Since 2017, there have been many allegations of human rights abuses in what China calls the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, known by dissidents as East Turkestan. This disagreement over the region’s name stems from a long history of on-and-off Chinese involvement and control of the region. For the past two millennia, the area has seen instability and constantly changing rule.
Much of this instability can be traced back to a manmade environmental disaster that occurred from 1500-2000 years ago. Like other endorheic basins in the world (such as the Great Salt Lake, the Aral Sea, and the Guzman Sink in Chihuahua and New Mexico), water flows into the area but doesn’t flow out. When flows are good, endorheic basins often have salt lakes at their low points and extensive wetlands, grasslands, and other vegetation that keeps the soil from blowing away.
Unlike regions that dried up when the last glacial period ended, Xinjiang dried up in much the same way the Aral Sea dried up. Humans wouldn’t let the water flow down into the salt lakes, instead diverting it for agriculture and drinking. When this went on long enough, the lakes and wetlands dried up, leaving a gigantic dustbowl. Blowing sand buried abandoned cities, and political instability prevailed in the wastes that were once much more hospitable to civilization.
Sadly, the area has been ruled by outsiders for much of the time since that disaster, including the Mongols under Genghis Khan and the Chinese numerous times, including today. As you can probably imagine, at least some of the people living there, once mostly Uyghurs, aren’t happy with being under Chinese rule. Separatist groups who want the area to become independent and be called East Turkestan have been fighting with the Chinese government, including numerous terror attacks, large riots, and other violence of unrest.
Why The International Community Cares Now
In the past, the international community has tended to side with Beijing on this issue. Not only were the Chinese fighting a similar campaign against Muslims as George W. Bush and later Barack Obama in the War on Terror, but there were links between Uyghur fighters and Muslim fighters in other countries, including people from the region found fighting western forces in places like Afghanistan and Syria. So, western nations didn’t really care what China did, because there was a perceived common enemy.
But, this changes in recent years as measures to subdue and pacify the region became increasingly harsh. As dissidents who’ve escaped the region have been telling their stories, the War on Terror has (at least compared to the past) been winding down. So, these stories haven’t been falling on deaf ears as much as they once did.
The United Nations Investigation Of Human Rights Allegations
More recently, the United Nations Human Rights office has been investigating, and it has released a detailed report of its findings.
The Chinese government cracked down on the region hard in 2014, destroying over 1,500 groups engaging in violence, arresting tens of thousands, and confiscating religious materials banned in China. The government claims success in stopping terror attacks, but the recent UN report notes that it defines “terrorism” very broadly, including things as vague as “disruption of social order.”
Part of combating “extremism” in the region includes going after people for things that aren’t really connected with violence at all. The government officially investigates things like “rejecting or refusing radio or television,” being a young man with a beard, or quitting smoking and drinking. Using the wrong apps on your phone (which you’re required to keep on and carry with you), using satellite or shortwave radio to view foreign media, and many other things can earn you a call from the authorities.
Those who get the government’s attention don’t just get a friendly knock and a conversation to see what’s going on and rule out terrorism. The government has wide-ranging authority to detain, monitor, and restrict people suspected of terrorism, with no due process or opportunity to refute the accusation. If they decide you’re a potential terrorist or extremist, they can put you in a “Vocational Education and Training Center,” which is in reality a prison and re-education camp.
People who have been in both these “vocational” facilities and prisons widely reported to the UN that they were subjected to treatment that is internationally considered to be torture, including denial of food, shackling for long periods, and forced memorization of Communist Party propaganda materials. Detainees have also reported being prohibited from speaking their native languages (to learn Mandarin), and being prohibited from engaging in their normal religious and cultural practices.
Medical treatment has been reportedly denied, and detainees reported developing medical conditions that went untreated while in facilities. Beyond this mistreatment and cultural repression, women reported rapes, forced nudity, and sexual humiliation at the hands of the guards.
Similar measures have been implemented across the province, but usually to a lower severity than in the prisons and re-education camps. Religion and culture is heavily regulated, and people know that they can disappear if they engage in their normal religious and cultural practices. This leads to them being abandoned in many cases. Religious sites and facilities have been destroyed, as well.
The report goes on to detail violations of privacy and freedom of movement, forced living with Han Chinese, forced birth control (which has led to a birth and population decline among Uyghurs in China), and possible forced sterilization. They also detail allegations of forced labor and inability to choose jobs.
The UN report concludes: “Serious human rights violations have been committed in XUAR in the context of the Government’s application of counter-terrorism and counter-“extremism” strategies. The implementation of these strategies, and associated policies in XUAR has led to interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights. These patterns of restrictions are characterized by a discriminatory component, as the underlying acts often directly or indirectly affect Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities. “
In Part 2, I’ll explore how this UN report and the more widespread acceptance of these findings will affect clean technologies globally.
Featured image provided by Tesla.
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