LIKE most Trinbagonains, everything I know about the political policies of the People’s Republic of China comes from the Jackie Chan movie The Tuxedo. So I was quite surprised to learn about the current fate of one of China’s ethnic minorities; the Uighurs. The Uighurs, who are indegenous to China’s Xinjiang region, are predominantly Muslim, and right now millions of them are being rounded up and put into “re-education camps”. If you’re unfamilair with the term “re-education”, don’t worry, its just a fancy way of saying “torture”. And sadly, not only is there no plan by Jackie Chan to use his special tuxedo to stop this; but it seems the rest of the world has turned its back on the Uighurs as well.
To better understand this issue we first need to understand where China’s 11 million Uighurs live. Xinjiang is an autonomous region of some 26 million people, located at the far west of China. It borders the Central Asian countries of Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Or to put it in a way Foreign Affairs Minister Dennis Moses would understand, “It’s near where Borat lives.”
The Uighurs speak a language closely related to Turkish and they view themselves as being culturally linked to Central Asia. Hence their widespread adoption of Islam. Xinjiang came under Chinese rule in the 18th century, and in 1949 they briefly declared themselves to be the independent state of East Turkestan. This in turn forced the Chinese communist state to declare “nah I don’t think so”, cracking down on separatists and officially making Xinjiang part of communist China. Ever since tensions between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese who moved in have remained strained.
To hear China’s side, the Uighurs have become “infected” with radical and violent ideas. Like terrorism and wanting to be a free state. And they are simply taking them to “vocational camps ” where “their thoughts can be transformed”. Which of course in no way sounds sinister. While its true there are Uighurs who have joined the Islamic State, and violent riots against Han Chinese have occurred in Xinjiang, human rights groups have pointed to the fact that since 2017 at least eight hundred thousand to two million Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained without charge or trial in these “vocational camps”. None of these people have legal means to challenge their detention.
China has banned independent media from visiting these camps, but thanks to a recent investigation by the BBC we have some idea of what goes on. According to one former detainee, people are forced to renounce religion, constantly recite Communist party propaganda and sing hymns praising Chairman Mao. Which in fairness more or less sounds like a typical lime by trade union leader David Abdulah’s house. But others told of being hung upside down and being tortured with needles and pliers.
Perhaps the most astounding part of all of this is the deafening silence from those you would assume would be the most outraged; the Muslim world. In July, 22 countries signed a letter condemning China’s actions against the Uighurs, but none of them were from the Islamic world. In fact the 57 country consortium known as the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation even stated that it “commends the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens”.
It is the height of irony that the same countries who ridiculously claim the United States and Israel are anti-Muslim, even at times going so far as comparing both with Nazi Germany, are also wilfully turning a blind eye to the literal detention of millions of Muslims in concentration camps. Alanis Morrisette’s head must be spinning.
But perhaps to understand why, we need to understand another important geographical feature of Xinjiang. Aside from being home to the Uighurs, it’s also an essential part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative–the policy whereby Beijing offers easy loans to ensnare developing countries in a debt trap, sorry I meant to help developing countries by funding infrastructure projects. China can’t afford bumps like potholes or separatists getting in their way. Minister Stuart Young recently proudly declared that T&T has become the first Caribbean nation to sign up for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. So expect to hear that our official stance on the Uighurs is that it’s none of our business.
The Nobel Laureate Elie Wieasl said that to forget the Holocasut is to kill twice. Currently China’s Uighurs are in danger of being forgotten before they are even known.