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The Reality of the Uyghur Camps

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

By Irisa R. and Tahmina R.

Over the last month we have focused on how we need to unite with our individual actions; through donations, petitions, protesting and unlearning our own internalised prejudices. In doing this, we’ve turned our attention to what we consume online. Before, we thought it was as clear as; share what is necessary and actionable. As a part of this effort, we have tried to lay off the rush of consuming content and are trying instead to learn about movements and experiences with context. 

Alice Marwick and Danah Boyd coined the term context collapse. It is when we are given a few pieces of a puzzle and expected to construct the image on our own. Or, even more dangerously, when we are handed a very specific piece, with the intention that it will either confuse us or distract us. Content that is embedded with our post-modern, vintage, yet glossy filters creates a feeling of instantaneity. It “flattens the past, present and future into a constant... present and everything gets drowned out by an alarm bell.” The problem with this feeling of urgency is that it undermines the necessity of needing more information. 

Jenny Odell, a groundbreaking writer and artist, reflected on how, ‘scrolling through our feeds we can’t help but think; what are we supposed to think about all of this?” She’s right, a lot of this action at times creates a mind-numbing feeling of dread. Recently, we were consuming horrific content on the plight of Uyghur Muslims. From having a quick scroll through our feed, the only pieces of information that are available to us, reminded us that there is no international body, corporation or country that is truly paying attention. Although these alarm bells are true and powerful, they fail to contextualise what is happening. It doesn’t explain the why, or the how, or the who and most importantly; the thoughtful and necessary action needed. 

Why Xinjiang? 

The Uyghurs are the largest Muslim minority in China, where there are over 80 million Muslims. They are ethnically more similar to Central Asian peoples, and they speak a Turkic language. The Uyghur people live in Xinjiang, which is located in the west of China. In 1928, the Communist Party of China (CPC) promised the people of Xinjiang self-determination and autonomy when they came into power (creating the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). This never came to fruition. 

A tale as old as time - or as old as American foreign policy. Natural resources. Xinjiang is home to the biggest mining deposits of oil, gas and uranium in all of China. In a region half the size of NSW, these resources have brought huge levels of Chinese investment, rapid economic growth and large waves of Han Chinese settlers to the region, which have diluted the local Uyghur culture. Since the rise of the CPC, they have always emphasised that ‘communists are atheists and must unremittingly propagate atheism.’ Xinjiang shares their border with India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, and Mongolia and this, along with the mineral resources, makes it extremely strategic. 

In better controlling the religious population, the CPC developed a way to classify these ‘threats.’ The ‘red market’ were CPC - sponsored religious associations that were legally allowed to exist. The ‘grey market’ were religions that were not explicitly banned but they were completely dependent on the parties desires. The Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Muslims and Baha’i peoples all fell into the latter category. At first, the CPC ordered the creation of the Islamic Association of China (IAC) and the purpose of this was to “recruit, train, and appoint officially-sanctioned religious clergy who would disseminate CCP party guidelines to the religious community.” The name of the game was to indoctrinate from within. 

During the ‘Great Leap Forward’ in 1958 - 1962, the IAC were formally removed and its purpose was to effectively ban the public practice of Islam. All mosques were destroyed and all religious practices like praying, eating halal and Eid celebrations were banned. It became clear that openly practicing your religion was a crime. During the 1990s, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Xinjiang saw how neighbouring Muslim majority Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were able to gain independence and began to mobilise. In response, the Chinese Government launched the ‘Strike Hard’ campaign, which was met with a further consolidation of power over the region. 

Call It What It Is - A Genocide 

Satellite images have identified enormous complexes incarcerating close to 1.5 million people, meaning that 1 in every 10 people in Xinjiang are currently imprisoned. Adrian Zens, an academic focussed on exposing the crimes being committed, has called this ‘the largest incarceration of an ethnoreligious group since the Holocaust.’ The CPC has sent Government officials into Uyghur homes, where they imposed new legal penalties on Islamic identity by banning long beards, the hijab and naming their children with Muslim names. Media outlets like The Guardian, the ABC and New York Times use terms like ‘re-education camps’, ‘abuse’, or ‘detention camps’ that silence and misrepresent the events taking place. By using evasive language, it is responsible for misinforming the public. 

Men, women and children are being incarcerated. Of the crimes committed in these camps, the most brutal are forced sterilisation, widespread sexual assault and forced abortions. Among these, they are also being forced to drink alcohol and eat pork to prove their ‘re - education.’ The birth rate for Uyghurs has decreased significantly, and in parallel, their children are being separated from them and put into ‘boarding schools,’ which force them to learn Mandarin, and the doctrines of the communist party as a way to erase their Uyghur identity. 

Many of the men and women are also being detained in factories and forced labour camps. These camps produce the food that we buy here in Australia. For example, the garlic sold by Nature C at our large supermarkets are grown and cultivated in these camps. Moreover, their labour is used by some of the biggest brands in the world, including Apple, Nike, BMW, Samsung and Sony and are harbouring one of the most brutal forms of modern slavery. Last year, the Xinjiang Papers were leaked and within the 400 pages were orders to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins”. 

Where a memo sent out in 2017 by then deputy-secretary of Xinjiang's Communist Party, Zhu Hailun, who was in charge of the camps, ordered to: 

  • "Never allow escapes"

  • "Promote repentance and confession"

  • "Increase discipline and punishment of behavioural violations"

  • "Make remedial Mandarin studies the top priority"

  • "Full video surveillance coverage of dormitories and classrooms free of blind spots"

A wall poster in Xinjiang reads: "Stability is a blessing, instability is a calamity"

Riding the coattails of the US’s ‘War on Terror’, the CPC constructed the narrative that Uyghur Muslims were in need of ‘re-education.’ Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador to Australia, said, “so what has been done in Xinjiang has no … difference with what the other countries, including western countries, [do] to fight against terrorism.” To better contextualise this silencing, we need to recognise that the rhetoric of the War on Terror has been used to justify some of the most egregious crimes for almost two decades.

Just last year, the US Senate passed the Uyghur Bill of 2019 demanding the US to impose economic sanctions on the Chinese to condemn abuses against the Uyghur Muslims and to call for the closure of the camps. Australia, along with the UK, condemned the camps at the UN, however, they failed to enact any laws that require them to push for economic sanctions against China. Similarly, our national media has not reported on the Uygher camps in the last three years. Only recently, after BBC reports on it did Channel Seven respond with a similar report. 

Knowing is Resistance

Our news does not censor, but it removes context. In a time of over-information, our context for news is flattened and this has seriously impacted our awareness of the Uyghur Muslims. This was one issue where we were so comfortable for so long to know so little and this is our beginning to changing that. The most effective way to challenge this would be to encourage economic sanctions in the form of; embargoes, sanctions and tariffs on all businesses that are using the forced labour in the camps and Chinese imports. However, this would require a shift in public sentiment, and that starts by us first understanding the circumstances under which these camps have emerged. When things are deliberately hidden, concealed and also manipulated, it all begins with first knowing

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