Voice for the silenced: A case of 21st Century Ethnic Cleansing
Disclaimer: The views presented in this article are solely the views of the author. The author does not represent the views of the UNSW United Nations Society and its members.
Australia: Is it worth having a partner who disregards human rights; treats their own citizens undignified and avoids all responsibility for the virtual nightmare they have created within China just for economic benefits?
When you hear the words ‘detention camps,’ ‘forced ethnic assimilation,’ ‘millions gone missing’ and ‘Uyghurs’, you probably don’t think of China. When I searched ‘China’ on Google news, the first three headlines that appeared were ‘China to send a frigate to Australia for military exercises,’ China urges Australia to spend ‘real money’ in Asia’, and ‘Australia needs to keep its focus on expanding its China trade ties’. Heavy media coverage and political rhetoric surrounding China has meant that the country has become largely associated as a booming economic giant and an ever-increasing geopolitical influence. Unfortunately, as nations and its citizens keep a close eye on the growth of China’s, they often neglect and trivialize issues such as the mistreatment of its citizens, human rights violations and its repression on the ethnic minority population. The efforts of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to erase ethnic minorities’ cultural identity by forbidding them to speak their native language and prohibiting the practice of their religion and participation of cultural customs is often overlooked.
Uyghurs are ethnic Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China, accounting for 1.5% of China’s entire population. It was an independent nation during the 1940s but the Chinese manipulatively took control of the land in 1949, promising a land of opportunity and prosperity. For a brief time in history, the Chinese deployed initiatives of tolerance and to a limited extend, the Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs lived relatively in harmony with one another. However, this thoughtfully maintained “harmony” did not last long. Soon after the Twin Tower Crashing of 9/11, Chinese believed that due to small numbers of Uyghur citizens in the Islamic Extremists groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ethnic minority population posed an immediate threat to the stability of the Communist Party of China (CPC). However, due to the geographical location of XUAR and China’s tight grip on internet exposure for its citizens and the circulation of media coverage both within the country and abroad, the issues brewing within XUAR were and are constantly drowned with more at stake issues such as military relations.
The most pressing issues faced by Uyghurs living inside the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang as well as abroad, are the streamlined mass incarceration of Uyghur and Kazakh citizens; the administration of reeducation camps and detention centers and wide spread disappearance of tens of thousands of Uyghur citizens. Journalist Tara Francis Chan for Business Insider noted that out of Xinjiang’s 22 million residents, 227,000 people have been arrested according to data released by the advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders. However, 227,000 isn’t the only figure that is ground-breaking, data has also shown that approximately one million people have been sent to political re-education camps and detention centers for the past 18 months. Most of these people have not committed any actual crimes, according to one fugitive, Abdurahman Hassan, who is now living in Turkey, claims that his wife and mother had been sent to re-education camps; the only crime they are guilty of is being Uyghur. He said he’d rather pay for bullets assigned for their death sentence than for them to rot in the camp and to be never heard from again. Every Uyghur, whether inside the region or not, has something to lose or have lost someone dear due to murdered, unexplained disappearance or incarceration.
Why didn’t they just pick up their things and leave, go to someplace safe and start over? The reality is they would if they could, if their passports hadn’t been confiscated. Even if they have their passports with them, they would be caught at the airport: detained and interrogated. There are many cases where couples thought getting a divorce would protect their families, and other instances where people have fled the country, leaving their families behind, hoping that the police and the government would leave them alone.
I was 10 years old when I first experienced terror in Urumqi, Capital city of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It was 5 July , 2009. Mum and I had just touched down in Urumqi. Everything was fine. We were still drooling over the mountains of food my grandparents had prepared for us and relishing in the sensation of “we are finally home”. However, it wasn’t long before we realised that it was a fantasy, that our lives would be turned upside down. As mum and I were headed home, we heard people shouting and yelling on the main road, directly below our apartment building. What I saw that day is something that I will not ever forget. People were crying, shouting and yelling, they were carrying knives and sticks, cars were flipped in the middle of the road. What I saw that day was a nation saying no, we’ve had enough, and we are going to fight back.
Mum and I kept our heads down and swiftly made our way home. As soon as we walked in, mum asked the housekeeper to turn off all the lights, to disconnect all the phone lines but the main one by the kitchen and one by one, all our relatives came to our house and we bundled up around a few candles, speculating what this means for us in silence. It was quiet for a few moments, and then we heard police sirens approaching and we carefully made our way to the window and saw the main road was separated into two sections. The Uyghurs on one side and the Han and the People's Liberation Army special operations forces on the other. The P.L.A bombarded the Uyghurs with tear gas, but that didn’t stop them running forward. It was their time for rebellion. It was their time to protect this beautiful land. It was their time to let the party know that they were people too.
That night, the city fell into darkness. All the lights were turned off and there was no one on the street. There were only a few road cleaning cars, cleaning the blood off the road.
It wasn’t until a year later that we returned to Urumqi again. But this time, the city looked nothing like the city that I remembered and loved. Paramilitary policemen and the SEALs were patrolling the streets. At every major corner, there was a cage used to protect the paramilitary soldiers on duty, banners and slogans such as “Peace and prosperity believe in the party” were hung anywhere that could be seen by the public.
Before 2009, everything was still fine. People still had a decent amount of ‘freedom’ and people were still allowed to travel. But after the separate riots on the 5th and 7th of July, mass imprisonment began, mainly targeting the Uyghurs, many of whom, were never heard from again.
Conditions for the Uyghur population became more prominent when a new party secretary for Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was appointed in 2016. Before his current posting, Chen Quanguo was the acting party secretary for Tibet, in which he oversaw the increase in security, surveillance and arbitrary regulations. His same ‘regime’ was introduced to Xinjiang and upon his appointment, party chief Chen initiated unprecedented oppressive measures against the Uyghur population. It started off as an ideological purge against ‘two-faced’ Uyghur officials who did not follow directives. It then progressed to people who had previous criminal backgrounds, unorthodox political views, and those who had travelled abroad. Further on, a questionnaire categorising people into three groups, being ‘safe’, ‘normal’ and ‘unsafe”’was distributed and evaluated. The questionnaire operates with a point system, in which each affirmative answer deducts 10 points starting from 100. A result below 70 renders you in the ‘unsafe zone’. Questions in the questionnaire include: are you an ethnic Uyghur, do you hold a passport, have you travelled overseas, do you have any relatives abroad, have you or are you attending university. Already, for the vast majority of the population, including myself have failed and rendered unsafe, thus being thrown in one of those re-education camps to strengthen my political views in favour of the CPC.
With actual testimonies provided to Radio Free Asia by survivors and fugitives, they all have claimed that the administrators within these re-education camps have bullied and threatened the ‘students’ into abandoning their Muslim faith and instead study Chinese history and sing songs such as ‘without the communist party, there is no new China’. They have also recounted that many are being isolated, beaten, tortured and unable to go home. Radio Free Asia has also reported that in one town, police were given the goal of detaining 3,000 Uyghurs or Kazakhs a week for over-criticizing the government on social media. Reportedly, in another county, authorities were given a quota of placing 40% of the population in re-education camps for ‘religious extremism’. Apart from the threat of being incarcerated, following the indoctrinations of Chen, Uyghurs have been prohibited from fasting during Ramadan, refusing to eat pork, refusing to wear shorts, refusing to watch State TV or State radio, speaking to family members overseas and the likes. XUAR has also employed huge number of police officers as 10,000 jobs were advertised in January and February of 2017 and ‘convenience police stations’ can be found every 500 meters in the Capital of Urumqi.
However, as nations such as Britain and The United States of America have slammed China for the human rights crimes being committed to the Uyghur population and the widespread re-education camps, China’s central government has not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in Xinjiang. Nonetheless, local officials in many parts of Xinjiang have reported to Radio Free Asia, detailing the significant number of Uyghurs sent to the camps, highlighting the overcrowding in some facilities.
Journalist James Dorsey has debated that the “Chinese campaign of forcibly assimilating ethnic Uyghurs in its North-Western province of Xinjiang is a bid to erase nationalist sentiment, counter militancy, and create an ‘Uyghur Islam with Chinese characteristics’”He argues that the “crackdown and forced assimilation is further intended to reduce the risk of a flow of ideas and influences through open borders needed for economic development and cementing Xinjiang into framework of China’s infrastructure- driven Belt and Road initiatives that spans Eurasia”.
As I have previously mentioned before, due to the geopolitical location of XUAR and China’s tight grip on internet exposure of its citizens and the circulation of media coverage both within and abroad, it is difficult for international, powerful players and organizations to intervene. Regardless, it is imperative that the media exposure of the current human rights abuses haunting the Uyghur population increases. There is a time when enough is enough.
The reason I volunteered to submit this article to the Working Paper, despite the consequences and the backlash it might receive, is because someone whom I cherish dearly once told me to never let the fire and passion within me to extinguish. And as a Uyghur, who is fortunate enough to safely live in Australia and is able to raise their voice without being hunted by the government, I feel as though I have a responsibility to light the fire within every Uyghur and give a voice to their despair; hopelessness and struggles. Another reason is because when I became an Australian citizen, I sang the national anthem with pride and conviction. I wanted to become an Australian not of the perks and privileges such as the freedom to visit 160+ countries without visas; free trip to the doctors and Higher Education Loan Programme; but I also believed in what Australia stood for. I believe in this country, but honestly I am disappointed with the way the Australian has chosen to respond to this pressing issue which is worsening as days go by.
I am aware that the Uyghur community is relatively small in Australia, comprising of 2,500 members and 600+ families but every one of these families have lost someone dear to re-education camps and detention centres. Someone close to me once said: “if anything ever happens to my parents (both 80+ years old), I cannot even go home and spray their ashes onto the ground”. Nearly every Uyghur has this sentiment but they are afraid to speak out on this issue.
As a United States Commision on China once said in April: "[The detention campaign is] the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today." The Chinese government has not only targeted Uyghurs living inside China and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, they have also extended the purge campaign to Uyghurs in the United States, France, Turkey, Australia and Egypt, issuing orders for Uighurs to return home and threatening their families if they do not comply. Even Uyghurs with Australian passports have not been spared by this atrocity. In August 2017, an Australian man who is a Uyghur was arrested on his arrival in China's Chengdu airport, and was subsequently detained for more than 20 days without charge, sources told the ABC. DFAT confirmed that they provided assistance to a man who matches the description, but were unable to provide further information due to privacy obligations. In regards to these issues concerning Uyghur Australian citizens, residents living in Australia, The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said "Australia is concerned about the growing number of reports of mistreatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang".
Over the past thirty years, both sides of politics in Australia have preferred to raise human rights issues behind closed doors, arguing that “non-confrontational, cooperative dialogue is the most effective way to address the human rights situation in other countries”. Yet these bilateral efforts to engage China on its own terms have failed to address these issues or to see change. In 2015 the Chinese Government made a unilateral decision to walk away from these annual, high-level human rights meetings, leaving Australia with fewer diplomatic options for altering China’s repressive behaviour at home. The failure to speak out not only sanitises the actions of an abusive regime, but also contributes to China’s efforts to redefine international human rights standards. The Turnbull government has warned against the dangers of a “coercive China” and the Chinese Communist Party’s interference in Australian politics and national life, but has said little about the systematic abuses occurring inside China itself, specifically targeting the Uyghur minority population.
On the contrary, other powerful leading nations in this world such as the United States of America have publicly condemned the inhumane actions against the Uyghur population, as recently Washington held a congressional hearing and demanded China claim responsibility for the atrocities they have created in China. Senators such as Marco Rubio and the spokesperson for the United States Department of State Heather Nauert have openly expressed their position and stance on this issue. The Canadian and US governments have publicly censured Beijing, while the commission monitoring China’s human rights record for the US Congress has labelled these “political education camps” as “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.” This is a stark contrast to the weak actions taken by the Australian government.
Australia, it is time to ask ourselves, Isn’t time to demand China to accept international moral compass and openly discuss these issues, instead of working behind closed doors?”