Xinjiang in the era of Covid-19

Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch calls out the Chinese government over its appalling treatment of its Muslim Uyghur peoples.


Imagine for a moment that Chinese authorities respected the rule of law, tolerated a free press, and submitted to democratic elections.

As governments around the world call for investigations into the origins and spread of the pandemic, hopefully they will recognise one of the critical underlying causes in China: a lack of respect for human rights.

And few communities in China urgently need attention more than ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang, where Beijing’s policies are so restrictive that members of the diaspora cannot get reliable information even about the spread of the coronavirus there.  

In a country with a majority Han population, the central government in Beijing has long treated Xinjiang, the northwest region with 13 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, as a “frontier” in which a population it considers exotic but backward requires pacification and assimilation.

While many Turkic Muslims desire greater freedoms and autonomy under the current government, others support a separate state. Beijing thus sees Turkic Muslims, particularly Uyghurs, as an ethno-nationalist threat to the Chinese state.

Hostility

The Chinese authorities are hostile to many expressions of Uyghur identity, including religion, culture, and language. The authorities enforce detailed and wide-ranging controls over daily life in Xinjiang to minimise, if not eradicate, these expressions.

For example, since the 1990s the Chinese government has pushed for what it euphemistically calls “bilingual education” in Xinjiang, an approach that progressively prioritises Mandarin while marginalising the Uyghur language.

The authorities restrict Uyghurs to a certain set of ideas and behaviours considered “normal” and patriotic. For example, they have banned baby names with religious connotations common in the Islamic world, such as Medina, because they encourage “excessive religious fervour.”

The government calls some of these “abnormal” thoughts or behaviours “the three [evil] forces” (“separatism, terrorism, and extremism”), and subjects those exhibiting them to corrections or punishments.

A case in point is the respected Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, whose advocacy for equality and employment for Uyghurs was construed as “separatism” and resulted in his being sentenced to life in prison in September 2014 after a grossly unfair trial.

Arrests & Detention

In May 2014, the government opened its “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in Xinjiang.

Since then, the number of people formally arrested has leaped threefold compared with the previous five-year period, according to official figures and estimates by nongovernmental organisation, Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

In late 2016, Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, known for his tough polices to silence criticism in the Tibet Autonomous Region, relocated to assume leadership of Xinjiang. Since that time, Human Rights Watch has documented the Chinese government’s mass arbitrary detention, torture, and forced political indoctrination of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

The detainees in “political education” camps, in which an estimated one million Turkic Muslims have been held since 2017, are denied any due process rights – neither charged nor put on trial – and have no access to lawyers and family.

They are held for having links with foreign countries, particularly those on an official list of “26 sensitive countries,” or for using foreign communication tools such as WhatsApp, as well as for peacefully expressing their identity and religion, none of which constitute crimes.

Surveillance State

Outside these detention facilities, the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang subject Turkic Muslims to such extraordinary restrictions on personal life that, in many ways, their experiences resemble those of the people detained.

A combination of administrative measures, checkpoints, and passport controls arbitrarily restrict their movements. They are subjected to persistent political indoctrination, including compulsory flag-raising ceremonies, political or denunciation meetings, and Mandarin “night schools.”

With unprecedented levels of control over religious practices, the authorities have effectively outlawed Islam in the region.

Also, since early 2018, Chinese officials have imposed regular “home stays” on families in Xinjiang; during these visits, families are required to provide officials with information about their lives and political views, and are subjected to political indoctrination.

Human Rights Watch has also documented the authorities’ mass involuntary collection of biometrics, from DNA to voice samples, and their use of that data to track residents in the region.

In 2019, we reverse-engineered an app used by police in Xinjiang, demonstrating the authorities’ blatant use of big data and predictive policing to identify what they deem as suspicious behaviour and to detain people arbitrarily.

These human rights violations – along with growing Chinese government harassment of Turkic Muslim diaspora communities around the world – are ongoing. 

Muted Response

Governments’ and multilateral organisations’ responses have been muted relative to the scale of human rights violations in Xinjiang. Only a small handful of governments have over the years called out China’s appalling record of human rights violations against Turkic Muslims in China.

UN experts’ questioning of Chinese government officials at a UN review on racial discrimination in August 2018 helped generate more pressure for action. Since that time, about two dozen governments have twice called for an independent investigation into violations against Turkic Muslims – in July last year at the UN Human Rights Council, and then in October at the Third Committee of the UN. 

On both occasions the Chinese government orchestrated counter-statements signed by larger numbers of governments, some of them financially or politically dependent on China. In February,  the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, renewed her call to be allowed unfettered access to Xinjiang to investigate human rights violations. Chinese authorities continue to stonewall that request.

Beijing’s campaign to internationally whitewash its track record in Xinjiang includes a number of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states that appear impervious to China’s abuses of Muslims. On one occasion, OIC representatives praised China’s “care to its Muslim citizens.”

Interestingly, approximately half of the OIC member states have sat out these efforts, neither cheering China’s policies nor joining the coalition of critical states. Some OIC states, such as Turkey and Albania, have backed the call for an investigation. Qatar initially supported but then withdrew from China’s counter-statement; Malaysian authorities have called for more information on the situation in Xinjiang.

Sanctions

Activists, journalists and researchers have made credible allegations of forced labor by “graduates” of Xinjiang’s political reeducation camps. This is now driving debates among Western governments, including the United Kingdom and the United States, to consider import restrictions.

In May, the United States Senate passed by unanimous consent the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. This legislation envisions sanctions against Chinese government officials credibly alleged to have been involved in serious human rights violations in Xinjiang, plus heightened protections for those in the US being harassed by the Chinese authorities.

As the UN Human Rights Council goes back into session in June, Human Rights Watch and others will continue to advocate access to Xinjiang for independent investigators, and for remote monitoring and reporting if China continues to deny access.

Only through such an exercise can we know the full scope of human rights violations across the region – including the spread there of Covid-19.

Sophie Richardson is China director at Human Rights Watch | @SophieHRW