In Depth

Uighurs: how China began a ‘cultural genocide’ as the West looked on

Beijing accused of torture, forced sterilisation and ‘disappearing’ entire families

Rights campaigners are calling for a United Nations investigation into China’s treatment of the country’s Uighur Muslims, following reports of forced sterilisations of women.

Beijing has also been accused of overseeing oppressive surveillance, brutal internment camps and physical and psychological torture of ethnic Uighurs, but has denied any wrongdoing.

What is happening in China?

In August 2018, a UN committee heard that a million Muslims were being detained in camps in China’s western Xinjiang region. 

The claim by human rights groups followed years of allegations about torture, entire families being disappeared, and “a complete surveillance state” in which Uighurs are made to give DNA and biometric samples, the BBC reports. 

And recent reports from the country suggest the persecution is worsening.

Uighur women are being fitted with intrauterine contraceptives against their will and coerced into undergoing sterilisation surgeries, according to a newly published study by China scholar Adrian Zenz, an independent contractor with the nonprofit Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington D.C.

The German academic says that analysis of official regional data and policy documents, and interviews with former internment camp detainees, shows that ethic minority women have also been made to have injections that stop their periods or cause unusual bleeding consistent with the effects of birth-control drugs, reports The Guardian

“These findings raise serious concerns as to whether Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang represent, in fundamental respects, what might be characterised as a demographic campaign of genocide” under UN definitions, says Zenz in his study report.

“It’s genocide, full stop,” Uighur expert Joanne Smith Finley of Newcastle University told The Diplomat. “It’s not immediate, shocking, mass-killing on the spot type genocide, but it’s slow, painful, creeping genocide.

The World Uyghur Congress agrees that Zenz’s report highlights evidence of a “genocidal element of the CCP’s [Chinese Communist party] policies” and has called for international action to confront China. 

China’s Foreign Ministry said the allegations were “baseless” and showed “ulterior motives”.

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How has the West responded?

In July last year, UN ambassadors from 22 states – including Australia, the UK, Canada, France, Germany and Japan – co-signed a letter to Human Rights Council President Coly Seck and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, condemning China’s treatment of Uighurs and other minorities, as The Guardian reported at the time.

But Western criticism has rarely led to action. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was asked by Labour’s Emily Thornberry last September what representations he had made to his Chinese counterpart on the detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

“We will continue to ensure that these concerns are expressed directly with Chinese authorities,” said Raab - a response that left critics calling for more concrete commitments to tackle the problem.

But while the UK has reacted to China’s newly introduced security powers over Hong Kong by offering Hong Kongers a path to British citizenship, little more has been done about the persecution of Uighurs.

Peers in the House of Lords last week tabled a cross-party amendment to the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill to create a human rights threshold for companies that want to supply equipment for the UK’s broadband infrastructure.

The amendment’s supporters argue that the interconnected nature of global digital supply chains means that allowing technology from Chinese firm Huawei to be used “could implicate Britain in human rights abuses against Uighurs”, reports The Telegraph.

Other Western nations have also been criticised for their failure to help protect the minority group. 

“European heads of government…have ‘addressed’ the persecution of the Uighurs during their recent visits to China, but only as a side note and among other issues,” wrote Germany newspaper Der Speigel’s Bernhard Zand last year.

“In contrast to the protest movement in Hong Kong, whose representatives have traveled the world to drum up attention for their demands, and in contrast to Tibet, whose plight is never completely ignored because of the presence of the Dalai Lama, the Uighurs have few prominent supporters abroad.”

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