China’s internment of Uighurs and other Muslims in the north-western Xinjiang province is a moral outrage. In the name of fighting terrorism the People’s Republic has imprisoned as many as 2m people, according to estimates from the US State Department. In a chilling example of the euphemisms behind which authoritarians can hide a policy of ethnic cleansing, the Chinese government describes the prison camps in which Uighurs are shaved, fed pork and forced to renounce their religion as “vocational training centres”.
Beijing calls its programme “deradicalisation” but it appears to be an attempt to eliminate an entire culture, fuelled by an exaggerated fear of Islamist terrorism. Mosques and cemeteries have been knocked down; minor displays of religious adherence are criminalised, from having a long beard or wearing a veil to closing a restaurant during Ramadan or praying “too much”. Even non-religious behaviours such as owning a passport or making “too many” phone calls outside the region can lead to the camps.
Those outside still live a life under surveillance. Cameras, loaded with facial recognition software, are everywhere and the Uighurs are forced to download the software that monitors them on to their phones. A region-wide biometric database has been constructed from mandatory DNA swabs, iris scans and blood tests.
As some human rights lawyers and activists have noted, the policies are so severe that they border on the UN definition of genocide, adopted to prevent a repeat of the mass murder of Jews by Nazi Germany. Outside investigations have suggested Uighurs are being forcibly sterilised and children are being separated from their communities. Leaked documents, revealed by the Financial Times, show that the most common reason for detention in the camps was a violation of family planning policies; the second most common reason was being a practising Muslim.
Ultimately this policy will fail by its own standards. There is little better way to radicalise the young men the Chinese Communist party fears than locking their parents and grandparents up in camps for their religion. The only way in which it can succeed is by eradicating an entire culture and brutalising those that remain. If China’s enemies wanted to design a policy to create generation upon generation of terrorists, this would be it.
Belatedly, western governments are waking up to the horrors. The recent signing into law of sanctions on communist party officials responsible for the policy by the US government was overdue. It follows US sanctions on a total of 48 Chinese companies implicated in human rights abuses connected with the Uighurs. Other western governments should, at a minimum, follow suit.
The UK is already moving in that direction. Following the adoption of a stricter policy towards Huawei and condemnation of the imposition of a draconian security law in its former colony of Hong Kong, Britain’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab accused China of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses. Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia must speak out; the EU, too, has a duty to condemn what is going on.
The Financial Times has argued for realistic engagement with China. Whether on climate change, trade or global health, the country is too important to ignore. On many topics it will be a key plank in solving the common problems facing humanity. On the issue of Xinjiang, however, there can be no prevarication. For western governments to do otherwise would be to share in China’s moral shame.
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