Unimaginable horror is taking place in Xinjiang, China. Since April 2017, between 800,000 to 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic minorities have been sent to “re-education camps'' by the Chinese government. They are detained for the crimes of travelling abroad, practising Islam, having apps like WhatsApp on their phones, growing beards, abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes, and having more than three children. The Chinese government has deemed these practices as acts of “terrorism, extremism, and separatism,” that can only be corrected through extensive re-education. A leaked Chinese Communist Party (CCP) document states the purpose of the internment camps is to “wash brains, cleanse hearts, strengthen righteousness and eliminate evil.” Everything known about the camps comes from satellite images, leaked government documents, and accounts from dozens of escaped prisoners. There is no legal recourse for the accused. It is likely the largest internment of ethnic and religious minorities since the Second World War.
The escaped prisoners (who currently live outside of China) tell a harrowing tale of life inside the camps. From dawn to dusk, detainees sit in large classrooms, separated from their teachers by metal bars and armed guards. They learn songs praising the Chinese government and President Xi Jinping (Xi’s portrait adorns practically every wall at the camps).They watch hours of state-sanctioned news, documentaries, and speeches from Xi. Mandarin Chinese is taught to them. The prisoners are instructed to denounce Islam and conform to Han Chinese culture. One detainee, Kayrat Samarkand, recalls how they were taught the “126 lies” about religion. “Religion is opium, religion is bad, you must believe in no religion, you must believe in the Communist Party… Only the Communist Party can lead to a bright future,” he said.
After class, prisoners are sent to their cells. There are typically 8-20 per cell, and less beds. The lights are always on, as are the surveillance cameras. Detainees that cause problems are beaten, placed in handcuffs, electrocuted, waterboarded and tortured in other ways.
Mass abuse is taking place at the camps. Escaped female prisoners have described how they were taken from their cells in the middle of the night by masked men to a “black room,” where there are no surveillance cameras, and tortured and sexually abused. Sayragul Sauytbay, a teacher that was forced to work at the camps, described to the BBC how she witnessed a 20-21 year old girl being forced to make a confession in front of a large group of prisoners, and how she was subsequently assaulted by the police in front of the crowd. The police monitored how the other prisoners responded to the horrific scene, and punished whoever had adverse reactions. Female detainees are forcibly fitted with IUDs and in many cases, sterilized. Since 2017, hundreds of thousands of Uyghur women have been pressured into getting abortions, according to an Associated Press report. Birth rates in Xinjiang dropped by almost a third in 2018 compared to the previous year.
When prisoners are released from the camps, there every move is tracked by a phone app. The Chinese government has their DNA samples, voice recordings, fingerprints, and eye and face scans. Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company, is working on technology that will be capable of identifying Uyghur faces in a crowd. The Chinese Army and government cadres have infiltrated the entire region of Xinjiang, and freed prisoners are often sent back to the camps for further “re-education.” They are interrogated and tortured into giving the names of Uyghurs and others for detention.
Tens of thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are forced to work in factories at the internment camps and after they leave. Xinjiang accounts for 85% of China’s cotton exports, which makes it an important economic region for the country. Thousands of detainees toil the cotton fields. They are also transferred to factories throughout China to work as part of the government’s “labor transfer program.” A study from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that 27 factories in 9 Chinese provinces use Uyghur labor. These factories serve as suppliers for 83 multinational, world-famous brands. The companies include Nike, Adidas, Uniqlo, H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, The North Face, Polo Ralph Lauren, Puma and Zara. BMW, GM, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi also have ties with suppliers that use Uyghur forced labor.
About a year ago, H&M issued a statement condemning the use of forced labor in these factories. The Communist Youth League, a CCP organization, reacted to the statement eight months later. The group screenshotted H&M’s statement on Weibo, a popular microblogging platform in China, adding the caption “Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while also wanting to make money in China? Wishful thinking!” Gao Feng, a Commerce Ministry spokesperson, said “the so-called existence of forced labor in Xinjiang is totally fictitious.” Chinese state broadcasters CCTV and CGTN also ridiculed H&M for trying to be a “righteous hero.” The three largest e-commerce companies in China wiped H&M products from their websites. Celebrities such as the actor Wang Yibo and the singer Eason Chan ended their brand deals with H&M, Nike and Adidas. Wang said in his announcement to end his brand ambassador contract with Nike that he “firmly resists any words and actions that pollute China.” Chinese social media users blasted H&M for spreading lies and interfering in their country’s internal affairs. They demanded a public boycott of H&M, Nike, and the other companies that released critical statements of China.
Within days, H&M released a second, revised statement, which stated that it “respected the Chinese public as always,” and “does not represent any political positions.”
What is happening to the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang is genocide. There are no two ways around it. Condemning the genocide and practical enslavement of the Uyghur ethnicity and other Chinese minorities is not disrespectful to the Chinese public, or taking a political position. It is standing up for the human rights of a defenseless and innocent people. Article II of the Genocide Convention of the United Nations defines genocide as: the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnical racial or religious group, as such:
a. killing members of the group
b. causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The Chinese government is enacting all five of these items against the Uyghurs. UN Security Council Resolution 1647 affirms the responsibility of member states of the UN to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In 2008, the same body passed Resolution 1820, which classified rape and other forms of sexual violence as war crimes and “constitutive acts with respect to genocide.” Eighty countries have passed legislation that incorporates the provisions of the UN’s Genocide Convention into their legal code, and 23 countries have said the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghurs constitutes as genocide.
However, words alone will not help a single life. The world is turning a blind eye to heinous acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Bold action is necessary from the public and private sectors to make China change course. Multinational companies like H&M are fearful to even call out the situation in Xinjiang for what it is. They would rather not inconvenience themselves and potentially hurt their sales. They are putting their bottom line in front of the well-being and existence of an ethnic minority. The Chinese government is attempting to reform or eradicate the Uyghur people, and the world is hardly lifting a finger in response. Apparently, the Chinese government is too big to criticize, even when it is committing genocide.
Everyone should be left outraged after learning about the reprehensible crimes being committed in Xinjiang. The accounts of propaganda, torture, sexual abuse and sterilization described at the beginning of this piece represent the absolute nadir of humanity. Genocidal acts cannot be tolerated by the UN member states that pledge to protect the powerless. It shouldn’t matter if the Chinese government is the perpetrator, or the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies, or the Tatmadow in Myanmar.
What is the purpose of these post-Holocaust conventions if a country can meet the standards for genocide and crimes against humanity and not suffer repercusions? The Chinese government and the international community of countries and corporations are equally responsible for the Uyghur crisis. It is just as evil to stand idly by as genocide occurs as it is to commit it.
Written by Benjamin Karlin
Benjamin Karlin is a columnist at DecipherGrey.