China is currently detaining close to one million mostly Uighur people and subjecting them to “re-education” camps. Former detainees have spoken out saying that the conditions in the camps are poor, and inmates detailing psychological and physical abuse.
The Uighurs are an ethnic Turkic Muslim minority of 11 million people inside China, and make up around 45 per cent of the population of the northern Xinjiang province.
The “re-education” program targets Uighur culture and the Islamic religion. Camp inmates are reportedly forced to denounce Islam and declare their allegiance to the Communist Party and Chinese state.
State surveillance of the Uighur people has even extended into the home, something that the Chinese government claims is designed to stop instances of extremism. Authorities in one city, Hami, issued an order that Uighurs should hand themselves in if they followed “problematic behaviours” such as abstaining from the consumption of alcohol.
This repression is the product of a long history of Chinese colonialism and imperialism in the area.
Beijing’s hold on Xinjiang began during the Qing Dynasty in the 1750s, through indirect rule which was frequently challenged by local Muslim revolts. In the 1930s and 1940s there were attempts to establish an independent East Turkestan republic, but the area was absorbed into the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It was made an Autonomous Region in 1955, recognising its distinct cultural and ethnic status.
Increasing Han Chinese migration has heightened discrimination against the Uighurs, feeding resentment and separatism. In a post 9/11 world, China has justified its repressive policy in the region as part of the “war on terror”, sending government workers into the homes of Uighur people to monitor behaviour.
China’s authoritarian policies against the Uighurs have attracted increasing attention in the West.
Recently the German human rights commissioner was refused entry into Xinjiang province to observe conditions inside the camps. China warned against attempts to “interfere in the internal affairs of other countries” after a letter was issued signed by 15 foreign ambassadors expressing their concern about the camps.
But the Islamophobia stirred up by the West has assisted China’s efforts to demonise the Uighurs.
We should support the right of the Uighurs, and all of China’s minorities, to full national and religious freedoms. But Western governments, with their own imperialist interests, are no allies in this fight.
By Tooba Anwar