FADING EXISTENCE: THE PLIGHT OF CHINA’S UYGHUR MUSLIMS
This article has been authored by Shruti Saxena, a fourth year student Amity Law School, Amity University Lucknow Campus.
Inhabiting most of the north-western territory of Xinjiang in China, the Uyghurs are a Turkish Muslim group who find their cultural and ethnical roots to Central Asian nations. In the name of countering religious radicalisation, thousands of these innocent humans have been facing religious restrictions and persecution in the recent decade, with draconian measures being imposed on them to wipe out their Islamic and cultural identity. What is even more shocking is that, China, one of the most powerful nations in the world, has in its Constitution under Article 4, provided guaranteed protection of the minorities, but the muted cry for help from this community, openly refutes this protection.
In this article, the author has shed light on China’s stance on the accusation against them of violating basic human rights of individuals from this community, along with a brief focus on the response of the international community on the same.
The History of Islam in China
Islam has had a long presence in China. The religion arrived in China during the reign of the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century. It stayed during the next dynasty, namely Song Dynasty with Muslims serving as middlemen for the empire’s trade.
However, problems began to arise when the next dynasty, the Yuan used Muslims as tax collectors. Thus, many Muslims became very wealthy and the community prospered leading to resentment among the dynasty's Chinese subjects. To appease the Chinese, the Yuan began to undermine Islamic practices. Halal food, circumcision, and marriages between cousins were all banned.
The next dynasty, the Ming, was a closed dynasty that did not trade with the world and thus, did not need Muslim traders. This dynasty had many Muslims living in the Chinese heartland but they were largely ignored by the establishment.
The Qing dynasty took over in 1644. The Qing followed an aggressive foreign policy and expanded the empire’s western borders, taking and expanding into Central Asia. Included were vast Muslim territories as well. The Xinjiang area, where the Uighurs reside, means ‘new territories.’ The Chinese nationalist claim that this area was always an integral part of Chinese Territory.
However, the Muslims were never integrated into the Chinese national religious system. To justify it, they turned to Tibetan Buddhism. One of the widely propagated Buddhist legends became that of Shambhala, a mystical kingdom in the Himalayas, where Buddhism was declining due to Muslim invaders and on the judgment day the gates of the kingdom would open, a Buddhist army would come and slay all the Muslims. Qing rulers built shrines to commemorate Shambhala and commissioned thousands of paintings to inspire their subjects to fight Islam. This resulted in the isolation of Muslims leading to a rebellion.
Following the assimilationist policy from the very beginning, China has been trying hard to erase all cultural differences between the ethnicities promoting oneness and strengthening their allegiance to China and the communist parties.
Causes of And Events Leading to The Crackdown on Uyghurs
The Xinjiang autonomous region in China has had a long history of conflict between the Uyghurs and the authorities. It is the largest administrative region of China and it shares a border with eight nations, namely, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India; and its population is predominantly Uyghur.
Islam is an integral part of their cultural identity, and their language is closely linked to the Turkish language. Thus, the Uyghurs find their allegiance to Central Asian Islamic Nations.
The province has had intermittent autonomy. Xinjiang became a part of China in the 18th Century. In 1933, amid the turbulence of China’s civil wars, Uyghur leaders in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar declared a short-lived independent Republic of East Turkestan. This state was crushed. An independent state of East Turkestan was declared again in early 1949 but it didn't get any official recognition and this region came under Communist China later that year.
In the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, China saw the emergence of separatist groups, and thus the region was tightly controlled by the Central Government with the introduction of various resettlement policies, as a result Uyghurs now comprise less than 50% of the region's around 20 million population.
Around 40% of the population in the province was of Han Chinese. There has been a continuous conflict between the Uyghurs and the Hans Chinese primarily because the latter were better educated, were preferred for high-paying jobs, and economically did well, thus causing resentment among the Uyghurs who are not a very wealthy community.
Not only are there economic restrictions but cultural as well. Very few mosques are left in Xinjiang and religious schools are very stringently monitored by the state. University students are forbidden to fast during Ramzan, women with veils and men with beards are barred from using public transportation. Thus, the state has tried to remove Islamic culture and all its manifestations.
China has intensified its crackdown on Uyghurs after they took a massive street protest in the 1990s and 2008 before the Beijing Olympics. There have been subsequent breakdowns between the minority group and the administration resulting in a huge loss of life and property. Responding to such incidents Beijing launched a yearlong campaign against terrorism- executing mass sentencing and arbitrary arrest by police in Xinjiang.
A 2013 report of Amnesty International said that authorities criminalized "what they labeled 'illegal religious' and 'separatist’ activities”.
However, what led to international criticism of Communist China was the arrest of Uyghur Scholar Ilham Tohti, in September 2014, and his being charged as a separatist.
A large number of Uighurs were found in guerrilla camps in Afghanistan after the US invasion of 2001. The Chinese government has blamed the ETIM or the East Turkestan Islamic Movement for the secessionist movement and extremist terrorism in the province.
In 2017, the Communist party began the new incarceration campaign with which major restrictions were put on religion and Islam was effectively outlawed. A large number of Uyghurs are being held in Western China's Xinjiang province in the guise of prevention of radical Islamic thoughts. These have been called a “mass internment camp” by the United Nations which estimate that more than 1 million Uyghurs have been sent to prison or re-education camps. Those not detained have had their passport seized and live under constant surveillance. Approximately 100,000 security personnel have been posted in Xinjiang.
One of the survivors from the camp named Gulbahar Jelilova, who currently resides in Istanbul, Turkey voiced her traumatizing experience in the camp- there are no windows in these small rooms, that are secured with heavy metal doors and with approximately 40 women in it. There is no basic hygiene, food or water given to the detainees. The prison authorities demand complete allegiance to the Communist party, with a video of Xi Jinping showed to them once a week. They were made to write assessments of themselves to see if their thinking was changing. Every Monday at 9:55 pm the Chinese National Anthem was played. They were made to sing 5 songs every day praising the communist party. If someone refused to sing, they weren't given food and were punished.
Male rape, pregnant women undergoing forced abortion, forced chanting of "I am Chinese, I am proud of China," DNA testing has also been reported by the survivors. They weren't hesitant in comparing the doings of the Chinese Government to that of what Hitler did to Jews calling these detention camps no less than the concentration camps that were built under the Nazi regime.
Many international media houses have tried sending their reporters to Xinjiang. All of them have faced severe restrictions and many of them were forced to return.
German researcher Dr. Adrian Zenz presented evidence showing that the Chinese state from the very beginning of the re-education program had thought about how they would deal with children of double detained parents who've been practically orphaned by the state. These children are placed in extremely secure boarding schools and the detainment of their parents is justified to them to make sure they don't show resistance when they grow up.
Islam is an integral part of the Uyghur Muslims, and to direct an attempt at wiping out their identity is a blatant violation of their right to religion- a fundamental right protected by various international treaties and covenants. The very first legal instrument that provides protection to them is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The ICESCR under Article 1 guarantees that the cultural rights and freedom of all individuals must be protected. Discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status is strictly prohibited under Article 2. Further, Article 15 ensures protection of the cultural freedom of the people. The International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Radical Discrimination under Article 5 outlines that everyone has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
With regard to the surveillance program, it has been observed that this policy is a violation of Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR under the said article states that ‘Family’ is a fundamental unit of society which is entitled to protection by the state and society. Further, the correction school and the state-controlled curriculum violates provisions of the UDHR that ensure protection to the family from state interference and ensures the rights of parents to choose education for their children. These provisions are Article 12 (Protection from arbitrary interference with the privacy, family, home or correspondence), Article 16 (Right to start a family and providing protection to it from the interference on the part of the state) and Article 26 (Right to Education and Parents’ right to choose the kind of education to be given to their children). The Act of eradicating the ethnical identity of the Uyghur Muslims qualifies as an act of Genocide under the Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The state interference with the reproductive well-being of Uyghur women with the examples of forced abortion, unconsented sterilization, pregnancy checks, all, in accordance with Article 2 of the Genocide Convention, project the state of a genocide being underway.
The activities carried out within the Internment camps, are being compared to anything not less than ‘Forced Labour’ which the UDHR stands against along with Article 23 of the same providing protection against forced labour.
With accusations of an alleged Genocide being directed against China, it has launched a stern exculpation. The alibi on part of the Chinese Government has been demonstrated through the publication of two major documents that justified their acts and calling it an attempt to secure the north-western region of Xinjiang, the “inseparable part of China”.
The other document, a White Paper published by the State Council Information office stated that it was wrong to call the members of Xinjiang's Uyghur Community descendants of Turks, calling this community as a political tool of the Pan-Turkic and Pan-Islamic groups.
The paper stated that "hostile forces in and outside China, especially separatists, religious extremists, and terrorists, have tried to split China and break it apart by distorting history and facts." It also mentioned that Xinjiang has been a part of China since the third century Han Dynasty and the Uighur culture had developed in China over the years by the integration between the Uighurs and the other communities, also mentioning that Islam was not the inherent and sole belief system of the Uighurs and was imposed on them due to expansion of the Arab empire and that "theocracy" and "religious supremacism" needed to be opposed. “Hostile foreign forces and separatist, religious extremist and terrorist forces that have colluded to distort history…will be cast aside by history and the people,” it said.
Authorities in Xinjiang are forcing Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim communities to remove all Muslim signage and symbols from their homes to root out 'religious extremism'. They have demolished Uighur cemeteries and constructed Burial Management Centre in their place in an attempt to wipe out the Uighur way of burial. At many places where cemeteries existed earlier, there exist high-rise buildings now. The official reason is that of development and infrastructural progress.
The reaction of the International Community
China was called out by 22 nations at the United Nations Human Rights Council and was urged to stop the unlawful detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. In an unprecedented letter dated 10th July 2019, ambassadors from 22 countries voiced concerns over “large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang”.
The letter urged China to maintain a certain level of human rights being a member of the UNHRC, “We call on China to uphold its national laws and international obligations and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief in Xinjiang and across China,” the letter said. “We call also on China to refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang” was also stated.
The letter also asked China to allow access to international experts like Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for human rights. However, the Vice Governor of Xinjiang responded to this international condemnation by calling these camps vocational centers which had helped "save" people from radical extremist Islamic thought.
However, more than 30 countries came out in China's support, and Ambassadors of 37 states from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America appreciated China's “contribution to the international human rights cause” via a letter sent to the UN's Human Rights Council. Prominent members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan also praised China's efforts saying that despite facing insurgency and terrorism in Xinjiang they responded adequately with a counter-terrorism program and vocational training to educate and de-radicalize the Muslims.
The main cause of such allegiance is economic alliances and dependence. Indonesia which has the largest Muslim population in the world remained silent on this issue mainly because of the fear of offending their top trading partner. The letter was also signed by 16 African countries like Burundi, Eritrea, and Nigeria, along with countries with a large Muslim population like Sudan, Egypt, Algeria, and Somalia. African states were quick to defend China as China had huge investments in these countries and is continually investing more. Many African nations like Togo, Algeria, and Zimbabwe have also signed an MoU on China's Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to establish a transcontinental passage that connects China with Asia, Europe, and Africa.
It is surprising that where leaders of the Muslim world have tried to create transnational solidarity for the Muslim causes ranging from the Palestinian Arabs to the plight of Muslims in Kosovo, they praised China for something which is very clearly a grave Human Rights violation. It is probably indicative of the influence and power that China has.
The former President of the United States, Donald Trump, met some people who fled religious persecution on July 17, 2019, with the former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 19, 2019 calling China’s treatment of Muslims the ‘stain of the century’.
Also, it is important to note that the International Court of Justice has designated prohibition of genocide as a peremptory norm of international law also known as jus cogens. This creates a liability on all the states to ensure that no deviation from the same is carried out. If found on the contrary, the act is punishable under Article 3 of the Genocide Convention.
China and the Communist party are suppressing Islam on the one hand and reaching out to the Vatican on the other hand. The Vatican and Beijing cut off diplomatic relations in 1951 when the communists took over. Since then, two parallel churches have emerged in China, a state-controlled Catholic church and another underground church with bishops owing allegiance to the Vatican. The Christians who are members of the underground church have swelled in number in the recent past which is a threat to Beijing’s authority and thus it reached out to the Vatican.
Recent years have seen an increase in human rights violations by governments across the world. Be it Russian human rights violations in Crimea or Chechnya or the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. On one hand, Crimea like Xinjiang is extremely tough to reach and the authorities have placed severe restrictions making it impossible for international media houses to report on the ground situation. There is also widespread homophobia in Chechnya which is a Muslim majority state, with homosexuals being put in camps resembling concentration camps. On the other hand, the Rohingya crisis witnessed thousands of women being raped and newborn children being taken away and thrown into rivers, forcing the Rohingyas to flee Myanmar and trying to take refuge in different countries.
With a large number of Muslims in concentration camps, countries that champion the Muslim cause, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, remained silent and very recently supported China's policy at the UN level due to their economic interests with the country. Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, earlier had denied having any information about the existence of such camps. Pakistan actively takes up the issue of the human rights of Kashmiri Muslims and the Indian army's repressive measures in the valley but fails to show any sympathy towards the Uighurs as they do not have any interest in the Xinjiang province and are largely indebted to the Communist state.
China has been following a policy of ideological totalitarianism for a very long. The Chinese state's relationship with the public has always been paternalistic and the state treats deviant thought as abnormal and aims to correct it. On account of the state being communist, the state policy is to make the society as uniform as possible with people having similar views and owing allegiance not to a religion or community but only to the communist party and the supreme leader.
Given that, being a member of the ‘Permanent Five’ it has not only found itself in a position to censor alleged acts of deviation within the state, but also of other states. And with this being said not being able to provide protection to this minority community has stained the hands of the International Community with murder.