Genocide of the Uighurs

Published by The i paper (20th July 2020)

The footage could scarcely be more disturbing. We see several hundred detainees sitting in rows on a station platform with their heads freshly shaved, eyes covered by blindfolds, hands shackled behind backs. They are surrounded by security force personnel in dark uniforms and peaked hats. Some prisoners are led shuffling from a train in pairs, escorted by guards on either side, then others are marched off in a different direction through gates where more people stand waiting.

Using the wonders of geo-location techniques, such as zooming in on shrubs and shadows cast by poles, analysts established that the film was taken two years ago near Korla, the second biggest city in China’s Xinjiang region. The prisoners wear vests referring to Kashgar, another urban centre in the region almost 1,000km away, leading to strong suspicions that these were Uighurs being transferred by train to “re-education” camps.

The footage was confirmed as genuine by intelligence sources, although no doubt China will cast doubt on its authenticity. Liu Xiaoming, their ambassador to Britain, pretended to be baffled when Andrew Marr confronted him with the footage on his show. The video has emerged days after another report detailed how Beijing’s own records expose how a campaign of enforced sterilisation and abortions led to huge drops in Uighur birth rates. Then came news that United States customs seized a shipment of 13 tons of products made from human hair taken from inmates of such camps. Certainly I have spoken to one survivor who told me of how they have their heads shaved upon entry.

These three slivers of evidence in just three weeks provide fresh glimpses into the genocide being inflicted on Muslim minorities by the Communist regime in China. We know from leaked documents that Xi Jinping, the hardline president, personally ordered a crackdown in Xinjiang that combines modern technology with medieval brutality to crush religious minorities. Yet how chilling to see prisoners herded on to trains to concentration camps, mountains of stolen hair and infliction of medicalised abuse on an ethnic group given our dark recent history in Europe. After the horrors of the Holocaust, the world said never again.

“Out of our memory, we must forge an unshakable oath with all civilised people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide,” said the US President Jimmy Carter four decades ago. Powerful words from an unusually decent politician. Others said similar things after Rwanda, after Srebrenica, after recent atrocities on Yazidis in Iraq and Syria. We build museums, erect memorials, claim to have learnt lessons from history. Yet the world averts its gaze again from the attempted destruction of another ethnic group.

This process goes back to the last century when Han Chinese moved in to Xinjiang, taking land and exploiting natural resources. As in Tibet, the takeover was driven by the party in Beijing and designed to wipe out local cultures and religion; one mother told me she discovered her three-year-old son having his mouth taped up in kindergarten to stop use of a local language. But after taking power in 2012, Xi ramped up the repression. Following anti-government protests and attacks, he demanded party cadres display absolutely no mercy in response – and this led to those barbaric camps holding perhaps one million people and the sinister Orwellian development of the world’s most intensive surveillance system.

China dismisses such stories as fake news. It taps into Western fears by claiming to be fighting religious extremism rather than crushing a culture fighting for survival. It uses diplomatic power to silence global bodies, so the United Nations is again a passive onlooker to genocide while the World Bank even funded schools at the centre of Beijing’s activities. It uses economic muscle to mute criticism around the world – symbolised last year by Arsenal football club’s shameful disowning of its highest-paid player when Mesut Ozil condemned Koran burning and mosque closures. If all else fails, it lets loose its army of “wolf warrior” diplomats such as Liu. At first, China denied the existence of the camps.

Then it claimed they were centres for vocational education “to resist the infiltration of extremist thought”, even inviting journalists to film inmates dressed in smart clothes and smiling for the cameras. But survivors have revealed the reality of places where people spend all day in self-criticism and chanting praise to the party, must take unknown medications and are even told on which side to sleep at night in over-crowded cells then tortured if they fail to comply. One woman who taught in a camp told me of witnessing mass rape.

Like it or not, we are caught in a global struggle against Xi’s dystopian vision of autocratic totalitarianism that is embodied by these pitiless actions. The West’s crumbling democracies have been slow to react to a ruthless Chinese president relying on repression and technology to impose his own and the party’s iron grip, while short-sighted corporate leaders look away as they press snouts in the trough to snuffle up some yuan. Meanwhile the lack of outrage from Muslim nations is deeply depressing, with the Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman even quoted in Chinese media as supporting Beijing’s right to undertake “de-extremism” measures.

The world can no longer have any doubt over Beijing’s grotesque activities in western China. This is not “deradicalisation”. It is an attempt to eliminate an ethnic group, which is the textbook definition of genocide – and it is increasingly well-documented in leaked records, snatched videos, personal testimonies and even those piles of impounded hair. As the echoes from history grow louder, we should remember the warning of the great Hannah Arendt, a writer and thinker forced to flee her German birthplace by the Nazis, that evil thrives on apathy and cannot survive without it.

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