Never Again? Not Again!

It's time to stand up for the Uyghurs of China.


It is 31 years since Chinese tanks rolled over peaceful student protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, bringing to a violent end the 1989 Democracy Movement which had occupied the square for the previous seven weeks.

An estimated 10,000 people, overwhelmingly young, were murdered by the Chinese state in what was the country’s most public and violent crackdown on dissent until last year’s Hong Kong protests.

However, this repression pales into insignificance to what is happening several thousand miles away in the western province of Xinjiang. Here, where China meets Pakistan and the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, at least one million ethnic Uyghurs are being held against their will in giant concentration camps.

With the US government recently suggesting that the true figure being held might be as many as three million, between 10% and 30% of all Uyghurs are being imprisoned by the Chinese for simply being Muslim Uyghurs.

Over 400 pages of secret Chinese documents, revealed in the New York Times last December, put an end to the Chinese government lie that these camps were merely educational establishments.

Rather, these documents set out the systematic nature of imprisoning at least one million ethnic Uyghurs as a response to a deadly terrorist attack in 2014 which killed 31 people, just days after the Chinese President visited the region.

They also built upon the Chinese state’s fear of long-standing separatist sentiment among the ethnic Uyghur population, and a desire for homogeneity in modern day China.

Cultural genocide

The inmates in China’s “re-education centres” are forced to deny their Muslim religion, learn the Han Chinese language, and commit themselves to total obedience to the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi himself. They are forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Torture and gang rape has also been reported.

Evidence that the authorities were harvesting the organs of thousands of Uyghurs was even presented to a UN human rights body last September.

But the repression goes far beyond the concentration camps, as atrocious as they are. The Chinese government has launched an all-out assault on the Muslim Uyghurs and it is nothing less than cultural genocide.

In many ways the Uyghurs are the canaries in the cage. 

The authorities have banned Uyghur parents from calling their sons Mohammed, blocked Uyghur children from entering mosques, and levelled a third of mosques and two shrines in the ancient city of Kashgar alone. Uyghurs who work for the government are forbidden from fasting during Ramadan, while all men are prohibited from growing their beards “abnormally long.”

Widespread surveillance and facial recognition software has been deployed by the Chinese authorities and, in a move reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, children are encouraged to spy on their parents for any sign of disobedience or religious fervour. Monitoring apps have been surreptitiously added to the smartphones of many Uyghurs, and bar codes posted on to the front doors of Muslim households.

Muted response

Given the enormity of the systematic abuse that’s been taking place, international condemnation has been surprisingly muted. The UK was among 22 countries that wrote a letter to the UN’s Human Rights Committee last year to register their disapproval, but in response, 54 countries – including Russia, Syria, Pakistan and the Congo – delivered a counter view, praising the Chinese authorities for their resolute and effective counter-terrorism strategy. Beyond some public rhetoric, only the United States has taken any firm action.

China has successfully limited international outrage and action through its growing economic and political power, much of it derived from its Belt and Road Initiative – a global development strategy created in 2013 to fund infrastructure development and investments in nearly 70 countries and international organisations.

Even the Arab League, which one would have thought would have been outspoken in its criticism, backtracked on earlier condemnation to voice public support of the Chinese regime after a delegation of 20 senior Chinese officials attended one of its gatherings.

Aiding and abetting

Indifference and realpolitik might have led to depressing inaction among governments, but it has also encouraged well-known European and North American companies to profit from the Uyghur oppression without scrutiny or fear of sanction.

American tech companies like Google and IBM have collaborated with the Shenzhen-based company Semptian to develop devices to enhance internet surveillance and censorship technology, including the covert monitoring of the internet activity of 200 million people.

The German giant Siemens is collaborating on advanced automation, digitisation and networking technology with China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, a state-owned military contractor that has developed a policing app used in Xinjiang and which Human Rights Watch claims has led some people to be sent to the camps.

German and Dutch research centres have been linked to Chinese scientists pioneering the collection of DNA samples in order to recreate an image of a person’s face for use in facial recognition software.

A far wider group of European, American and Japanese companies are profiting from Uyghur repression through the use of forced labour. A recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) claims that 86 well-known brands operate or use 27 factories in China that employ forced Uyghur labour. These include Nike, Adidas, Apple, BMW, IBM, Microsoft and Sony, plus iconic British brands Jaguar and Land Rover.

Another ASPI report, released late last year, listed Swedish companies IKEA and H&M as just two of several European companies that use cotton from Xinjiang that has been picked and prepared with forced labour.

With so little action being taken by the international community over the treatment of the Uyghurs, especially in Europe, these companies have been able to ignore and brush aside any criticism.

The only exception has been in the United States, where the Senate recently passed a bi-partisan Uyghur human rights act to sanction Chinese government officials responsible for forced labour camps in Xinjiang. This followed the earlier sanctioning of 28 Chinese companies that had been implicated in the abuse of the Uyghurs, thus barring them from buying products from US companies without approval from Washington.

While this law will inevitably be used as a bargaining chip in increasingly fraught US-China relations, it is an important first step. 

Indifference and realpolitik might have led to depressing inaction among governments. 

European countries should enact similar legislation, but also work to prevent and even sanction companies that are directly implicated in the persecution of the Uyghurs or use factories that employ forced labour.

The British government definitely needs to do more. While the Foreign Office has been publicly outspoken on the treatment of the Uyghurs, other government departments and Ministers continue to collaborate with the Chinese companies responsible for the repression.

In mid-February, The Guardian reported that the UK government had allowed Hikvision, a surveillance equipment provider active in China’s western Xinjiang province, to attend the Security and Policing trade fair it was hosting in Farnborough in March. Hikvision is one of the 28 Chinese companies blacklisted by the US.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has reported that UK trade minister Graham Stuart MP met representatives of SenseTime, a Chinese facial recognition company, in June 2019 to discuss artificial intelligence and data in higher education, despite reports that the company’s products had been used in Xinjiang province.

Canary in the cage

The persecution of the Uyghurs is probably the worst oppression of a minority that currently exists in the world. The scale of the internment and the extent of the surveillance and curtailment of freedoms is on a level that we have not seen since the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Our collective failure to speak out and take action against it is as much a stain on countries outside China as it is on the Chinese regime.

In many ways the Uyghurs are the canaries in the cage. If we fail to address their persecution, then we will only embolden the Chinese regime to undertake similar persecution of other minorities in the country. If we do not make a stand for the Uyghurs, what moral authority do we have to oppose any other country doing the same to their people?

China is a massive economic and political power and as such can bully, silence and punish opposition, so of course individual countries are somewhat limited to what they can do. But, collectively, we have power. If countries act together, then China will be forced to act. If we as citizens and consumers act together, then major companies and research centres that are complicit in the Uyghur repression or benefit indirectly through forced labour, will have to change their ways.

This year, world leaders remembered the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the ending of the Second World War in Europe. If the often-used phrase ‘Never Again’ is not to be turned into ‘Not Again’, then we need to act against this cultural genocide.