Alice Lin: Call out China: Uyghurs repression

Wednesday, January 8, 2020 - 6:53pm

China has always seen Islam as an extremist threat and sought to tighten control over those who practiced the faith — namely the Uyghur Muslims. Though China has long denied any maltreatment of the ethnic minority living in its Xinjiang province, a recent document leaked by a Chinese official confirmed the existence of Uyghur detention camps. The documents included a manual on how to operate and maintain these centers, which exploit the Uyghurs through forced labor and brainwash them into accepting government-approved propaganda. Not only is this practice a violation of human rights, but the response to China’s oppression of this minority group has been underwhelming.

Human rights have always been a touchy subject in China, but the problem is that some of the individuals who are detained are not Chinese citizens. Now that there is finally concrete evidence of human rights violations in China, other countries need to step in and call on China to dissolve the internment camps and protect the rights of the Uyghurs, especially if China has no jurisdiction over some of the detainees. Though China is part of the United Nations, other member countries should stand up and do the right thing; the values of freedom and tolerance that the U.N. stands for should be upheld by all of its constituents. A lot of the problems surrounding China’s take on human rights and its actions toward the minority group stem from the way its government is run — the Communist Party works as a cohesive unit, dictating policy and maintaining control through censorship and propaganda. In this case, the government has labeled the Uyghurs a threat on the basis of terrorism — without much basis — and is taking control of the situation by concealing the truth about what it is really doing. While foreign nations and organizations like the U.N. cannot do anything to change the fundamental structure of China’s governance and society, they can put pressure on China to change its approach toward the Uyghurs.

Though China has already threatened the progress of trade talks with the United States, other countries should try to step in. An economic conflict should not deter countries from doing what is right and standing up for human lives. The U.S. cannot let China continue to torture and punish the ethnic minority over an ideology and belief system the Uyghurs practice; there is also no evidence of any supposed acts of “terrorism” China is vehemently taking action to contain. Regardless of the situation, there is no excuse to lock anyone up for re-education and exploit them for labor. One conflict of interest is that the U.S. has been accused of mistreating prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, which may make any action it takes come off as hypocritical. While it is true Americans need to address our own faults, we should not let them deter us from taking a firm stance on the issue.

Furthermore, there is a lack of attention devoted to this issue. While articles have been written about it, they have largely flown under the radar. Lives were risked to bring the truth to light, yet there has been little official response. Chinese citizens are finding ways to access the article published in The New York Times, which has paved the way for transparency on the government’s actions. The response of these citizens vary, but the fact they are going as far as breaking censorship laws to get the truth should prompt us to give more attention to the problem. The role technology and media have been playing in this is disappointing — TikTok temporarily silenced talk about Uyghurs when it deleted a post made to bring awareness to what China has been doing. While it has been said TikTok is trying to distance itself from its Chinese roots, it could do better to assert that separation by allowing the post to stay up as a way of standing up to the Communist Party. 

There are so many organizations and individuals who now have access to indisputable evidence of China’s human rights violations, yet nothing has been said to acknowledge the issue on a national or global scale. If the news and media can consistently report on Hong Kong and their fight for rights and democratic freedom, there should be no reason why they cannot do the same to give voice to an oppressed minority.

Maybe the difference to these large news outlets is Hong Kong’s attempt to separate itself from Communist Party control and espouse more “American” democratic values, but the Uyghurs have done nothing to be locked up in internment camps. Taking a stance on Hong Kong may seem less problematic because it technically does not count as overstepping on Chinese authority, but that does not excuse inaction. If anything, we should champion their freedom of religion regardless of whether or not the concept exists under Chinese sovereignty. If the U.S. wants to be a leader, it should act accordingly; we cannot simply turn a blind eye when it is more convenient to do so.

Alice Lin can be reached at alicelin@umich.edu.