Justice(s) for Crimes Against Humanity: The Uyghur Muslims in China

*a topographical map depicting where many Uyghur Muslims live in Western China*
“Outline map showing Keiry / Yutian County in Xinjiang, China” by centralasiatraveler, Creative Commons

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,

Every single Uyghur abroad has relatives waiting for a slow death in these camps… innocent Uyghurs are now counting their final days of isolation under physical, psychological, and spiritual torture.

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?

A pair of Uyghur elders lead a donkey and boy across a Chinese marketplace
“Uyghur elders” by Todenhoff, Creative Commons

Addressing Crimes Against Humanity

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 7, broadly characterizes Crimes Against Humanity (CAH) as:

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:

  1. Murder;
  2. Extermination;
  3. Enslavement;
  4. Deportation or forcible transfer of population;
  5. Imprisonment or other sever deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;
  6. Torture;
  7. Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;
  8. 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;
  9. Enforced disappearance of persons;
  10. The crime of apartheid;
  11. 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.

 

an Uyghur group holds their native flag while protesting repression against the Uyghur people
“Uyghurs protesting” by Paul Keller, Creative Commons

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.

References

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.

Longmont Community Justice Partnership (2017). Restorative Conversations and Agreement: Structured Conversations for Resolving One-on-One Conflict. https://boulderhousingcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Restorative-Conversations-and-Agreement-Meetings-for-BHC-Manual.pdf

Pape, R. A. (1997). Why economic sanctions do not work. International Security, 22(2), 90-136.

Roberts, S. R. (2009). Imagining Uyghurstan: Re-evaluating the birth of the modern Uyghur nation. Central Asian Survey, 28(4), 361-381.

Van Zyl, P. (1999). Dilemmas of transitional justice: The case of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Journal of International Affairs, 53(2), 647-667.

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.