By Rachel Lietzow
While China has frequently received international criticism for human rights abuses over the decades—violent suppression of protests, disappearances and arrests of “political dissidents,” tight control over religion, information, and speech—a more recent clandestine attempt of the Chinese government to solve the nation’s ethnic tensions has come under fire . The regime has systematically contained hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of minority peoples in “re-education” camps, located in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The target population is primarily Uyghurs, Xinjiang’s largest ethnic minority, though other minority peoples who identify with the Islamic faith have likewise gone missing and are suspected to be held in the camps .
China has refrained from revealing the conditions of these camps to the international community, choosing to label the facilities as vocational schools instead of internment camps. Originally, China denied the existence of the camps altogether; however, once the truth could no longer be concealed from the prodding eyes of the United Nations, NGOs, human rights organizations, and the United States Congress, China chose to embrace the camps as a peaceful means of assimilating minorities into the Chinese workforce. Chinese officials continue to maintain that the “students” in the re-education camps were not forcibly extracted from their homes, and instead, voluntarily attend to better their prospects . The camps have also been described as a policy tactic to reduce terrorism. A much more ominous story—speaking of torture, disappearances, brainwashing, and minority culture erasing—shared by many Uyghur testimonies runs counter to Chinese government claims.
With the April 2018 emergence of satellite imagery that proved the internment camps’ vastness and location, worldwide attention towards Xinjiang grew tremendously . The Chinese government’s history of ethnic discrimination remains no longer an isolated humanitarian matter, but a worldwide call for human rights and international interference.
Due to China’s growing power as an economic and political player, international response to Chinese human rights violations is complicated by economics and politics. The plight of Uyghurs had endured silently over the decades, as minority populations in China have been denied political autonomy and scarcely possess a voice to change policy. Culturally and linguistically, ethnic minorities have been isolated from central Han Chinese society. They also carry little economic weight and often reside in China’s lesser-developed, western provinces. Therefore, perhaps the world’s uncovering of the Xinjiang re-education camps is the first necessary step for Uyghurs to receive a spotlight for humanitarian alarm. Less drastic means of discrimination and suppression of rights simply were unable to attract the public eye. China’s ongoing human rights violations have also been ignored due to other countries’ close political and economic partnerships with China; punishing China with sanctions or linkage diplomacy—especially for smaller countries more highly reliant on China for trade—would have deleterious effects on countries’ own interests.
International involvement on behalf of international organizations and independent players also encounters many obstacles. Primarily, NGOs and human rights organizations are suppressed by the Chinese regime and are neutralized by nationalistic propaganda efforts. At China’s refusal to reveal its camps to human rights organizations, the United Nations “has requested direct access” to the Xinjiang internment camps to evaluate the camps for human rights violations, and to work with China to alleviate the issues of terrorism and extremism . This year, some members of the U.S. Congress petitioned for sanctions on China as a response to the Xinjiang human rights violations . While United States foreign policy has held a lenient stance towards China’s human rights situation—presumably to protect U.S. economic interests—the current tense economic relationship between the U.S. and China may lend itself to reopening the human rights issue, as a weapon in the politico-economic power struggle.
Interference also raises the question of state sovereignty: China has pointed to the re-education camps as a critical part of its national policy, in which other countries’ attempts to interfere infringe upon Chinese sovereignty. The boundaries of diplomacy have also limited interference regarding the Xinjiang camps. Fifteen Western ambassadors to Beijing issued a letter speaking out against the arbitrary incarceration of Uyghurs, a move that China criticized as overstepping diplomatic bounds and as interfering “in the internal affairs of other countries” . Chinese officials invoked the terms of the Vienna Convention to warn ambassadors and diplomats that encroaching upon sovereignty by China’s definition would be viewed unfavorably .
Amidst these roadblocks in international intervention, John Sudworth, reporter for BBC, has described the Xinjiang camps as “one of the most pressing human rights concerns of our age.” What transpires within these camps remains largely a contested mystery; however, despite the Chinese government’s efforts to diffuse accusations of human rights violations, the media and non-governmental agencies, along with state governments, are now responsible for exposing and bringing to a halt what may possibly develop into the early stages of genocide .
Rachel Lietzow is a senior at the University of Kentucky, where she is studying Chinese, International Economics, and International Studies.
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