The G20 is all but concluded. China and the US appear to have halted the next round of damaging tariffs in their trade-war and are aiming for further talks to secure a mutually beneficial trade agreement. The probability of an agreement being reached is still unclear, but for now, at least, reprieve has been granted. There is, however, an elephant in the room.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been engaged in a totalitarian programme of oppression and ‘re-education’ against the Uighur community in the remote Western region of Xinjiang. Officially an autonomous area, the population includes around eight million Uighur Muslims – a people deeply unpopular with CCP leadership. The Uighurs make up 43% of the region’s population, with the national-majority Han Chinese just behind on 40.6%. Han settlers have been migrating to the region for several decades, and in recent years the Uighurs have accused the Han of disrupting their way of life and threatening their culture.
Alleged to have defied Communist doctrine, the crackdown has been ruthless.
‘Re-education’ camps is the official party line, but human rights activists have been swift to condemn the modern-day concentration camps – where Uighurs are alleged to be subjected to hard labour, nationalistic indoctrination, and in some cases, torture. Reports of forcing Uighur Muslims to eat pork, cut their beards, and learn Mandarin have been steadily flowing from the region since early 2018.
Recent developments have seen over a million Han Chinese Communist Party members move into the homes and private lives of the persecuted Uighurs in an attempt to ‘Become Family’ – according to the CCP. The CCP has now invaded the most private of places, for no other reason than religious suspicion and a wanton desire for control. They claim to be fighting terrorism and religious extremism in a nationwide campaign against those that would dare defy the government. This is counter to the reality of life in Xinjiang, where terrorist incidents against civilians are few and far between. There are allegations against the Chinese authorities of selectively defining terrorist incidents to inflate the total number. One infamous incident was the 2014 Kunming attack, where 31 civilians were killed. No terror organisation ever claimed responsibility for the attack and the CCP’s assertions that it was a Uighur separatist movement were met with international scepticism – although eventually accepted.
This sinister injection of party oversight is no longer a surprise in modern China, where surveillance and human rights violations are routine. The international community has been quiet, besides the occasional critical statement and appeal for clemency. This is unlikely to get through to the Party. They see the practising of unsanctioned religions a direct threat to their rule; a subterranean network of dissent and ulterior motives. What they can’t see, they can’t control. The very notion of religious freedom brings with it uncomfortable connotations of liberal thought, of freedom of speech, of press freedom, and worse – democracy. In the eyes of the Party, it is a tinderbox of individual liberties waiting to blow.
The CCP will point to their constitution as evidence to refute this, where it conveniently states citizens of China enjoy the freedom of religion. Unsurprisingly, this comes with a number of caveats, with a malleable prescription of ‘normal religious activity’ and state-sanctioned religions. The Uighur crackdown is therefore by their logic par for the course, simply a compassionate response to an unauthorised religious group. They are showing them the way, forgiving them their sins, uniting the nation.
Propaganda aside, the Uighurs are being subjected to some of most appalling human rights abuses for no other reason than their religious beliefs. This is a direct affront to the values we in the West claim to uphold, and yet, we do nothing. Is this because of the economic might of China? The delicate balancing act of international diplomacy? Or simply, we do not care? I’d wager a depressing combination of all three.
Will Trump use the Magnitsky act to sanction Chinese officials? Probably not. Will the plight of the Uighurs become a hot-button issue in the West? Improbable. It appears unlikely that Western leaders, glimmering beacons of liberal thought though they are, will do much to intervene. More unlikely still is a reversal from the CCP. We are therefore left impotent, asking questions to which we have no answer, and putting faith in the idea that the situation will sort itself out amicably. Unfortunately, history tells us that relying on time could result in even more tragic consequences for the persecuted Uighurs. The CCP may soon take a blunderbuss to the elephant in the room.