WUHAN, Hubei — Situated in the northwestern region of China, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is home to an array of cultures, ethnic groups and religions. Among this diverse population are the Uyghur people, a mostly Muslim ethnic group, which, until a few years ago, constituted the majority population of Xinjiang. While the 11 million Uyghurs in the XUAR lived in relative peace for centuries, Beijing’s implementation of the Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Extremism and Belt and Road Initiative in recent years have posed humanitarian, socioeconomic and cultural threats to ethnic minorities in China. China’s repression of Uyghurs constitutes a grave human rights violation.
According to UNICEF data from 2017, more than 50% of China’s poor, rural population is located in the western provinces of China. In fact, Xinjiang reportedly possesses the highest poverty rate, at almost 10%, compared to other regions. As such, Xinjiang’s lack of technological and economic development coupled with Beijing’s yearning for ethnic homogeneity have influenced Beijing to initiate an era of mass incarceration.
By incorporating biometric systems and stationing more than a million officers in Xinjiang, the Chinese government hopes to attain Han Chinese purity while developing Xinjiang to be economically competitive.
The Rise of Re-Education Camps
China’s 2014 Strike Hard Campaign has the goal of eradicating “terrorist” activity and crime in Xinjiang, but investigations show that the campaign is only a guise attempting to replace Muslim culture and religion with the Chinese Communist Party’s strict authority. China’s repression of Uyghurs has led to the creation of detention facilities across Xinjiang for the purpose of “re-educating” ethnic minorities. According to the Guardian in 2020, there were around 380 Chinese detention facilities in Xinjiang, all of which contain prison-like security features.
According to CNN, most detainees are sent to detention camps for arbitrary reasons. “Having too many children,” holding a passport without traveling and following religious traditions rank among the most common offenses. In the camps, indoctrination and Mandarin lessons are mandatory. Many detainees are forced to pledge loyalty to the Chinese government, relinquish their religious roots and sing songs about the prosperity of Chinese communism.
There are also reports of sexual assault and torture in these facilities. Humanitarian issues run rampant within the camps and not only does China’s repression of Uyghurs arbitrarily place innocent minorities in detention facilities but the authoritative government subjects individuals to propaganda and indoctrination.
Forced Labor Runs Rampant
In addition to uniting China culturally, the Chinese government has also embarked on a mission to grow the nation’s economy and eradicate poverty. China’s progress in the latter has been relatively successful; according to the World Bank, China has taken approximately 800 million people out of poverty in the past two decades.
This means that China has “contributed close to three-quarters of the global reduction in the number of people living in extreme poverty,” the World Bank says. However, in spite of these statistics, China continues to inflict negative poverty alleviation tactics to strengthen its economy.
Specifically, the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) reports that local Chinese officials receive quotas of impoverished people that they must lift out of poverty. This has resulted in forced labor, in which officials forcibly transfer individuals from their jobs to other more productive sectors. In fact, CSIS says that “detainees from detention facilities were forced to work while detained or upon their release,” showcasing another inhumane aspect of Beijing’s re-education camps.
The Exploitation of Workers
The Borgen Project spoke with a first-hand witness of the Xinjiang crisis, who said, “Most of us do not have the educational capacity to work high-skilled jobs, and even if we did, we understand that there not many opportunities to demonstrate that in Xinjiang.” The majority of men in Xinjiang perform low-skilled jobs in factories due to a lack of educational and employment prospects.
Another element of China’s poverty alleviation pursuits takes on the form of “industry-based poverty alleviation,” according to the Journal of Political Risk. In fact, Dr. Adrian Zenz states in the journal that the Chinese government has engaged in a “systematic training of so-called rural surplus laborers in order to place them in low-skilled factory work.” The Chinese government’s exploitation of low-skilled workers in Xinjiang has become a significant concern in recent years.
The Chinese government’s quests for ethnic homogeneity and economic prosperity have severe legal implications. Chinese detention facilities, in particular, completely conflict with China’s commitments under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Article 2 of ICERD emphasizes the eradication of racial discrimination and Article 5 protects minorities through certain rights.
Thus, China’s repression of about 13 million Turkic Muslims in the form of detention facilities, forced labor and mass surveillance overtly contradicts these articles. Furthermore, Beijing’s establishment of internment camps runs contrary to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; by arbitrarily imprisoning Uyghurs and depriving them of their liberties, these camps constitute a crime against humanity.
Fortunately, in recent years, international organizations and governments have made strides to address China’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In December 2021, President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law, effectively banning the U.S. import of products made through forced labor in Xinjiang.
Similarly, in September 2022, the European Commission initiated a proposal banning all products made through forced labor on the EU market. Although this proposal does not single out China’s repression of Uyghurs specifically, it achieves the underlying goal of stopping China from engaging in forced labor.
An Impending Future
China’s activities and actions to repress and ethnically cleanse the Uyghurs constitute grave human rights violations that infringe upon international treaties seeking to safeguard the rights of human beings.
Countries like the U.S. are putting forward legislation and publicly denouncing China for its actions toward Uyghurs in Xinjiang with the goal of safeguarding the rights of ethnic minorities. Going forward, as China continues to lift rural communities out of poverty, it should not be at the expense of human rights.
– Emma He