The Uighurs or Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group who live in East and Central Asia. Today, an estimated 15 million Uighurs live primarily in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (East Turkistan) of the People’s Republic of China, where they are one of 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. Uighurs primarily practice Islam. Like many populations of Central Eurasia, they are genetically related to both Caucasoid and East Asian populations.
On December 20th, 1949, East Turkistan was invaded and occupied by Communist China. Since occupation, China renamed it “Xinjiang” and has since been colonizing the region and seeking to extinguish the Uighur identity of the people and the area.
Last August, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination estimated that about one million Muslims, mostly ethnic Uighurs but also other minorities in the Xinjiang region were being “held incommunicado… without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.”
The United Nations estimates that up to 10 per cent of the Uighur population in Xinjiang may be in detention.
China has denied that they are arbitrarily detaining Uighurs, saying that “there are no such things as re-education centers,” and that only those suspected of “violent terrorist activities” were being held at facilities providing “vocational education and employment training.”
However, in recent months several reports and news organizations have highlighted the plight of the Uighurs and have reported extensively on the disappearance of hundreds of them and the existence of camps where they are being held.
The Los Angeles Times reports: “Uighurs have long been subjected to intense scrutiny by Beijing, which points to a handful of terrorist attacks as justification for restrictions aimed at stemming the rise of Islamist extremism.
For years, teaching and learning the Uighur language have largely been prohibited. Mosques have been made off-limits to those under 18 and schoolchildren and government workers are banned from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Hijabs for women, as well as beards for men, have been outlawed in many parts of Xinjiang.
Yet such practices pale in comparison with policies enacted in 2016, when Beijing reassigned a top Communist Party official, Chen Quanguo, from his job overseeing security in Tibet, according to Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology in Germany.
In party directives and bids for construction projects, Zenz has found evidence of a systematic program of building large-scale detention facilities.
At the same time, a pervasive system of surveillance — tapping mobile communications, using facial recognition technology and inspecting phones at hundreds of checkpoints — has made it extremely difficult to obtain details from Xinjiang.”
China has received worldwide recognition as one of the leading economic powers in the world today. They have solidified their presence at a global level and can be found on every continent. The challenge is how do countries speak out against such repressive policies which China has been known to practice for decades?
In a very recent article titled China’s pitiless war on Muslim Uighurs poses a dilemma for the west The Guardian reports: “China is facing mounting international criticism over its systematic repression of Muslim Uighurs in western Xinjiang province, where an estimated one million people have been detained in ‘re-education’ camps and subjected to prolonged physical and psychological abuse.
But Chinese leaders remain defiant, telling the UN and human rights activists last week, in effect, to mind their own business. The stand-off highlights one of the most challenging 21st century dilemmas for western democracies: how to sustain the pretense that an increasingly totalitarian China is a “normal” country with which they can do business.
The crackdown on the Uighurs, who constitute about 11 million of Xinjiang’s 24 million inhabitants, has intensified since Xi Jinping became Communist party leader in 2012 and president in 2013. Xi claims the campaign is necessary to defeat Islamist terrorism and the “ideological virus” of separatism, despite anecdotal evidence that it is having the opposite effect.
Uighurs say the harsh measures effectively criminalize an entire ethnic group and are intended to erase their identity, religion, culture and language while assuring the party’s ascendancy. Hundreds of thousands – exact figures are unobtainable – have been sent to the camps, where they are indoctrinated in party dogma, forced to learn Mandarin, and ordered to correct their thinking through self-criticism.
Uncounted thousands more are held in prison, while the remainder of the population is subject to an Orwellian surveillance system comprising cameras placed in Uighur homes and neighbourhoods, networks of local snoopers, biometric data collection, and voice and face recognition technologies.”
China’s crackdown on religious minorities has been notorious. Jamie Seidel writes a scathing account of what is happening with China’s religious groups: “China’s Communist Party doesn’t like difference. So it has set about eradicating any trace of it among its 1.38 billion [people]. First, they moved on Tibet. Its ancient spirituality and unique identity have been suppressed for decades. Its remaining leadership has long since been co-opted by the Party.
China’s Christian community has also long been a source of embarrassment. The Bible has been banned. Crosses must not be displayed in public. Its leadership must be approved by the Communist Party. Its teachings must now conform to party ideals.
But, for the moment, Beijing has another ancient community in its sights: the Uighurs. China invaded the East Turkestan Republic in 1949. It’s now named Xinjiang province, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. To Beijing, it represents the nation’s largest reserve of coal and natural gas. Now it’s not Chinese enough for the Communist Party. It’s the primary focus of President Xi Jinping’s determination to “Sinicize” the entirety of China’s domain. “Chinese characteristics” must be incorporated into all activities, beliefs and traditions; chief among them — unwavering loyalty to the Communist party.
And that’s not something that sits easily with China’s 200 million believers of all faiths. In April, China’s religious affairs department published an article saying that churches must endorse the party’s leadership as part of “Sinicization.”
“Only Sinicized churches can obtain God’s love,” the article stated.
It’s part of Beijing’s “Principle for Promoting Chinese Christianity in China for the Next Five Years (2018-2022)” plan, which details how it will “Sinicize” Christianity within its borders.
Its censors immediately moved in. Bibles have been seized and banned. Digital versions can no longer be found online. Only an officially approved version from the government-sanctioned open church is available. But Beijing’s crackdown goes far beyond that. Images of Christ are being replaced with posters of President Xi. As with the Tibetans and Uighur’s before them, Christian children are no longer allowed to attend church.
“Through our thought reform, they’ve voluntarily done it,” Qi Yan, a member of the township party committee told the AP by phone.
“The move is aimed at Christian families in poverty, and we educated them to believe in science and not in superstition, making them believe in the party.”
Over the years, Barbados has established strong ties with Beijing and has benefited in many ways through that association. As more horrifying accounts emerge regarding China’s treatment of the Uighur population and other religious and ethnic minorities, Barbados’ policy of “friends of all, satellites of none” will be tested. Friends must be able to speak freely to friends regarding their abuse of power and oppression of others.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace. Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)