By Teresa Arsinian
As of March 2021, it has been estimated that there are 2 million Uyghur people held in detention centers. According to the Chinese government, these centers have been created to control religious extremism and terrorism. However, the testimonies of former detainees suggest a much more sinister purpose. With these detention centers being active since 2017, the Chinese government has been slowly erasing the Uyghur population from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Since the discovery of China’s horrific actions, a number of country officials from states such as the U.S., UK, and Belgium have accused China of committing genocide against the Uyghur population. The future of the Uyghur people seems dire, and the U.S. should continue to pressure China and protect the Uyghur population.
The Uyghur people are a group of nomadic Turkic people who originally lived in East Turkestan before Mao Zedong’s Communist Party began to rule what is now the Xinjiang region. Currently, there are over 12 million Uyghur people residing in the Xinjiang province. Beginning in 2017, the Chinese government began rolling out re-education programs where Uyghurs were detained without any formal charges. Many Uyghur people would be sentenced to prison for wearing a headscarf or having more than three children. Uyghurs who are sent to mass detention centers are forced to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Community Party (CCP), complete labor, and sing Chinese songs. They are forced to renounce Islam and are denied any semblance of religious practice, including being pressured to consume pork. Women have been sterilized against their will and injected with unknown drugs. With these detention centers appearing at quick rates, it is causing a severe rift within Uyghur families since many of these parents are being detained for years on end while their children are sent off to orphanages where they are presumably forced to fully assimilate with Chinese norms and customs.
Outside of the camps, the Chinese government has been closely keeping surveillance on the Uyghur population. The government has been depending on high-tech surveillance to scan faces to detect whether an individual was an Uyghur person or not. According to Maya Wang from Human Rights Watch, the surveillance in Xinjiang is one of the more intrusive forms of mass surveillance in China. This will put Uyghur lives in severe danger as they can’t even leave the country. There have been many reports of Uyghurs living outside of China who have been detained and sent back. With this kind of power, China has the ability to erase Uyghur culture and identity.
In order to protect minority groups like the Uyghurs from being the victims of international atrocities, the US has increased monitoring efforts of potential atrocity crimes. The Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018 was passed on January 14, 2019. This act will establish a Mass Atrocities Task Force to monitor, analyze and address international atrocities. The Elie Wiesel Act will also recommend the Director of National Intelligence to include information on atrocities in the annual reports to Congress about national security threats and authorize the training of U.S. Foreign Officers to recognize and report any early signs of atrocities. The Elie Wiesel Act specifically states that with the Act there will be efforts in “identify[ing], prevent[ing], and respond[ing] to the causes of atrocities.”
Further U.S. legislative action was taken on 23 December 2021 when the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was signed by Biden. This act has certain criteria that the U.S. Government must fulfill within a timely manner. The act will ban all imported goods from the Xinjiang region, and the Secretary of State has to determine whether the forced labor and various other crimes are systematic and widespread, which may allow the labeling the CCP’s actions a crime(s) against humanity or even genocide. If the Secretary of State, Dr. Shirley Weber, determines that these crimes are widespread and systematic, he will have to report to the appropriate American congressional committees and this may lead to sanctions being imposed in China. With this act, the U.S. will have the opportunity to put international pressure on China. Although not much has come out since the UFLP Act has been in effect, this is one step closer to acknowledging the crimes that have been occurring for the last 5 years and holding China accountable for its inhumane actions.
Equally, when holding China accountable for their heinous actions towards the Uyghurs and other minority Muslims in China, we need to hold the companies taking advantage of their forced labor accountable. The actions and complacency of companies such as Adidas, H&M, Nike, Zara, and others, have been silently taking advantage of the Uyghurs at their most vulnerable time. These companies are as heinous as China for viewing these horrid atrocities as a capitalistic opportunity.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act could help change the fate of many Uyghurs in detention centers. Alongside this law, the U.S. should take initiative to offer refuge to the Uyghurs and continue to pressure on China to close the detention centers in Xinjiang.