghai, China’s largest city, was even placed on lockdown. Other cities that have been placed on lockdown include Xian, Chengdu, Tianjin, Shenzhen, and regions such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Jilin.
When a city is placed on lockdown, its citizens typically get little notice. The lockdowns, unsurprisingly, are complete lockdowns—there are no exceptions. Everything closes. Everyone is required to stay inside, no matter what. China ensures complete and total lockdown.
The government guards and watches over the streets 24/7 and ensures that no one roams the streets without permission. On top of that, drones often fly about, blaring messages out loud to remind everyone of the lockdown procedures.
When China decides to place a city under lockdown, eeriness overflows the streets. The scene is reminiscent of ghost towns and movies of towns left abandoned due to some unforeseeable incident.
The Impacts and Implications
These efforts on China’s end, despite how draconian they might appear, have definitely accomplished China’s goals. Globally, China is practically one of the least impacted nations by COVID—despite the fact the virus allegedly originated from China in the first place.
According to OurWorldInData, China’s all-time COVID case count is about 1 million. The United States’s total is about 97 million. Additionally, in China, only about 5,000 have died from complications with COVID, while over a million people have died in the United States.
Naturally, this presents an ethical dilemma—how should a government go about protecting the lives of its citizens from an illness? Should the government take China’s route of practically removing one’s agency over their own life in order to keep cases and deaths down, or should a government take the route of the USA where COVID mandates are less harsh or non-existent?
The low incidence of COVID outbreaks might make it seem as if China is doing the correct thing—governments should step in and enforce lockdowns onto people. However, while this surely will indeed keep cases at a low count, it will also imply other things—most importantly, the implication that the government ultimately knows what is best for its people and has the final say in how people live their lives. If a government can step in randomly and deny its citizens the free will to leave an office building, what else can it do in other situations? This notion of a government exuding agency over its people in times when it deems best surely is not a notion that is only demonstrated in situations of COVID—it is a notion that is bound to resurface in other parts of one’s life.
What the correct and best thing for a government to do, as it relates to infection control, is not as clear cut as one might think. It is certainly problematic for a government to have total authority over its people (which thereby would give it the power to strictly enforce COVID policies). At the same time, this has been an effective strategy in keeping cases low. On the other hand, the United States has been uncertain as to how to implement COVID policies. The USA is not used to enforcing policies in situations that have never occurred before, such as the COVID pandemic. Hopefully, if there is one positive thing we could gain from the entire pandemic, it is that if a pandemic were to ever break out again, due to COVID, we are better equipped to deal with it.
China’s hardline policies in the Xinjiang region have caused a rift within the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) over the detention of more than one million Muslim Uyghurs in reeducation camps. These camps are aimed at dismantling indigenous cultures and religions for those detained. A human rights commission within the United Nations -responsible for promoting the protection of human rights throughout the world and addressing violations of human rights voted on June 10th of 2022 over a Western-backed proposal. This proposal was an opportunity to hold a debate, essentially without any monitoring of the rights situation, and it was the least intrusive measures the council could take. Member states such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany proposed holding the debate. However, 19 members of the council voted against the motion, 17 members of the council voted in support, and 11 members abstained from voting. Agnes Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty International states, “Today’s vote protects the perpetrators of human rights violations rather than the victims – a dismaying result that puts the UN’s main human rights body in the farcical position of ignoring the findings of the UN’s own human rights office.”
Council Facing Backlash
Days of diplomatic arm-twisting ensued in the UNHRC, and many national capitals in the weeks leading up to the vote as leading Western countries tried to get momentum behind a report from the former UN chief. The report, released on August 31st by the office of UN Human Rights, detailed serious human rights violations in Xinjiang that may amount to crimes against humanity. It documented a catalog of human rights violations including torture, sexual and gender-based violence, and mistreatment. According to the OHCHR report, the “extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups … may constitute … crimes against humanity.” Despite their findings, the council still voted against addressing the conditions of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Under China’s “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism, Chinese authorities have violated the rights of a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims by arbitrary detention, harassment, and cultural persecution since 2017. Forced sterilization and forced separation of children are some of the harshest elements of the government’s oppression. Extremist, repressive laws are put in place to target these communities for nothing more than the personal choice of practicing Islam. The disproportionate and discriminatory application towards ethnic and religious minorities is concerning. Omer Kanat of the Uyghur Human Rights Project states, “The Chinese government’s singular goal has been to silence even a discussion of the issue — we cannot allow this to happen.”
Beijing, strategically employing its political and economic clout, sent a report from ambassadors in predominantly Muslim regions such as Africa, Middle East, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia positively evaluating the human rights developments to the president of the. As China continues to influence the UNHRC, people will doubt if the council can remain impartial in its proceedings. By reaching this decision, the council has planted seeds of bias and crushed the Uyghurs’ hopes that the council will stand up to China to fight for justice. Many Muslim-majority states in support of the pro-Beijing statement have effectively turned their backs on the country’s oppression of the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang. Before the vote, Chinese ambassador Chen Xu accused Western countries of seeking to turn a “blind eye” to their own issues on human rights and point a finger at others. No country has a perfect history of human rights; therefore, all countries are subject to scrutiny despite how much power they may wield.
China’s Economic Lure
The more pertinent question to be asked is, how vast is China’s economic pull that other countries factor into their decision-making? The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) consists of 47 countries and is regarded as the UN’s top human rights body. Annually, council members rotate among each other. However, a prominent country like China, with a permanent seat on the council, has never been the subject of a country-specific resolution from the council since it was established in 2006. It is a vicious cycle for other countries, including the largely Muslim-populated countries that voted against the debate, as their human rights record has been attacked frequently abroad; defending China becomes a way of defending themselves. Many Muslim-populated countries sided with Beijing due to their oppression by western imperialism. For example, various military interventions by the United States in these countries under the premise to widen their influence and democratic values has resulted in a distrust of the West. Nevertheless, this decision conveys a dreadful message: China is untouchable. This should not be the case. It is up to the citizens of these UN countries to hold these countries accountable for their actions. Human Rights violations continue to run rampant in the Xinjiang region, and despite the mounting evidence and international attention, China has failed to acknowledge or address these violations. Therefore, the duty falls to us to ensure the Uyghur Muslims are heard and their issues are addressed on a global stage. To help, contact these organizations:
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was in 4th grade when I was asked if I was a terrorist. I was asked by a person who I thought was my friend. I was asked this horrible question because of the color of my skin. I was too young to realize I was being targeted along with another classmate of the Islam faith, and that my culture and Hindu background were gravely mistaken because of stereotypes and misinformation. While I have never been a victim of Islamophobia, that day I got a touch of what many Muslims face on an everyday basis. Some stories we hear, and some we don’t. Right now, cultural devastations and genocides are taking place in China due to widespread Islamophobia.
MODERN CONCENTRATION CAMPS
The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority in Xinjiang, China, which was once East Turkestan, but was annexed in 1949. Since 2017, more than 1 million of the 11 million Uyghurs have been places in 85 concentration camps, but China chooses to refer to these as re-education centers. Muslim anecdotes of life inside the camps consists of beatings, interrogations, and detainments for their religious beliefs and practices. Since the beginnings of these camps, the Xinjiang government has prohibited men from growing out the beards and women from wearing face coverings, while also destroying mosques, which are Muslim places of worship. Following United Nations probes, China claims that because the Uyghurs hold extremist views that are threatening to national security the concentration camps are justified.
Some of the stories that have been gathered from the concentration camps include reports of forced sterilizations on Uyghur women, bans against fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and attending mosques. While China claims to be a democratic nation, the continuation of Uyghur persecution indicates that religions in China must be of Chinese orientation and the people should assimilate into a socialist society regardless of their own personal beliefs.
Islamophobia and unfounded fear of Muslims, and people from the Middle East, is something that has plagued the modern world since the 2001 September 11th attacks. The attacks have heightened the tension and awareness against minorities as well has the Uyghur separatist movement. To some extent, it can be argued that around the time the United States began its War on Terror in the Middle East, China spontaneously changed its rhetoric to labeling Uyghurs as “terrorists” in light of these attacks. The Uyghur separatist movement has been fighting for independence and has been protesting since the rise of the Beijing communist rule, and during this movement many lives have been lost. The Chinese government claims that this movement and the protests have led to bombings and politically calculated assassinations that have killed 162 people. Due to the separatist movement and the lives lost, the Chinese government is placing Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps in hopes of “re-educating them,” when really their methods have been identified as causes of cultural genocide. Almost two dozen countries are in tandem with concerns raised by an independent United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination concerning credible reports of mass detention; efforts to restrict cultural and religious practices; mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uyghurs; and other human rights violations and abuses.
While many nations and corporations have identified the Uyghur crisis and have taken actions to bring it to light, Disney, one of the biggest corporations who has repeatedly prided itself on diversity, inclusivity, and decency, has somehow overlooked the genocide that is happening in China right now. Nine minutes into the credits of the film Mulan, Disney thanked the publicity department of the CPC Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region committee which is exactly where the Uyghur genocide is currently taking place and where Muslims are being blatantly persecuted. In addition to that, the film’s lead Lui Yifei tweeted in support of the Hong Kong police who has been using police brutality to suppress the pro-democracy protestors. An internationally recognized company recently opened the Shanghai Disneyland Park and did so seamlessly without any government problems or much restriction, so how did this big company overlook the whitewashing of the ongoing Uyghur genocide?
For the past several months, the plight of the Uighur Muslims (pronounced wē-ˌgu̇r) has been covered extensively in national and international news. Under the guise of counterterrorism, the Chinese government has been holding the Uighur in detention camps. While the detention of the Uighur is in and of itself a human rights violation, the torture and inhumane treatment that they experience in these camps has been the greatest cause for concern for human rights activists. Undeniably, the detainment and treatment of the Uighur is concerning, but the counterterrorism measures taken by the Chinese government are just as concerning; not only are they arguably ineffective for decreasing the likelihood of attacks, but they also could inadvertently lead to an increase in radicalization.
The Uighur are a Muslim, Turkish-speaking minority group who make up less than 1 percent of the Chinese population, or around 11 million people. Xinjiang, the province in which the majority of the Uighur live, was annexed in 1949 and has been under China’s control since. While the Uighur have historically been subject to discrimination by the Chinese government, this discrimination increased when the Chinese government formally identified the Uighur as a threat to security in China. It is irresponsible to claim that all Uighur are a security threat, but there have been attacks carried out by Uighur militants in China; the Turkistan Islamic Movement, an extremist Islamic group founded by Uighur militants, has carried out more than 200 attacks with the goal of creating an independent state for the Uighur. While the Chinese government has an obligation to protect the citizens of China, this does not justify the Chinese government’s discrimination against and detainment of the Uighur.
While measures must be taken against any group of people who pose a security threat to a country, the methods used by the Chinese government are inhumane. After the vast number of attacks carried out by Uighur fighters, it is understandable that the Chinese government should attempt to deter future attacks from happening. However, the methods that have been implemented are not only violating innocent people’s basic human rights, but they may also have the reverse effect. There are examples that have occurred elsewhere that can be used to highlight this. First, Tajik officer Gulmorod Khalimov, who made headlines after he left the Tajik army to join ISIS. He explained that he made this decision after he was exposed to anti-Muslim rhetoric during his anti-terrorism course training in the United States, illustrating that a harmful or negative rhetoric about Muslims, similar to the one currently being propagated in China, can lead to and encourage radicalization. Second, when David Cameron, previous British Prime Minister, announced his plans for cracking down on extremists in Britain, the Muslim Council of Britain argued that this would only push people further towards radicalization, noting that the “problem is the constant talk of legislation, harassment, and monitoring… [which] is what’s leading young people towards radicalism.” This is another instance that exemplifies the faulty approach taken by the Chinese government; when stringent measures are taken, such as monitoring and detainment in the case of the Uighur, there can be the unexpected outcome of increased extremism.
The Chinese government claims that they have detained the Uighur to prevent terrorism and extremism, but the methods used are neither humane nor effective. While there need to be measures taken to guarantee the safety of the citizens of China, there are many other methods that can be utilized to achieve this. Further, if the Chinese government does indeed want to address this problem, an approach that does not involve stigmatizing a whole ethnic group and religion is the only way to effectively do so.
COVID-19, otherwise known as the 2019 novel coronavirus, has spread to many countries around the world, affecting many immunocompromised populations and impacting millions of people worldwide. My colleagues have referenced hotspots where the response has impacted the most, from the Middle East to migrants right outside U.S. borders. They have illustrated how discrimination, isolationism, and plain ignorance have shattered families and populations, destroyed economies, and brought fear and terror into the hearts and minds of Earth’s people. It is in that essence that this article will continue to explain the impact of COVID-19 in another hotspot of the world, Asia.
The Asian continent, comprising 48 countries, according to the United Nations, encompasses immense diversity and roughly 60 percent of the global population within its boundaries. This diversity includes, but is not limited to, having the highest and lowest points on Earth, “the world’s wildest climatic extremes,” and “the birthplace of all the world’s major religions.” For the sake of this article, I will be focusing on three countries that are handling the virus very differently, India, China, and South Korea.
Having one of the highest populations in the world, India is often referenced as a case study when examining the impact of overpopulation, economics, and food security. In 2012, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, 60 million out of 200 million people were considered living below the poverty line. Economic inequality has further negatively impacted India’s poorest communities with “57 billionaires controlling 70 percent of India’s wealth” as of 2017. Such inequality has led to the increase in poverty, a lack of medical equipment and access, poor living conditions, and a lack of food.
However, this pandemic has exacerbated the lack of access to food by Indian residents that comes on the heels of Prime Minister Nahendra Modi’s announcement to begin a “21-day nationwide lockdown.” With such an announcement also came with rising panic from Indians, crowding grocery stores and shops with people panic buying everything in sight. Under Modi’s plan, the “Prime Minister’s Poor Welfare Scheme”, individuals will be able to receive five additional kilograms of rice or wheat for the next three months. Although proposed to benefit 800 million people, many are wary of its success due to the closure of interstate travel, trains, and flights. It is under this lockdown that residents could face two years in jail and a financial penalty if they leave their home for non-essential reasons. In an interview with Time, an autorickshaw driver expressed concern over Modi’s decree to lockdown the entire country. Before the decree, his main concern was to save enough money to help get his son through college. However, “as he stays home with no daily income, his main concern is putting food on the table. He’s not sure what he will do” once those savings run out. When examining a singular issue impacted by COVID-19, the situation in India highlights the issues that countries with an enormous informal sector may face due to economic hardship and lack of infrastructure. For example, India can grow enough food for its growing population, although millions are left underfed due to “bottlenecked supply chain[s], inadequate logistics, food wastage and sharp societal inequalities.” The virus has further called to attention the lack of food security that many around the world face on a daily basis which infringes upon their basic human rights and a Sustainable Development Goal that must be achieved by 2030, Zero Hunger.
Being the most populated country in the world, China is often criticized for its drastic measures and horrifying treatment of Muslim minorities. When examining the pandemic, COVID-19 is known to have originated in the Wuhan province in China and was noticed by Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. Dr. Wenliang had used a private online chat to explain his worry for the novel virus, which quickly went viral, resulting in him being reprimanded by Chinese police. Following this observation, the province had shut down, cutting off transportation and sealing residents off from the outside world. In an interview with Dr. Bruce Aylward, “the leader of the World Health Organization team that visited China,” had praised the Chinese government’s decisive actions towards preventing the spread of the virus:
Although the Chinese government has sought to demonstrate its prowess and handling of the virus, through building hospitals in 10-days and publishing photos of patients who have been cured of the disease, many human rights groups have expressed concern and worry over the treatment of those who have been critical of the government. For instance, Chen Qiushi, a Chinese human rights lawyer, was “put under quarantine”, Fang Bin, a citizen journalist, disappeared in February, and Li Zihua, another journalist, was taken away by a group of men. Dr. Wenliang had died due to the virus early February of 2020. With the news of his death, thousands of comments flooded Chinese social media site Weibo criticizing the Chinese government and censorship in the country with top hashtags such as “Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang an apology” and “We want freedom of speech.” According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), when they searched for the hashtags a day after Wenliang’s death, they disappeared having been censored alongside many comments aimed at the Chinese government.
From Wuhan province, we now turn to the Xinjiang province in Western China, where the imprisonment of millions of Uyghur Muslims could prove to be a breeding ground for the virus as it spreads throughout the world. You can read more IHR blogs about The Uyghur Muslims in the context of Crimes Against Humanity here and how this crisis is affecting refugees on the US-Mexico border here. In Xinjiang, there are an estimated three million people detained in re-education camps in Western China, mostly of Uyghur Muslims who have been suppressed by the Communist Party. As alleged by Jewher Ilham, the daughter of a jailed Uyghur academic, some of the “conditions at the detention centers offered the perfect chance for coronavirus to spread” citing “systematic abuse, serious overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions inside the camps.” Given allegations of China’s unwillingness to publish the truth about these conditions combined with the alleged suppression of critics and ethnic minorities, it is deeply concerning to gauge the risks of infection amongst those who have been cited as not having enough to eat or doctors on staff to treat those infected. This is also a signal to international groups and organizations to ensure that all people have the chance to be cured and not suffer as a result of the virus or violating the human rights to freedom of speech.
Some Potential Success?
Amongst all the panic buying and the loss of toilet paper throughout the country, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel manifesting itself through ‘flattening the curve’. This method has seemed to be close to perfected by South Korea whose growth in COVID-19 cases has significantly slowed compared to the United States. When examining South Korea, many writers have explained the situation by comparing it to religion and culture, chalking it up to higher levels of social trust and the lingering aspect of Confucianism. However, that does not seem to be the case. By flattening the curve, South Korea has demonstrated that it is due to “competent leadership that inspired public trust.” Having tested more than 5000 people per million inhabitants than the United States, it is no wonder that taking early action and mobilizing health officials could lead to a successful response.
“No sacred Confucian text advised Korean health officials to summon medical companies and told them to ramp up testing capacity when Korea had only four known cases of COVID-19.” — S. Nathan Park
Compared to China, India, and even the United States, South Korea did not have to “lockdown entire cities or take some authoritarian measures,” rather, they learned from their past experience with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Such preparation allowed the South Korean government to be proactive and “improve hospital infection prevention and control.” Combined with South Korea’s industrial and developmental advantages over both China and India, the government was able to take a proactive approach and deter the worst effects of the virus. Once South Koreans started getting sick in early February, the government immediately began “testing aggressively to identify cases — not only testing people who are so sick that they’re hospitalized but also mild cases and even suspected cases.” This initiative has allowed South Korea to quarantine those at a high risk while also managing to keep their factories, schools, hospitals, and entire cities open while other countries around the world are having to shut down everything to contain the spread.
Looking back at India, China, and South Korea, it becomes apparent that a swift and proactive response is necessary in order to not allow for the lockdown of entire cities and countries. However, that proactivity must balance itself between being lax and aggressive. For example, China’s efforts to curb the spread of the news rather than the virus has made human rights concerns more apparent to the world, especially since the freedom of speech for civilians is being curbed to protect China’s global reputation. In India’s case, the pandemic has shown many human rights groups and countries the issues that a country with a massive impoverished population faces during difficult times. By being able to demonstrate good leadership and mobilizing experts, South Korea has ultimately done what many other countries would only hope to accomplish. Such success has already inspired other Asian countries to follow suit, especially Singapore, Japan, and others. And although South Korea’s population is significantly small compared to that of India and China, their success is one that can be successfully implemented worldwide. Instead of casting these successes aside as an element of Confucianism or culture, it is necessary for us to be able to model our response like South Korea’s so that were such an event to occur again, we will be able to swiftly contain the spread rather than suffer through weeks and months at home without physical human interaction.
In early November 2018, the United Nations confronted China about the Chinese government’s human rights record since 2013, with UN Member States pointing specifically to China’s suppression of the Tibetan people and for the barbaric ‘re-education camps’ used to indoctrinate the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province. China flatly denied these allegations, contending they are politically motivated and violate Chinese national sovereignty. While the ongoing conflict regarding Tibet has been covered for decades (you can read an IHR post about it here), the plight of the Uyghur Muslims in China is arguably less familiar to laypersons with vested interests in human rights. This blog post explores the history of the conflict with the Uyghur, how the international community typically handles these kinds of human rights violations, and what everyday citizens can do to help the Uyghur. For another perspective on the plight of the Uyghur, read my colleague Dianna Bai’s post here.
History of the Conflict
The Uyghur are an ethnically distinct group, hailing originally from the Altai Mountains in Central Asia, now spread through Central and East Asia (Roberts, 2009). Scholars frequently debate the heritage of the Uyghur; government-sanctioned Chinese historians claim the Uyghur are indigenous to the Tarim Basin (located within the Chinese Xinjiang province), while most historical accounts situate the Uyghur as descendants of peoples in modern-day Mongolia (Roberts, 2009). Until recently, many scholars believed that the Soviet Union groomed Uyghur nationalist sentiments during the Cold War, intending to use the fledgling Uyghur people as a colonized Soviet pseudo-nation to exert political and cultural influence in the East Asian theater (Roberts, 2009). This view has since been challenged, as Uyghur Muslims have long defined themselves an ethnically distinct group with the goal of creating their own nation on sovereign territory, intended to be called Uyghurstan (Roberts, 2009). Today, the Uyghur of China largely practice Sunni Islam, speak their own language (similar to Uzbek), and some Uyghur label the territory they inhabit “East Turkestan”, not the Xinjiang providence of China.
The Xinjiang providence, located on the fragments of the ancient Silk Road, is rich in resources and attracted the migration of many Han Chinese to the province (aided and abetted by the Chinese government). This migration brings us to the present day. Beginning in 2009, the Chinese government has cracked down on Uyghur dissidents and rioters expressing a frustrated desire for autonomous rule (some of these Uyghur were subsequently exiled to the United States). In 2016, the Chinese government amped up their approach to the Uyghur, attempting to squash Uyghur cultural practices to create a culturally homogenous Xinjiang province. The Chinese justified these practices by claiming their motivation was to reduce religious extremism in the Xinjiang region. Homogenization efforts included banning baby names (such as Medina, Jihad, and Muhammad) and restricting the length of beards; both aforementioned names and the tradition of long beards stem from the Uyghur’s Islamic faith. These tactics are part of the Chinese government’s “Strike Hard” campaign, designed to specifically monitor the Uyghur situation in Xinjiang. In addition to cultural destruction, the Chinese have recently implemented surveillance programs designed to monitor separatist movements, jihad-ism, or proto-nationalist sentiment. Surveillance programs largely take the shape of indoctrination (or ‘re-education’) camps.
The United Nations has received verifiable reports that up to one million Uyghur (approximately 10-11% of the adult Muslim population in the region) are currently held against their will in these re-education camps. The Chinese government, however, claims these are vocational centres, designed to empower the ethnic Uyghur to learn the Chinese language, Chinese law and ideology, and gain workplace skills. Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (more on the WUC later), has publicly decried the camps, as they incessantly monitor Uyghur prisoners through sophisticated facial recognition software, designed with the intention to predict individual or communal acts of protest through the analysis of the prisoners’ micro-expressions (and no, the current year is not 1984). The prisoners in these camps are expected to ‘secularize’ and ‘modernize’; the Chinese government conditions the entrapped Uyghur Muslims by forcing the prisoners to wish Chinese President Xi Jinping ‘good health’ before the prisoners are given food, thank the Chinese government and Communist Party, and renounce devotion to the Islamic faith. Furthermore, Uyghur Muslims have been forced to eat pork and drink alcohol during their imprisonment which, for many devout Muslims, is forbidden by the Islamic faith. One escapee who found asylum in Kazakhstan testified that she “worked at a prison in the mountains” in Xinjiang and was forced to teach Chinese history during her imprisonment.
The Chinese government has not limited its repression to these detention centers. Beginning in 2016, Uyghur Muslim communities in the Xinjiang province have been subjected to China’s “Becoming Family” initiative (also directed by the government’s “Strike Hard” campaign). The Chinese government mandates ‘home stays’ (lasting between five days and up to two months) within these communities, dispatching over one million cadres to closely monitor the private homesteads of the Uyghur communities. These cadres monitor ‘problematic behavior’ such as suspected alcoholism, no alcohol consumption whatsoever (a sign the family is devout Muslim), uncleanliness, and other signs that the Uyghur are becoming ‘too Muslim’ for the secular Chinese government. Finally, these cadres are tasked to promote ‘ethnic unity’ in the region, spouting the dangers of Islamism, pan-Turkism, and so on. These spies of the state document every move of the Uyghur communities, reporting intelligence back to the Chinese government, who then specifically targets individuals and families suspected of dissident behavior. It is impossible to track how many ‘dissidents’ (whether in their home communities or in the Uyghur detention centers) have been murdered by the Chinese government. A prominent Uyghur human rights activist recently lamented,
This begs the question: how do human rights organizations (from the United Nations to the Institute for Human Rights) classify this level of social, cultural, and civil repression? And furthermore, how can human rights organizations utilize this classification to mobilize aid for the Uyghur Muslims?
any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:
Deportation or forcible transfer of population;
Imprisonment or other sever deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;
Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;
Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;
Enforced disappearance of persons;
The crime of apartheid;
Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.
In theory, the plight of the Uyghur Muslims certainly falls within this definition, as the Chinese government is violating parameters 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 11 of the Rome Statute. Again, in theory, this means the international community has an obligation to both classify this as a CAH and prosecute both the Chinese government as a whole and individual officials directly responsible for the repression of Uyghur Muslims. In practice, however, formally prosecuting CAH are tricky.
To prosecute CAH, a step towards retributive justice, one of two forms of jurisdiction must apply: the state must either (a) be a member to the Rome Statute / International Criminal Court (ICC); or (b) the case is referred to the ICC Prosecutor by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). In this case, China is not a State Party to the Rome Statute, so requirement (a) is out. Regarding requirement (b), the UNSC can indeed refer this to the ICC Prosecutor. However, since China is a permanent member of the UNSC with full veto power, it seems extremely unlikely the Chinese government would permit a prosecution against its own state. So what options are left for the international community to protect the Uyghur Muslims and hold their repressors to justice for this ‘unofficial’ Crime Against Humanity?
If the international community suspects a state conducts COH, accusatory states may take indirect action to punish the offender state. Here’s one example of such indirect action: US Senators Rubio (R-FL) and Menendez (D-NJ) and US House Representatives Smith (R-NJ) and Suozzi (D-NY) are set to introduce legislation to US Congress proposing (a) the creation of a State Department role to monitor the persecution of Uyghur Muslims; and (b) the Secretary of Commerce enact sanctions to state agents in the Xinjiang province. Indirect action, whether government-led sanctions or non-governmental tactics (e.g. ‘naming and shaming’), aims to overcome the absence of international legal precedent in circumstances such as these (Franklin, 2015). The endgame of indirect action in circumstances such as these is to either offer an incentive for states to cease CAH or increasingly layer punishments (whether economic or otherwise) to render the CAH more trouble than it’s worth. In this case, the ideal outcome for US Congress members is that the threat of economic sanctions would punish the Chinese, forcing the state to choose economic growth as a higher-ranking priority than repressing the Uyghur.
A final alternative to addressing CAH is that of truth and reconciliation commissions (TRC; Landsman, 1997). TRC’s are structured around the idea of restorative justice, meaning that in the wake of CAH, damaged communities themselves work with the international community to: (a) collect ‘facts-on-the-ground’ about ongoing repression, (b) negotiate with the repressing state to end the CAH, and (c) devise solutions to repair the trauma caused by the CAH (Longmont Community Justice Partnership, 2017). This is a human-driven approach, placing the victims themselves at the center of the process to document, cease, and heal from CAH. In the this case, this would mean international NGO’s would connect with local Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang Province; document the short-, intermediate-, and long-term needs of the afflicted communities; and allow this joint collaboration to drive local and international efforts attempting to bring the CAH to a close.
Justice(s) for the Uyghur
Resolving the plight of the Uyghur is a highly complex issue. Formal legal mechanisms, such as referring this case to the International Criminal Court, are constrained by the structure of international governing bodies. Indirect action, such economic sanctions proposed by members within the US Congress, have historically had a low success rate (~34% rate of success) to compel policy change (Pape, 1997). Finally, truth and reconciliation commissions have been criticized for their toothlessness regarding holding human rights violators responsible for their crimes (Van Zyl, 1999). What, then, can we do?
The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), whose president Dolkun Isa is an exiled Uyghur Muslim, is taking a hybrid approach to seeking justice for the Uyghur. The WUC’s platform combines the three previously discussed approaches (retributive justice, economic sanctions, and restorative justice), channeling their efforts into international governance, state-level policy and advocacy, and community-driven capacity building. The WUC, steered by survivors of the conflict themselves, aims to achieve justice(s) for the Uyghur people, through a multi-lateral and multi-level approach. While many of their efforts are aimed at high-level government officials and advocacy networks, the WUC additionally aims to engage, educate, and empower ordinary citizens (like you, the reader) to make meaningful contributions towards ending the repression of the Uyghur, ranging from advocacy training to planning peaceful protests. The WUC (and other innovative NGOs addressing other global human rights violations) understands that it is not only the United Nations and its member states that can end human rights violations. Ordinary citizens themselves must take up the mantle of protecting human rights when the hands of the international community are tied. Creating justice for crimes against humanity is the responsibility of all global citizens – and here’s what you can do to help.
Franklin, J. C. (2015). “Human rights naming and shaming: International and domestic processes” in H. R. Friman (Ed.) The Politics of Leverage in International Relations. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Landsman, S. (1997). Alternative responses to serious human rights abuses: Of prosecution and truth commissions. Law and Contemporary Problems, 59(4), 81-92.
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 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.
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