Why is the world silent about the Uyghur Muslim detainment camps?

In September 2020, news surfaced that Disney’s new film, Mulan, had been partially filmed in Xinjiang province in China. Consequently, Disney received considerable backlash from Western media  due to the ongoing detention of Uyghur Muslims in this region. This $200 million blockbuster was spotted in the credits to thank the public security bureau in Turpan, XInjiang, which has close links to the operations of camps in the region. What goes on in these places meets ‘the United Nations definition of genocide, mass sterilisation, forced abortions and mandatory birth control’ and has been defined as ‘the largest incarnation of an ethnoreligious minority since the Holocaust.’ However, a month has now passed since the Disney controversy. It seems that the plight of the Uyghurs has once more slipped away from most media outlets’ attention, despite there being no changes to their oppression or any promise for change from Chinese authorities. Therefore, one cannot help but wonder what is being done by the international community to address this human rights issue?

Uyghur Muslims are an ethic group native to Xinjiang province in China. Their Turkic ethnicity means that they are more closely related to the people of Central Asian nations than they are to the Han Chinese, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, with their own distinct cultural and religious practices. There are believed to be around 11 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang; a province which has on previous occasions attempted to gain independence from the rest of China due to its differing cultural and religious beliefs to the Han Chinese. Strategically for China, Xinjiang is a vital province as it has a plentiful supply of energy resources and borders many Central Asian countries which are extremely rich in natural resources. These assets are essential for China’s continued economic prosperity.  

Map of Chinese Provinces (Courtesy of Toby Simkin, Flickr)

Since 2017, it has been known to the international community that internment camps have been increasing in number in Xinjiang. Within these camps, thousands of Uyghur Muslims are undergoing “re-education.” In August 2018, a UN human rights committee was notified of reports that approximately a million people could be under detainment in camps in Xinjiang. Since then, stories of those who survived the camps have started to percolate Western media, putting a spotlight on the situation. This is key to understanding what is truly happening as the Chinese hold a monopoly on the media in the region. This means that any reporting on the situation is extremely restricted and challenging. Nick Cohen, of The Guardian, voiced a key point in July 2020: ‘with no footage of their suffering, millions can suffer unnoticed in the dark.’ 

Mihrigul Tursun, a Uyghur woman who survived three “re-education” camps, described the horrific conditions she endured when speaking at a summit in Washington D.C in 2018. She recalled being drugged, electrocuted, and told that ‘being a Uyghur is a crime.’ Ablet Tursun Tohti, an exiled Uyghur now living in Turkey, was admitted to a camp in Hotan, in southern Xinjiang, for reciting an Islamic verse at a funeral. He recalls his month long sentence of “re-education” included singing a song entitled ‘Without the Communist Party There Can Be No New China’ and that failing to recite laws correctly resulted in beatings. Tohti says, ‘they told me I needed to be educated’, but his experience was one of intimidation and indoctrination, inside a structure so dissimilar to a school, featuring barbed wire fencing and watchtowers along the camp perimeters. However, he expresses his luck; in recent years passports have been recalled and people seem less likely to be released. 

Mihrigul Tursun (Photo: D.A.Peterson for U.S. State Dept.)

The image portrayed by the Chinese Communist Party of these “re-education camps” is entirely different. For years, the CCP denied their existence, claiming satellite images were “fake” but by October 2018, they admitted that the centres existed. However, in July 2020, the Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, dismissed a video shown to him on live television of distressing footage of Uyghur Muslims. When asked what was happening, the ambassador refuted the origin of the footage, refusing to answer the question. China, when admitting their existence, has continually expressed that the camps serve a purely educational purpose to prevent extremism and terrorist activity. 

It is clear from exiles’ testimonials and satellite imagery that these camps cannot be ignored or dismissed as schools. How is it possible that ethnic cleansing is happening on such a large scale in the 21st century? In 2018, the British government said it was ‘concerned over the treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang’ and in 2020 the British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, accused China of ‘gross and egregious human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslim population.’ However, it seems that these criticisms are devoid of action. Moreover, the international  Muslim community has failed to criticise the Chinese state’s detention of the Uyghurs. Many Muslim majority countries have relied heavily on Chinese state aid, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, so they are effectively silenced through debt to the CCP. One such example is Iran who – due to American sanctions from the Trump administration – rely too much on Chinese aid to dare to criticise the state’s actions in Xinjiang.

Additionally, many Western fashion corporations are complicit with Uyghur labour, with 180 human rights groups claiming that brands, such as Victoria’s Secret, knowingly utilise cotton produced by Uyghur inmates. Other brands linked to this include large, well-known corporations such as Zara, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. It is a known fact that Uyghur Muslims are transferred from camps to factories across China to produce commodities. Since 2017, 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces have been revealed to be using forced Uyghur labour. Therefore, Western society unknowingly harms the Uyghurs as a result of poor transparency from multiple, large, capitalistic corporations. The aim to reduce outgoings and increase profit clearly triumphs over human rights.

On October 3rd 2020, the Business Insider reported that another minority ethnic group, the Utsul Muslims, have been subjected to oppressive measures. The article states that ‘China is erasing the culture of a number of ethnic minorities as part of President Xi Jingping’s plan to create a unified China, where religion and culture come second to the Communist Party.’ Reports of banned clothing, restrictions on religious sermons and the increase in pro-Han Chinese propaganda stresses what is happening to the Uyghurs is not a solitary circumstance. Why did it take the release of a Disney film to awaken the world to inhumane acts occurring every day in real life? It has taken the world a long time to realise what is happening in Xinjiang and it will inevitably take even longer, due to Covid-19, to see more progress regarding the plight of the Uyghurs. Peter Irwin of the Uyghur Human Rights Project states: ‘while countries like the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe have condemned China’s human rights violations, the pandemic has made it difficult for some smaller states to speak up.’

On October 6th 2020, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that a boycott of the Winter Olympics is under review due to the ongoing Uyghur crisis. Declaring: ‘we need to look at what action to take’ as the issue is something ‘we cannot just turn away from’ is a step in the right direction. However, further action is required immediately from all international partners if the Uyghur people are to be freed from this mistreatment and regain their basic human rights. In a time of increasing global connectivity, how is it possible to turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of millions by one of the world’s leading economic powers?

Emily Lewis