Two articles brought my attention to what is happening in the Chinese province of East Turkistan (widely referred to as Xinjiang) in the past few months, although it is not an entirely new issue.
The first was published in The Atlantic last September. It is about the government of the People’s Republic of China’s development and use of surveillance technology, which is pioneered in the region and exported not only for use in the rest of the country, but also for authoritarian regimes abroad. It is a scary prospect, but as with so many slightly terrifying stories dominating our daily media input, I have to confess that I did not dwell on it.
The second article was published earlier this year in The New Yorker. It goes back and forth between the story of individuals who became a victim of the state’s suppression and providing background on the strategy behind that oppression. By now, there are plenty of accounts about the mass internment of ethnic and religious minorities in the province and mounting evidence of the gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party, despite the difficulty in gaining access to information from the region.
The People’s Republic has, in the past few years, continued repression in Tibet and accelerated repression in Hong Kong, while threatening the sovereignty of Taiwan. There are calls, including from IFLRY, to call the suppression of Uyghurs and other minorities in East Turkistan a genocide. The thought of this happening in our time, with the knowledge of the world, is daunting. I am not an expert on this topic, and when starting on this article, I found myself with difficulties to find the right words. Therefore, I decided to speak to someone that could provide better insights into what is going on and what we can do. Koen Stoop works for the World Uyghur Congress in Brussels, focusing on EU policy. The interview below, from June 2021, has been slightly edited for clarity.
For more ideas about what you can do to help, as well as more information on what is happening, you can take a look at an overview that has been collected by the World Uyghur Congress.
Can you tell me about the current situation in East Turkestan?
Very generally, if you have to summarize the crisis in a few sentences, I would say that the Chinese government has over the past few years intensified its campaign of oppression against the Uyghur people. The Uyghurs do have a long history of oppression, but especially since Xi Jinping came to power in 2014, the situation has deteriorated greatly. The list of human rights violations is long, but the thing that most stands out are the internment camps, or as China calls them the re-education camps, where we estimate between 1.8 and 3 million Uyghurs are arbitrarily detained. The violations also include forced labor, forced sterilization and many other issues such as the destruction of cultural and religious heritage. The crux of the argument in our opinion is that the Chinese government is trying everything in its power to destroy the Uyghurs as a people with a distinct cultural and religious identity and in this sense, we argue now that what is going on is a genocide.
Why do you think the reaction of the international community has long been limited? Why has media attention to these issues begun to increase?
I think the main reason for that is that the situation has deteriorated greatly. I think the international community has been aware for a number of years that there are severe human rights violations going on in China, not only against the Uyghurs but also for instance against Tibetans, Taiwanese and Hongkongers. As I said, around 2014 the situation has really started to deteriorate firstly with severe restrictions on religious practices of the Uyghurs. Basically, every expression of their religious identity had been criminalized but then in 2017, news reports started coming out that on the basis of satellite imagery it could be seen that China had started to build what we call concentration or internment camps. This of course really reminds the people in general of the Holocaust and the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, so that is something that I really think has opened the eyes of a lot of people to the exact extent of China’s human rights violations against the Uyghurs.
Since then, we also know of practices of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs being subjected to forced labor and Uyghur women being forcibly sterilized or forced to undergo abortions, and these are actions that threaten the Uyghurs as a people. I think that over the past four years, the situation has deteriorated greatly and as a result that has caught the attention of the international community a lot more. Since last year, since governments started to consider the terminology of a genocide, and especially since the United States recognized it as such in January, I think the international community has really started to do more and started to take this as an issue of systematic concern and have also started to take appropriate action.
How do you gain access to information on what is happening inside the camps?
This is one of the main issues that we have when we talk to governments or when we try to convince them to take action, because it is basically impossible to investigate what is really happening on the ground. The Uyghur region of East Turkestan is a police state, so it is impossible to get in or out without the Chinese authorities being aware, let alone for journalists or investigators to independently talk to Uyghurs or to visit these camps. The visits that we have seen have all been orchestrated by the Chinese government and have all painted a picture of Uyghurs as being happy and being in classes and dancing and singing, while we know that it is the complete opposite in reality.
The evidence that we have by now is large, even if we cannot go there in person. I think the thing that speaks most to us about what is happening there is the witness testimonies. For instance, there are dozens of Uyghurs who have been inside one of these camps and who have managed to escape the region after they had been released from the camps, and they are now starting to speak out. It’s really a growing movement of Uyghurs who have been silent for a variety of reasons and just last week, the Uyghur tribunal, as it’s called, held its first set of hearings. I think that is a very important initiative that collects all the available evidence in one place. So last week, over the course of four days, an expert panel in London heard the witnesses describing what they experienced inside these camps and this is the first kind of evidence we have to rely on.
Secondly, there are several sources of information that come from the Chinese government itself. For instance, there are official statistics that were just released by the Chinese government on the population in the Uyghur region, from which we have seen that the Uyghur population has started to decrease now not only relatively but in absolute numbers. In comparison, the increase in Han Chinese in the region has grown with over 3 million in the period that was reported. These statistics also paint a picture; they don’t go in much detail but if you add it to the stories that we hear, all these little pieces of information that we can gather only strengthens the story.
And finally, I would say that maybe the main source of information that we, or researchers, have that can be used to paint a picture of what is going on is satellite imagery. As I said, in 2017, the first reports that started coming out were based on satellite imagery. Over the course of the past years, on the basis of comparative images, you can see where these camps are being built. You can see what is being destroyed or altered. I think these independent sources of information also really do paint a picture.
Taken together, I think the body of information and the body of evidence that we have now is really large, and I think on the basis of this governments are really starting to recognize exactly what is going on.
How do you think the situation is connected to issues in other regions controlled or occupied by China, such as Tibet or Hong Kong?
What is happening to the Uyghurs is not at all an isolated case. It is distinct in its own way, also in terms of severity, but we have seen several crackdowns or several forms of persecution against other peoples and against other ethnic or religious communities in China. As you say for instance there are Tibetans, people in Hong Kong but also in inner Mongolia, whose language rights have been severely restricted. One of the things that speaks the most to how these issues are connected is the person of Chen Quanguo, who was the main man in the Tibet region leading up to 2016 where he installed a police state in which surveillance is omnipresent.
That regime of surveillance has really strengthened the repression against Tibetans and in 2016, he was moved to the Uyghur region to implement a similar regime there. Since 2016, so basically since he came to power, the repression has increased many times, especially with the surveillance regime that has been set up under his command. We also see that in terms of the kinds of human rights violations that these communities endure, that some of these are connected, like violations to their right to language or religious beliefs. These are really clear examples of how these issues are interconnected.
Do you think increased awareness can help change the situation on the ground?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. I think the international community in general is really struggling with the question of how to change China’s behavior, which is something that in the end we are campaigning for. However, I think it must be recognized that it is nearly impossible to change China from within. China is still denying that it does anything wrong in the regions, and it is campaigning to paint the Uyghurs as a happy people that are only being lifted out of poverty. It paints the camps as re-education camps that are designed to combat religious extremism. So, China is not even in the slightest acknowledging that there might be some human rights violations happening. Changing China’s behavior is something incredibly difficult to do and the overall situation will not be resolved within a few years.
Something that we can do as Western nations, and that is also something I keep bringing up with the European Union or here in Brussels the Belgian government, is to make sure that we are not complicit in these human rights violations. There are various ways in which we can do that. For instance, we can make sure that European companies or other companies outside of China are not complicit in the forced labor of Uyghurs and we countries can make sure that they are not importing products that are tainted by forced labor. Additionally, events like the Winter Olympics of next year are events that are essentially a promotion of China and a promotion of its policies, not only against the Uyghurs but also Tibetans and others. Here, governments have a moral obligation, a moral responsibility, to speak out and to act.
The second part of the interview will be published in two weeks.