China’s predominantly Muslim Uighur minority will spend the 2018 Eid al-Fitr holiday season fleeing persecution in Xinjiang province and calling attention to the plight of their families back home.
The international response to China’s treatment of the Uighurs is remarkably muted given the Western elite’s concern with “Islamophobia.” Xinjiang takes a back seat only to the Rohingya camps along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border as a scene of genuine Muslim persecution.
AFP reported on Sunday that even Uighurs living overseas are being harassed by Chinese police. Uighur students living in France were peppered with ominous WeChat messages from Chinese officers demanding information about their degree programs and personal lives. Threats of harm to family members back in Xinjiang are commonly employed to force compliance.
One student said he hastily deleted his WeChat account after someone claiming to be a Chinese police officer demanded pictures of his passport and visa — a menacing request because China tends to force Uighurs to return home for passport renewals rather than processing them through foreign embassies. Those who do return home often find themselves thrown into the camps and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques to gain detailed information about their activities abroad.
“They want to know where I live, what I do, how I spend the weekend. They want me to give them information about Uighurs here. They threaten my family who beg me to do what they ask,” one student said.
It is easy for China to threaten the family members of Uighurs living overseas because just about every family in Xinjiang has someone incarcerated in a Chinese jail or “re-education camp.”
The Wall Street Journal noted on Friday that seven percent of the Muslims in Xinjiang are suffering some form of detention. Enormous work camps are blossoming across the province, with over 1,300 camps up and running according to the latest estimate. Former detainees are speaking up about physical and psychological torture, taken in some cases to murderous extremes.
The Journal discovered that outside observers are not welcome at the camps China denied it was running until about a week ago when satellite imagery made it impossible to hide the truth any longer:
At one internment camp in the oasis city of Turpan, the site of an ancient Silk Road settlement, a sign on one of the main buildings read in red Chinese characters: “Sense the party’s kindness, obey the party’s words, follow the party’s lead.” Guards shouted at an approaching Journal reporter to leave the area.
The center, surrounded by 15-foot-high walls topped with razor wire and punctuated with guard towers, has expanded since June last year with new buildings added as recently as this month, according to satellite images from U.S.-based Planet Labs Inc.
The re-education camps do not provide much in the way of food, but there is a steady diet of Chinese Communist propaganda. Muslim inmates interviewed by the Wall Street Journal said they were forced to sing Communist propaganda songs, forbidden to observe their own religious practices, and even forced to eat pork, which is forbidden under Muslim dietary practices.
“They said we should give thanks not to Allah, but to Xi Jinping,” said one former detainee.
China has gone from denying the camps exist to insisting Xinjiang merits an unprecedented “pacification” program because Uighur separatists are a severe threat to Chinese security, particularly those returning from the battlefields of Syria with military experience.
The South China Morning Post noted on Monday that China has a penchant for blaming unrest in Xinjiang on a massive terrorist operation called the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” that may not actually exist.
A United Nations committee challenged China on the situation in Xinjiang this month, with one committee member declaring the entire province has become “something resembling a massive internment camp,” but the Chinese government merely issued a blanket denial of all abuses. China’s state-run media claims the camps sprouting all over Xinjiang are simply vocational academies where Uighurs can learn trade skills.
A Monday editorial at Middle East Eye by a Uighur activist found it curious that the Muslim world has little to say about the plight of the Uighurs, who can be arrested or fined merely for planning to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca:
Despite proof of torture and cruel practices by the Chinese government, few Islamic leaders have condemned its actions. Instead of standing up to Chinese President Xi Jinping, countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia have been deporting Uighurs who managed to escape China. This is happening because of China’s economic promises to these countries, but considering China’s history of grants and projects in other countries, this may just be a debt trap.
While Islamic leaders have Quranic verses at the tip of their tongue, they have forgotten the real message of Allah: to help each other and fight injustice. They have forgotten that we are all obligated to save innocent lives and fight evil. I pray that Islamic nations will unite to save their Uighur brothers and sisters, who are being tortured only because they follow this path.
Foreign Policy last month noted the reluctance of even the most outspoken Muslim leaders to confront China over the Uighurs. A deafening silence emanates from those who attack Israel on a daily basis for supposedly oppressing the Palestinians. Muslim governments like Egypt, Malaysia, and Pakistan have proven willing to deport Uighurs back to China.
“No Muslim nation’s head of state has made a public statement in support of the Uighurs this decade. Politicians and many religious leaders who claim to speak for the faith are silent in the face of China’s political and economic power,” Foreign Policy wrote.
Even the loudest self-declared champions of the faith seem to care less about the Uighurs than they do about the Chinese “Belt and Road”:
China has become a key trade partner of every Muslim-majority nation. Many are members of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or are participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In South Asia, this means infrastructure investment. In Southeast Asia, China is a key market for commodities such as palm oil and coal. The Middle East benefits due to China’s position as the world’s top importer of oil and its rapidly increasing use of natural gas.
“Many states in the Middle East are becoming more economically dependent on China,” said Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Chinese-Middle East relations expert at the University of Technology Sydney. “China’s geoeconomic strategy has resulted in political influence.”
“I don’t think there is a direct fear of retribution or fear of pressure,” said Dawn Murphy, a China-Middle East relations expert at Princeton University. “I do think that the elite of these various countries are weighing their interests, and they are making a decision that continuing to have positive relations with China is more important than bringing up these human rights issues.”
The Uighurs can only hope that someday Muslim representatives to the United Nations might take a break from condemning Israel and speak up about Xinjiang.