Western Countries Turn Up the Heat on Xinjiang

Xinjiang’s re-education camps have been criticized worldwide for holding up to a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims without due process. In response, Beijing attempted to provide a legal veneer for the camps’ operation, launched a propaganda campaign, and most recently, told the world to ignore “gossip” about Xinjiang. The Associated Press reports that China also dismissed a diplomatic effort in which 15 foreign ambassadors, led by Canada, sent a letter to Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo criticizing Beijing’s repression and surveillance of Muslims in Xinjiang. At Reuters, Philip Wen, Michael Martina, and Ben Blanchard provide more details on the letter:

The move represents unusually broad, coordinated action by a group of countries over a human rights issue in China, and illustrates the mounting backlash Beijing is facing over its crackdown in the western region.

[…] It was not clear if the letter had been sent yet or if it contents could be revised. One diplomatic source said it was being passed around for more countries to potentially sign.

[…] In the draft letter addressed directly to Chen, who outranks the region’s ethnic Uighur governor Shohrat Zakir, the ambassadors said they were highly concerned by the U.N. findings on .

[…] “In order to better understand the situation, we request a meeting with you at your earliest convenience to discuss these concerns.”

[…] The letter carries the names of 15 Western ambassadors, including the Canadian, British, French, Swiss, European Union, German, Dutch and Australian envoys. The other countries’ ambassadors names in the letter are Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Norway, Estonia, Finland and Denmark. [Source]

In the U.S., where legislators have previously urged sanctions against under the Magnitsky Act, lawmakers earlier this week again invoked the Act when they introduced the “Xinjiang Uyghur Human Rights Act of 2018” in both the House and the Senate. The bipartisan-supported bill aims to “condemn gross human rights violations of ethnic Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, and [is] calling for an end to arbitrary detention, torture, and harassment of these communities inside and outside China.” At CNN, Jennifer Hansler reports on the bill’s proposals and responses from the bill’s sponsors:

[…] “The internment of over a million and other in China is a staggering evil and should be treated by the international community as a crime against humanity,” [Republican Rep. Chris] Smith said in a statement. “As a start, Chinese government officials should be held accountable for their complicity in gross violations of human rights and U.S. businesses should be barred from helping China create a high-tech police state in Xinjiang province.”

The legislation compels the director of national intelligence, the FBI director, the CEO of the US Agency for Global Media and the secretary of state to produce reports for Congress related to security risks, protection of US citizens from intimidation, the Chinese disinformation efforts and scope of the abuses, respectively.

[…] Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press conference on Wednesday that the bill’s sponsors were “too obsessed with poking their noses into the domestic affairs of others.”

“It is really a wonder to me that these lawmakers think they are so superior that they can point fingers at other countries’ domestic affairs. How much do they know about the real situation in other countries?” she said. [Source]

Media outlets have recently published a flood of testimonials from family members of those interned who reside in countries such as Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Pakistan. Reflecting the trend of Uyghur children being sent to de facto orphanages despite both parents being alive, one Pakistani man described to NPR’s Diaa Hadid why the children of his Uyghur wife had been sent to an orphanage and how this treatment has broken other Pakistani-Uyghur families:

The security officials “admitted him to a Chinese orphanage school,” says Rehman. From what he’s understood, the orphanage is meant to raise the children in Chinese culture. “They don’t want the children to have Pakistani or Uighur customs. They want the children to become Chinese,” he says. “It’s not a normal school. They teach them, they feed them, but they don’t allow the children to see their parents.”

[…] For decades, there have been marriages and business ties between Pakistanis and Uighurs from China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. All that has been shattered by China’s crackdown on its Uighur minority.

[…] The Pakistani men initially hoped quiet lobbying to Pakistani officials in Islamabad and at the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing would free their families. But seeing no change after more than a year of effort, they began speaking out to Pakistani and international media in recent months, hoping that greater attention would lead to the release of their wives.

They are also prompted by a new fear: that their children, trapped in China, risk being taken away to state-run orphanages. The children are vulnerable because many of them are Chinese citizens. Many of the Pakistani men did not naturalize their children. They believed that before the crackdown, there was no need. Now, they say, Chinese authorities are not allowing the children to leave the country — and are taking them away on the pretext that their parents are not present. [Source]

In Kazakhstan, a woman described to NPR how she was ultimately forced to undergo an abortion when she made a trip back home to China, despite the unborn child being a Kazakh citizen. Five local officials were then sent home with her to monitor her 24/7. Ethnic Kazakh Kayrat Samarkand described to NPR how he was tortured in the camps and released only after he almost killed himself. In the Kazakh city of Almaty, rights organization Atazhurt has collected more than 1,000 testimonies from ethnic Kazakhs and Uyghurs whose loved ones have disappeared into the camps. NPR’s Rob Schmitz describes the hurdles Atazhurt faces:

“We help them write complaints to the U.N., to the Kazakh president’s office, to the Kazakh foreign ministry,” says Serikjan Bilash, Atazhurt’s co-founder. “We’ve given up writing to the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan, because writing to them is like throwing a stone in the sea.”

Bilash sent China’s embassy boxes filled with complaints from the families of those detained in the camps in Xinjiang, but says staff refused to accept them.

Kazakhstan’s government hasn’t treated him much better. “I’ve received four warnings from them [to stop my work],” complains Bilash.

Kazakhstan and its neighbors in the mostly Muslim region of Central Asia that have benefited from Chinese investment aren’t speaking up for the Muslims inside internment camps in China, he says.

“They’re silent about this because they need Chinese money. They’ve sold their religion. They don’t want heaven. They want Renminbi,” he says, referring to China’s currency. [Source]

While Muslims abroad have increasingly made pleas for help, Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson criticizes Islamic governments for refusing to speak up at the U.N. when China faced its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on human rights:

At the Universal Periodic Review, 13 countries challenged China to close the camps, and some echoed the call from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to allow access to Xinjiang investigate the scope of abuse. More expressed concerns about restrictions on the freedom of religious belief and on ethnic minority groups.

But not a single government from an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation member country explicitly called out China for its shocking abuses of Muslims, making it easier for Beijing to paint the criticism as another “Western” conspiracy. Only Turkey acknowledged the problem, speaking about “confinement of individuals without legal grounds,” but without specific reference to Xinjiang.  And some of those governments have been complicit in Beijing’s “Strike Hard” campaign – forcibly returning Turkic Muslims, particularly Uyghurs, to China, denying them safe passage to third countries, providing information about their identities to Chinese authorities. Few have even challenged Beijing for persecuting Turkic Muslims who have visited, studied in, or had family members emigrate to their own country.

It’s not clear why the defense of Muslims in China fell almost exclusively to Western governments. But an end to the crisis for that community will need intervention from a broad chorus. Will the Muslim-majority countries step up? [Source]

Muslims who do escape from China often find themselves pressured to spy on exile communities abroad, lest their family members back home be sent to re-education camps. Eysa, a Uyghur who escaped to Turkey, describes his story to The Independent:

Eysa thought he had finally escaped the shadowy Chinese security services that had pressed him into serving as a spy against his own community and turned his life in Xinjiang province into a living hell for three years. He had moved himself and his family to Turkey, and begun to carve a new life out for himself among the ethnic Uighur Muslims seeking refuge in a country with a language and religion similar to his own.

Then the 36-year-old began receiving messages on his phone from Qurban, the state security official who had detained him, pressed him into collaborating with the Chinese services, and then sought to throw him to the wolves when he had proven himself useless.

“Eysa,” his interrogator begins, in one of several recordings he retained on his phone and plays for The Independent. “ You think you’re safe in Turkey. But what about your brothers and in-laws?”

[…] In addition to Istanbul, experts close to the Uighurs living abroad say the Chinese security forces are seeking to infiltrate, recruit spies, and threaten embers of the ethnic group in Munich, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki. [Source]

For longer reads on the experiences of former detainees and current detainees’ family members, read Der Spiegel’s interviews with escapees to Kazakhstan, and CNN’s interviews with Uyghur RFA journalists who feel that their U.S. journalist ties have led to consequences for their families back home.