A wall of silence around China's oppression of its Muslim minority is starting to crumble
  • Sun, 12/30/2018 - 00:00

Alexandra Ma
Dec. 29, 2018, 2:21 AM

  • China's Muslim minority, the Uighurs, are subject to harsh surveillance, with many interned in prison-like detention camps and forced to work.
  • Beijing justifies this crackdown as a counterterrorism measure, and calls the internment camps "free vocational training."
  • Countries in the Muslim world have largely avoided confronting Beijing over this crackdown in the past, but the tide is turning.
  • More and more Muslim countries are openly calling out China over its human rights record.
  • Human Rights Watch's China director says the next step is for the countries to take action to persuade or punish Beijing.

More and more countries are standing up to China over its oppression of the Uighurs, the country's majority-Muslim ethnic minority.

Beijing is accused of interning up to 1 million Uighurs in prison-like detention camps, forcing them to renounce their religion and native language, and even pushing them into forced labor with little to no pay.

Activists have found evidence of Chinese authorities tracking Uighurs' cellphone activity in their home region of Xinjiang, also known as East Turkestan.

Others say Beijing has demanded demanded the Uighur diasporahand over personal information, and threatened their families if they do not.


Footage purportedly of a re-education camp for China's Uighur Muslims in Yingye'er, Xinjiang, taken in August 2018.
1:06 PM 12/30/2018Bitter Winter/YouTube

Chinese authorities say the policies are a counterterrorism strategy, and that placing Uighurs in internment camps is "free vocational training."

Until now, countries from the Muslim world have largely avoided bringing up China's Uighur crackdown.

Experts say this was because countries feared economic retribution from China, or because many Arab states didn't want to draw attention to their own poor human rights records.

But the tide is turning.

The crumbling wall of silence

In September, the federal minister for religion in Pakistan — China's closest economic ally in the Muslim world — openly criticized Beijing's regulation of Uighur activity, saying that the crackdown actually "increases the chances of an extremist viewpoint growing in reaction."

A month later, Malaysia — another major economic ally, and home to many ethnic Chinese — ignored Beijing's requests to deport a group of Uighurs imprisoned in the country.

Most prominently, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation — a consortium of 57 countries which calls itself "the collective voice of the Muslim world" — noted in December "disturbing reports" of China's Muslim crackdown.

It said it hoped China "would address the legitimate concerns of Muslims around the world."

In countries where world leaders haven't stood up to China, there are prominent protests.

Prominent politicians and religious figures in Indonesia — the country with the highest proportion of Muslims in the world — are urging the government to speak up. It has so far refused to do so,saying it that it didn't "want to intervene in the domestic affairs of another country."

Muslim groups in India, Bangladesh, and Kazakhstan also staged multiple protests over the Uighur detentions this year.

People have been particularly vocal in Kazakhstan, as many ethnic Kazakhs are said to be imprisoned in the China's camps. The government in June said "an urgent request was expressed" over the welfare of Kazakhs detained in China, but there have not been any significant updates.

Western powers like the US, UK, and UN have criticised Beijing over its actions in Xinjiang in the past.

But the criticism of Muslim nations shows a turning tide in the world's attitude to China, said Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch's China director.

China has long batted away Western criticism, with state-run Global Times tabloid describing Western critics as "a condescending judge" earlier this year. China's foreign ministry said a reported investigation by western diplomats into the Uighur issue was "very rude."

Richardson said: "When governments like Indonesia or Malaysia ... or organizations like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation speak up, China can no longer dismiss concerns about Xinjiang being some kind of Western conspiracy."

"That's very encouraging."

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