Theodoros Benakis

Interview: the plight of China’s Uyghur Muslims exposed

"We expect the EU to stay true to human rights and its core European values. What is happening in East Turkistan is a massive human rights crisis, which likely constitutes a crime against humanity." says Dolkun Isa, the President of the World Uyghur Congress.

China’s discrimination policy against ethnic, religious, political and social minorities has been the topic of long discussions for decades. However, this policy has recently taken a big turn for the worst, especially in Xinjiang Province. The situation there has attracted the attention of international bodies.

It has been reported that Chinese authorities are implementing a programme of mass assimilation, targeting mainly the Uyghur Muslim community which makes up the majority population in that region. It is estimated that as many as 1 million Uyghurs are being forcibly detained in so-called “re-education” camps.

The situation in Xinjiang and the violation of human rights by the Chinese regime is a matter that is being raised by the European Union. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, stated that EU has focused on the situation in Xinjiang during the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. Also, on October 4, members of the European Parliament demanded the immediate end to such practices. They called for the immediate and unconditional release of all those who are being detained.

International awareness of the Uyghur problem has been increased by the efforts of Uyghur activists and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC).

Dolkun Isa is a veteran politician and activist whose role in the Uyghur movement has been instrumental. In fact, as a student at Xinjiang University in 1988 he organised student rallies to protest the discriminations on Uyghurs. It is because of these efforts that he left the country. In November 1996, he was among the founders and leaders of the World Uyghur Youth Congress in Germany and in the establishment of the World Uyghur Congress in April 2004.

Today, he serves as the president of the WUC and Vice-President of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO).

In an interview to European Interest, Dolkun Isa describes the situation in Xinjiang. According to him, the existence of Uyghurs is a direct challenge to the Han-centric vision of China. The Chinese government targets particularly the most vulnerable parts of the population, the children, by not allowing them to attend Uyghur language at school.

The WUC, according to Isa, expects the EU to become more active on the issue of the defence of human rights in China. He said the EU has both the capacity and the power to confront China.

European Interest: Mr. President, while the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, a province known also as East Turkestan, has been ongoing for decades, it seems that in the last couple of years, the situation is becoming worse. It has been estimated that one million Uyghurs are being detained in the so-called “re-education camps”. Can you explain the aims of such a policy? Can you also describe the actual situation today in Xinjiang? 

Dolkun Isa: While the Uyghur people in East Turkistan have been persecuted for decades by the Chinese government, we have seen a dramatic escalation in repressive and assimilatory policies in the last 5-6 years. This coincided with Xi Jinping becoming President and his appointment of Chen Quaguo as Party Secretary in the region, who is infamous for successfully stamping out dissent in Tibet while Party Secretary there. Since this development, there has been a massive increase in security and surveillance in East Turkistan. East Turkistan is now essentially an open-air prison. Uyghurs are ethnically profiled and constantly monitored by the dense network of security cameras, police stations, roadblocks, through online surveillance and even through CCP cadres being sent to live in the homes of Uyghurs. Every aspect of life is controlled and there is essentially no respect for human rights; no freedom of religion, expression or assembly.

The purpose for this increased repression is two-fold. China has long had a policy of cultural assimilation towards the Uyghurs, Tibetans, etc. As Uyghurs, Tibetans and Southern Mongolians are large ethnic groups with a unique culture, religion, language and identity and a historically defined territory, the Chinese government sees our very existence as a threat to their absolute authority. Our existence is a direct challenge to the Han-centric vision of China and the policies of the Chinese government is trying to eliminate this difference by targeting everything that makes us unique: our language, culture, religion and ethnic identity. Children in particular are targeted. Many Uyghur children are not allowed to learn in the Uyghur language at schools, they are not allowed to enter mosques or be taught about religion by their parents and they are facing routine political indoctrination. The political indoctrination camps are the most sinister expression of this policy. It is a large-scale attempt to totally socially reengineer an entire ethnic group by arbitrarily detaining over a million people and subjecting them to indoctrination aimed at eroding their ties to their religion and Uyghur identity. The children of those detained are being taken to overcrowded orphanages and indoctrinated by CCP [Chinese Communist Party] people. The camps are the most sinister part of a campaign attacking the Uyghur identity.

We should also mention that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an important factor in why the Uyghurs have faced such intense persecution. East Turkistan is the gateway to the west for China and is essential for the success of the BRI (which Xi Jinping’s legitimacy relies on to a large degree). Whereas East Turkistan has been on the periphery of Chinese attention in the past, because of the BRI it is now the focal point of the Chinese government and they are pursuing “stability” at all costs in the region to ensure the BRI’s success. The Uyghur people are the casualties of this approach.

The issue of the mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs in political indoctrination camps in China was raised during the European Parliament’s Plenary session in Strasbourg on October 4. On Tuesday 12 September, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, stated that EU has focused on situation in Xinjiang (East Turkestan) during the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. What do you expect from EU? Does the EU have the power to press China to respect human rights and shut down these “re-education camps”?

We expect the EU to stay true to human rights and its core European values. What is happening in East Turkistan is a massive human rights crisis, which likely constitutes a crime against humanity. The EU is supposed to have respect for human rights as a key consideration in its foreign policy. We hope that the EU will stay true to the values it says it espouses and continue to raise the issue of the camps loudly and publicly. We have also urged the EU to take concrete measures including sanctions and an independent investigation, amongst other provisions. If anything warrants the EU’s attention and the imposition of sanctions, we would think the arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance of over 1 million people would be it.

Although we certainly appreciate that it is difficult to confront China and that the EU has many economic and geopolitical considerations, we believe that the EU must be more active on this issue and that it has the capacity and power to confront China. The fact that the EU remains China’s largest trading partner gives the EU leverage to enact change and push China to release those in the camps, it just requires the political will to put humanity and human rights over economic considerations.

We would also like to stress that this issue is even bigger than the human rights crisis in East Turkistan. We see in the UN and even the EU an increasingly assertive China trying to shut down any conversation or criticism about human rights. In the UN, China and other autocratic governments are challenging the very concept of human rights. If the EU and the international community do not speak out about what is happening in East Turkistan, it risks further undermining the entire concept of human rights; it is a big test of the UN and the world’s commitment to the principle. For the vast majority of human history, there was no moral imperative to care about people who live far away from you, to put humanity first. Human rights are truly a miracle that have made the world a much better place. If the EU is not willing to defend them, especially when it is difficult, we risk losing these very important concepts.

According to media reports, the US is considering implementing sanctions against China for the treatment of Uyghurs. Is this a result of the return of Washington to a policy of defence of human rights or is it related to the US-China trade confrontation? In brief, do you think the US is elaborating a long-term or a short-term policy as regards the Uyghur problem?  

I can’t speculate on the motivations of US politicians, I can only hope that it is a legitimate defence of human rights. I would hope that the arbitrary detention of over 1 million people is a cause for major concern, on a very human level, not just a political tool, and based on what we have seen so far. I believe that the US is legitimately trying to defend human rights and has genuine concern for the situation in East Turkistan. People like Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith have been resolute in raising the human rights situation in East Turkistan, even before the commencement of the US-China trade confrontation. I fully believe they are raising this issue because what is happening to the Uyghur people in East Turkistan is fundamentally and morally wrong.

Since the 1990s, Uyghurs have had a protector in Turkey, then in Pakistan, while the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is also moving in this direction. But, if I am not mistaken, we are witness now to a lack of coordination and compact reaction of Muslim countries in defence of Uyghurs in China. Why is this? Is it China’s huge economic power that is blocking any expression of sympathy from the Muslim world? 

Unfortunately, the response of the Muslim world to the situation in East Turkistan has been incredibly disappointing. Islam is one of the key things that Chinese repression has targeted, and Chinese officials have been quoted describing Islam as an ‘ideological disease’ that must be eradicated through the internment camp system. That this does not raise major alarm in Muslim majority countries is surprising and disappointing. I believe the reason these leaders are staying silent is because the considerable power and influence of the Chinese government and the need for Chinese business and investment. Putting business and investment over the lives of over 1 million people shows a shocking lack of empathy and exposes a hypocrisy in the actions of these leaders. We are increasingly seeing citizens of these countries calling on their leaders to take action and we hope in the near future that these leaders will find the courage and empathy to finally speak out. We must note that, so far, the only Muslim-majority country to publicly raise the issue of the camps with the Chinese government has been Malaysia. They have been the one exception to the apathy expressed by the Muslim world and we have been impressed by their commitment to human rights.

Among those persecuted in Xinjiang are citizens of other ethnic minorities, such as the Kazakhs. Is there any pressure from Central Asian countries on Beijing in favour of the rights of these minorities? Or are the governments in the area blinded by the Chinese Silk Road and its benefits?

These governments are certainly blinded by the Belt and Road Initiative and the considerable Chinese influence in the region. All ethnic Turkic people in East Turkistan have been targeted including the Kazakhs, the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz, amongst others. Despite the fact that Kazakh citizens have been detained, the Kazakh government has yet to publicly raise this issue with the Chinese government. There was a glimmer of hope as a Kazakh court chose not to deport Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh who had escaped from an internment camp and fled to Kazakhstan. However, she has recently been denied asylum by the Kazakh government.

China argues it is persecuting Uyghurs because among them there are strong jihadist tendencies. It is a fact that there were radical elements in Xinjiang, as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and it was reported that some Uyghurs were fighting with Islamic State in the Middle East. In your view, was or is there today any real threat of jihadism among Uyghurs in Xinjiang?

Historically, radicalisation and extremism have not been problems in the Uyghur community. While it is a fact that some radical elements existed in the past and several hundred Uyghurs travelled to Syria, this is a tiny minority that does not in any way represent the Uyghur people. Before the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the Chinese government never referred to terrorism, extremism or radicalisation among the Uyghur population, instead referring to Uyghur dissent as ‘separatism’ or ‘splitism’. Immediately after the attacks, the Chinese government tried to tie its repression of Uyghurs with the international war on terrorism, describing peaceful and non-religious and expressions of dissent as ‘terrorism’ and passing repressive legislations such as the Counterterrorism Act and the De-extremification Regulation which have overly broad definitions of ‘terrorism’, allowing the CCP to crack down on any form of peaceful dissent or calls for basic rights. The Chinese government is continuing to do this to try and justify the internment camps.

While radicalisation has not historically been a major problem in the Uyghur community, we are very concerned that the horrific repression of Uyghurs and the inability of Uyghurs to peacefully practice their religion due to China’s policies will start to push people down this wrong path.

Although Chinese authorities persecute Uyghurs as Muslims, Hui Muslims enjoy a privileged existence in Xinjiang. It is a fact that a mass migration of Hui occurs in the province. The fact that among Hui Muslims there has been a strong Salafist component since late 1970s seems not to bother Beijing. How do you explain this? 

Well this situation has changed. Hui Muslims are not a cohesive, unified group with a unique language, culture and ethnic identity like the Uyghurs or Tibetans. Hui Muslims largely spoke Mandarin Chinese, followed Chinese cultural traditions and were dispersed across China without a historically defined territory, so they were not seen as a threat to the absolute control of the Chinese government.

However, in the last year, even Hui Muslims have been facing increased persecution. As part of the Chinese government’s ‘Sinification’ strategy towards religion, many Hui mosques have begun to be demolished and Islamic iconography removed. In August 2018, there was a large protest by Hui Muslims, as the Chinese government planned to demolish the Weizhou Grand Mosque. Of course, if the Uyghur people had organised a similar protest they would have been brutally suppressed, but the fact that the Hui community is now under pressure from the Chinese government is indicative of how serious the current situation is in China.

In the West, mainly in the EU and the US, the Uyghur’s situation in Xinjiang is constantly being raised by Uyghur activists. It seems that China tries to persecute them abroad, as well as to persecute their families at home. Is this true?    

It is absolutely true. The Uyghur diaspora community has been under tremendous pressure. Our friends and relatives from East Turkistan started disappearing in April 2017, but until recently, many people in the diaspora were afraid to speak out. The Chinese government has been threatening our loved ones in East Turkistan and those who dare to speak out have seen their families immediately detained or disappeared. The families of activist journalists in particular have been targeted. Over 30 family members of Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur reporters disappeared into the camps, as did my own family. I learned in June 2018 that my own mother died in an internment camp in mysterious circumstances, but I have not received any information about the fate of the rest of my family. It has been 24 years since I have seen any of my family in East Turkistan and over a year since I have heard any of their voices.

Uyghurs in the diaspora are often approached via WeChat to spy on the Uyghur community for China, who use their family’s freedom and safety as leverage. At protest events we organise, Chinese officials will show up to take photos of the participants, to send back to China so that their families have been arrested. Uyghur students, refugees and asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable as the Chinese government pressures states to forcibly return any Uyghurs to China, after which they disappear. In the last 15 years, over 300 Uyghur refugees and asylum seekers have disappeared after being returned from 16 different countries

After the EU’s condemnation of China’s actions against Uyghurs and a possible US reaction, what will be the World Uyghur Congress’ next move? 

We will continue with our advocacy efforts and urge the international community to hold China accountable for its serious human rights violations and to push for the release of all those held in the camps. China’s Universal Periodic Review is coming up starting November 6. This is a major opportunity to raise the issue of the camps and to highlight the situation in East Turkistan before the whole world. We have organised a large-scale protest in Geneva on November 6, in which thousands of Uyghurs, Tibetans, Southern Mongolians, Taiwanese, Hongkongers, Chinese Christians and Chinese human rights defenders from around Europe and the world are anticipated to participate to draw attention to China’s abysmal human rights record and to call on the international community and the UN to take action.

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