Human rights in China: The Uighurs

The Uighurs are an ethnic group of about 11 million Sunni Muslims who live primarily in Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China.  For more than a century, there has been tension and violence between the Uighurs and their Han Chinese neighbors.  These days, the Chinese government routinely sends elite Uighur students to universities around the country, in the hopes of training a new generation of Uighur citizens who are loyal to the Party.

Recently, when one group of students returned home for a vacation break, they were astonished to learn that their parents and other relatives were missing.  They were informed by the police that the missing were in a school set up by the government, “to learn new skills to get better jobs, and improve their understanding of Chinese laws, and of Mandarin.” 

We know exactly what the students were told, because the police were quoting from a prepared list of questions and answers, the kind of script an American telemarketer might use to try to sell you a credit card.  The actual script was found among 403 pages of secret documents leaked to the New York Times last November.  The source was “a member of the Chinese political establishment who requested anonymity and expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including [President Xi Jinping], from escaping culpability for the mass detentions.”

The secret script also recommended “that police officers in plain clothes and experienced local officials meet [the students] as soon as they returned ‘to show humane concern and stress the rules.’”  These representatives assured students that they had “absolutely no need to worry” about relatives who have disappeared… [in part because prisoners would have] even better…  living standards than some students have back home’… [And] if you want to see them, we can arrange for you to have a video meeting.”

When some students pushed for more details, “The guide recommended increasingly firm replies telling the students that their relatives had been ‘infected’ by the ‘virus’ of Islamic radicalism and must be quarantined and cured…”  Students who pressed too hard were warned that their behavior could lengthen – or shorten — their parents’ detention.  In extreme cases, it could even lead to detention of the students themselves.

The offenses which had landed Uighurs in these re-education camps included: attending services at mosques: fasting during Ramadan; expressing interest in religious pilgrimages; studying Arabic; obtaining a passport, even if it was never used; having a prayer rug; sending texts that include verses from the Koran; praying too many times per day; naming a child Mohammed, Medina, or other common Muslim names; wearing long beards; not drinking alcohol; not smoking (because this displayed an insufficient “commitment to secularization.”)

The official government documents that were leaked to the New York Times went on to say that “as many as a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others [have been sent to] internment camps and prisons over the past three years.” 

A few accounts of day to day life in the secretive camps have been published by former prisoners.  For example, according to one:  “There were almost 20 people in a room of [172 square feet]… There were cameras in [these] rooms, and also in the corridor. Each room had a plastic bucket for a toilet. Every prisoner was given two minutes a day to use the toilet, and the bucket was emptied only once a day. The prisoners wore uniforms and their heads were shaved. Their hands and feet were shackled all day, except when they had to write. Even in sleep they were shackled, and they were required to sleep on their right side… anyone who turned over was punished.”

During the day, classes in Mandarin and Chinese law are designed to “make them better citizens…  Detainees are forced to pledge loyalty to the CCP and renounce Islam… as well as sing praises for communism and learn Mandarin.” According to another prisoner, “The main purpose is to brainwash you, so you forget your roots and everything about Islam and ethnic identity.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the existence of these camps the “human rights stain of the century.”  (Mike must be an optimist.  The human race has about another 80 years to come up with a bigger human rights stain before the century ends.) 

In response, Congress passed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, which denounced the internment camps’ violations of human rights, and included sanctions against top Communist party officials.  The Senate passed this bill by unanimous consent; the House passed it 407-1.  Can you believe it?  Republicans and Democrats actually agreed on something. 

So what happened next?  The details are a little fuzzy, but it appears that the White House did not want the bill to reach the President’s desk.  If he signed it into law, it could upset delicate trade negotiations with China.  And if he vetoed the bill, it might look like he did not care about human rights.  So what happened was that the “path [of this bill] to the White House was stalled [last December] by a congressional process.”

The one thing Republicans and Democrats could agree on almost unanimously was stalled by a “congressional process”?  Yes it was.  That’s democracy in action, 2020 style.  If you have any questions, call Mitch McConnell’s office.

In reaction to the bill the Chinese government argued that “ the situation in Xinjiang was ‘not a human rights, nationality, or religion issue at all, but an issue of anti-terrorism and anti-secession.’”  Also, they said, it was none of our business.

The secret government documents recently published by the New York Times help put this view in perspective.  Massive imprisonment of Uighurs began soon after President Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang in April 2014, a few weeks after Uighur militants stabbed more than 150 people at a train station, killing 31.  On the last day of Xi’s trip, a suicide bombing outside another train station injured nearly 80 people, killing one.  Less than a month later, another bombing at a vegetable market wounded 94 people and killed 39.

In a speech back in Beijing responding to this violence, Xi said:  “We must be as harsh as them, and show absolutely no mercy.”

The next year, the top security official in Xinjiang issued a directive calling terrorist attacks in London “a warning and a lesson for us.” It blamed the British government’s “excessive emphasis on ‘human rights above security,’ and inadequate controls on the propagation of extremism on the internet and in society.”

Chinese “officials claim the camps have prevented violence” since there has not been a single terrorist attack since December 2016, around the time camps were being built.

Does this Chinese argument — that it’s none of our business — affect the legitimacy of the Uighur Act?  Well, how would we feel if the Chinese passed a law threatening sanctions unless we closed Guantanamo prison?  (Prisoners have been held there, mostly without trial, for 18 years, since the prison opened as a result of September 11th.  There were 780 prisoners at the peak; forty remain today.) 

Or how would you react if China passed a law to protect the human rights of the 95% of US elementary school children who have been forced to participate in “active shooter drills.” The drills are designed to prevent the recurrence of a tragedy like Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 six and seven year olds were shot, along with six adults.   But according to the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, these drills may be damaging the mental health of an entire generation of school children, such as “one little girl who refused to wear light-up shoes after a drill, because she was told it could make her an easier target.”

Part of the disconnect between the US and China in this area is based on cultural differences in the definition of human rights.  In a thought provoking book subtitled “explaining the East-West culture gap,” Gish Jen argues (p. 44) that the Chinese government defines human rights in terms of “the people’s collective right to a livelihood… [and it] is therefore… not violating human rights when it arrests dissidents or suppresses public protest.  Quite the contrary: It is protecting human rights against self-centered individuals.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not arguing that the US and China have equal records on human rights.  I am arguing that the countries define human rights differently, and that can lead to significant tensions and misunderstandings.

In my first post in this blog, I included a table summarizing nine key cultural differences between the countries, including a “core value” of freedom in the US vs. a “core value” of order in China.  As I wrote there, “The cultural differences between China and America are so great that they can easily lead to profound misunderstandings and even to war.”

These differences are complex and nuanced and will be hard to resolve.  But the alternative is worse.  As Samuel P. Huntington wrote in his weighty academic tome The Clash of Civilizations (p. 21), “avoidance of a global war… [now] depends on world leaders accepting… the multicivilizational character of global politics.”

4 thoughts on “Human rights in China: The Uighurs

  1. Chinese policy in Xinjiang comes down to ethnocide – destroying a people by destroying their society. In addition to the deconstruction of Muslim life, they are also flooding the area with Han Chinese to breakdown the regional culture of the area.


  2. Pingback: Are the people of mainland China just like Americans? (Part 1 of 2) | Understanding China, five minutes at a time

  3. Pingback: The Chinese diaspora | Understanding China, five minutes at a time

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