China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, also known as the Uyghur Region or East Turkestan, is home to millions of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities.
On January 19, 2021, the United States formally declared and recognized that the Chinese Communist Party is committing genocide within the region. What does this genocide determination mean and how can the international community continue to stand up against these atrocities?
HRF spoke to Uyghur activist Jewher Ilham to learn more.
Can you please tell our readers a bit more about the Uyghur identity?
The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority group who live in the Uyghur Region — referred to as Xinjiang, which translates to “New Frontier” in Chinese — located in the West of China. The whole region has a rich history and culture, dating back at least four millennia. A majority of Uyghurs are Muslim, and it has become very difficult for them to practice their religion and culture freely.
What is life like for the Uyghur people within the Uyghur region?
Over the last several years, it has been estimated that over 1.8 million Uyghurs and members of other predominantly Muslim minorities (Kazakh, Kyrgyz, etc.) have been sent to “reeducation camps,” or forced labor centers. Widespread arbitrary detention, political indoctrination, family separation, and pervasive surveillance have all become part of everyday life for all Uyghurs. Having a passport, having traveled to foreign countries, communicating with family members overseas, sending money abroad, or choosing not to drink or smoke are all actions that could be used as justification for sending someone to a jail or camp.
How does the Chinese Communist Party justify these egregious actions?
The Chinese government claims that these state-sponsored camps are vocational training camps for the purposes of poverty alleviation and countering religious extremism and terrorism. But even medical doctors, scholars, singers, and soccer players — none of whom are in need of “vocational training” — are being sent to such camps. These arbitrary arrests further illustrate that “poverty alleviation” and “countering terrorism” are euphemisms for forced labor.
The United States has become the first country to recognize and label China’s actions in Xinjiang as genocide. Do you think other countries will also react?
The U.S. government’s recent atrocity determination was welcomed by Uyghurs in the diaspora as a recognition of the severity of the repression unfolding in the Uyghur Region. I think the term “genocide” perfectly describes the abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in the Uyghur Region. I do hope that other governments around the world will follow suit, and that such genocide determinations lead to real accountability for the abuses suffered by the Uyghur people.
What can our readers do right now to help the Uyghur people and to learn more?
The first and most crucial step is to educate yourself about the situation. The next step is to spread the word and gather more support from people around you. Together, we are stronger.
People can also support local Uyghur businesses. Every Uyghur person in the diaspora has at least one of their family members locked up in a Chinese prison or sent to a “reeducation camp.” If you see a Uyghur restaurant or a store that is owned by Uyghurs, you can support them by simply stopping by and telling them that you are aware of the cause and that you care.
You can write to your local government representatives — it doesn’t matter which country or state you are from — and let them know that the Uyghur crisis is something that deeply concerns you and push the government to take actions in making change.
You can also choose to buy from brands and companies that refuse to support the exploitation of the Uyghurs, such as British retailer Marks & Spencer and American retailer Eileen Fisher. Both brands have publicly announced their formal commitment to cut all ties with suppliers implicated in Uyghur forced labor and to ban any sourcing — ranging from cotton to finished garments — from the Uyghur Region.
I also recommend people follow information from The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, where you can learn about the latest action items on how people can help the Uyghur cause.
The Human Rights Foundation remains committed to amplifying the voices of people oppressed by authoritarian regimes.