The issue of the Chinese government’s repression of Uyghurs became a subject of international attention after a U.N. report released toward the end of the summer laid bare the severity of the situation.
However, the world was already aware of the mistreatment of these people. It is no secret that China has been extremely harsh against the Uyghur national minority. Uyghurs are an ethnic Turkic Muslim people who have lived in East Turkestan — a phrase the Chinese government has criminalized and replaced with Xinjiang — for thousands of years. Much like the invasion of Tibet, China took over this land and its people and has refused to allow cultural rights or rights to religious freedom, let alone any semblance of national self-determination. As part of this effort, in the last few years, China has banned the use of the Uyghur language, a critical part of Uyghur culture, in schools. The government has also banned Islamic baby names, which means Uyghur people can no longer pass on the names that they have used for generations. It has taken steps to prevent Uyghurs from observing the fast during Ramadan by ordering restaurants to stay open and restricting access to mosques, and even forcing people to eat and break their fast in some instances. As the Guardian reports, “The hard-line policies started shortly after the appointment of Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang’s party secretary, a strongman who had previously pursued similar policies in Tibet.” The intention behind the policies is to break down and ultimately end Uyghur identity and their existence as a separate people from the Han Chinese, as it has done (and continues to do) in Tibet.
Yet, all of these horrible restrictions and violations of human rights were only the buildup to a truly indefensible policy of concentration camps. The term “concentration camps” is truly bloodcurdling for many in the U.S. and Europe well-educated in the horrors of the Holocaust — the idea that an ethnic group could be herded into camps for “re-education” through hard labor is a jolt into action for even the most uninterested observer. There are reports of forced disappearances and the killings of an Islamic scholar and Uyghur students in police custody. These concentration camps were described in January as holding approximately 120,000 people. More recent reports say they hold closer to one million people at any moment. One million people. More than the population of the city of Boston. One expert said “that nearly every [Uyghur] born between 1980 and 2000 has been interned.” The camps have become sites of intense psychological torture, where Muslims have been forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Of course, China denies this, even saying Uyghurs are “happy” and denying any discrimination — a flat-out lie.
For such a horrific situation, the fleeting coverage is alarming. The media drumbeat must continue; China cannot get away with cultural destruction, psychological torture and concentration camps against the Uyghur Muslim ethnic and religious minority, trying to live in peace in their own land in East Turkestan.