In March, for the first time since the 1989 European Union (EU) arms embargo on China following the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy crackdown, the EU agreed to impose new sanctions on the latter over human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The EU assembled a list of 11 individuals and entities to be hit by travel bans and asset freezes, including four Chinese officials and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau, who were accused of human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslim minority. Those targeted included Chen Mingguo, director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, senior Chinese officials Wang Mingshan, and Wang Junzheng; and Zhu Hailun, the former deputy party secretary in Xinjiang.
Shortly after, Beijing revealed its own sanctions. Their list included 12 European politicians: five senior European lawmakers, members of the European Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights, leading academics, the Political and Security Committee of the Council of the EU, and other institutions. The sanctions prohibit these individuals and their families from entering mainland, Hong Kong, and Macau, and companies and institutions linked to them are restricted from doing business in China.
On the 4th of May, the European Commission declared that its efforts to ratify the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) had been suspended, after more than seven years and 35 rounds of negotiations. The day after, the European Commissioners announced a legislative proposal to make EU foreign-investment rules more stringent, and address the alleged trade harm provoked by foreign subsidies, especially aimed at China. Moreover, on May 8th, the latter urged United Nations states not to attend the Xinjiang human rights event, and warned of more confrontation. This provoked more tension, and on May 12th, a spokesperson of the Permanent Mission of China to the UN expressed strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to the event on the human rights situation in Xinjiang organized by the United States, Britain and Germany, together with other countries and non-governmental organizations.
Xinjiang is in the northwest, bordering India, Afghanistan, and Mongolia. Like Tibet, it is an autonomous region. China re-established its control in the region in 1949, after the fall of the former East Turkestan. Since then, there has been large-scale immigration of Han Chinese and rising tensions between them and the Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority that accounts for over 12 million inhabitants.
After decades of tension between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, in 2014, the Government intervened in Xinjiang through the Strike Hard Campaign. The measures adopted, intended for re-education of Uyghurs, conducted to international concerns on human rights violations, mainly since 2017, when the Government’s measures were hardened. Human Rights Watch stated that thirteen million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang suffered particularly harsh repression, further aggravated by the government’s mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, indoctrination, and the destruction of the region’s cultural and religious heritage. Furthermore, the report noted that about 1 million Turkic Muslims were being indefinitely held in political education camps, forced to disavow their identity and values, whereas others have been condemned for crimes such as splitism or subversion.
To alleviate increasing international concern, Chinese authorities organized highly controlled trips for selected journalists and diplomats to the region. In March, Xinjiang authorities announced that they had arrested nearly 13,000 "terrorists" in the region since 2014, and on July 30th, publicly stated that most people held in Xinjiang’s political education camps had returned to society. Media reports from 2019 revealed that some of those released were assigned to factories against their will, where they were paid wages below the legal minimum and restricted from leaving. As part of the Strike Hard Campaign, 1 million officials have been mobilized as guests to regularly visit and stay in the homes of Muslim families, and to report problems such as people who practice the Islamic faith or who contact family members abroad. Equally, it denied that authorities have deployed video cameras throughout the region, combined them with facial-recognition technology, apps to input data from officials’ observations, and electronic checkpoints. Part of this information has been seconded by Amnesty International 2020/2021 Report, that states that, in 2020, Chinese authorities continued to subject Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims to arbitrary detention without trial, political indoctrination, and forced cultural assimilation in what they described as vocational training centres. The report also alleged that Chinese embassies and agents continued to harass and intimidate Uyghurs who lived abroad through messaging apps, demanding their ID numbers and residence location.
In September 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report in which it identified more than 380 suspected detention facilities in Xinjiang, including at least 61 sites that have seen new construction and expansion between July 2019 and July 2020. Despite Chinese officials' claims about detainees graduating from the camps, according to the report, at least 14 facilities were still under construction in 2020, and 16,000 mosques and cultural sites are being damaged or destroyed by the provincial government. The findings also show that around 30% of the cultural sites across Xinjiang have been demolished since 2017, while an additional 28% of them have been damaged or altered in some manner. To the former, the spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded that there was a "mosque for every 530 Muslims in Xinjiang, which is more mosques per person than many Muslim countries." Later, in December 2020, Dr. Zenz, a leading scholar on China’s policies towards Tibet and Xinjiang, published the Coercive Labor and Forced Displacement in Xinjiang’s Cross-Regional Labor Transfer Program. His report claims labour transfers to the region are intentional displacements of populations deemed problematic, complemented by a large-scale transfer of usage rights applied to the land of ethnic minorities, and by a plan to settle 300,000 additional Han Chinese settlers in Uyghur regions by 2022 - for the sake of optimiz[ing] southern Xinjiang’s population structure.
On May 13th, the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), in partnership with Justice for All, released the report Islam Dispossessed: China’s Persecution of Uyghur Imams and Religious Figures, presenting a dataset of 1,046 Turkic imams and other religious figures from East Turkestan detained in camps or imprisoned since 2014, due to religious teaching and community leadership. The day after, the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region released a report stating that the world’s polysilicon supply chain is heavily reliant on forced labour in China. 95% of solar panels rely on polysilicon. The Uyghur Region accounts for approximately 45% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon supply; a supply generated by forced labour.
It has been 7 years since the beginning of the Strike Hard Campaign, but the critical problem remains the human rights standards under China’s authorities. This enshrines the values and priorities under the rule of the Chinese government. That is also the root of the confrontation. Due to Xinjiang’s alleged human rights breaches, and with China’s reluctance to normalize access to the region under the argument of the predominance of national sovereignty, the international community is actually questioning those thresholds. The duty of states to protect their people should come over before any political ideology, and with the capacity to talk and settle differences when they arise. No political project should be imposed at the price of religious autonomy, freedom of movement, identity, or diversity.
These years have cast shadows over China, as the situation with Uyghurs in Xinjiang continues to cause irreparable damage to the religious and historical heritage of the country, and the personal wellbeing of its people.
Written by Gabriela Amat
Gabriela Amat is a columnist at DecipherGrey.