Uighurs: The Darkest Chapter Of Human History Since Nazi Concentration Camps

HRW report says China’s government displayed authoritarianism and repression in 2020.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this week said the differences between China and New Zealand are becoming harder to reconcile.

Amnesty International has documented widespread human rights violations in China that were marked by a systematic crackdown on dissent. The justice system remained plagued by unfair trials and torture and other ill-treatment in detention. China still classified information on its extensive use of the death penalty as a state secret.

Several Western countries have imposed sanctions on officials in China over rights abuses against the mostly Muslim Uighur minority group. China has detained Uighurs at camps in the north-west region of Xinjiang, where allegations of torture, forced labour and sexual abuse have emerged.

China has created a sprawling network of detention camps for minorities in the Xinjiang region

The sanctions were introduced as a coordinated effort by the European Union, UK, US and Canada.

China responded with its own sanctions on European officials.

It has denied the allegations of abuse, claiming the camps are “re-education” facilities used to combat terrorism.

But UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the treatment of Uighurs amounted to “appalling violations of the most basic human rights”.

Jinjiang Region. Source Google Map

The EU has not imposed new sanctions on China over human rights abuses since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, when troops in Beijing opened fire on pro-democracy protesters.

Rape Against Men, Women and Children

More than a million Uighurs and other minorities are estimated to have been detained in camps in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang lies in the north-west of China and is the country’s biggest region. Like Tibet, it is autonomous, meaning – in theory – it has some powers of self-governance. But in practice, both face major restrictions by the central government.

Uighurs living in the region speak their own language, similar to Turkish, and see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.

A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Cangan Boulevard in Tiananmen Square, on on June 5, 1989. The man, calling for an end to violence and bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators, was pulled away by bystanders, and the tanks continued on their way. More on this iconic image and the still-anonymous “tank man”

The Chinese government has been accused of carrying out forced sterilisations on Uighur women and separating children from their families.

A BBC investigation published in February contained first-hand testimony of systematic rape, sexual abuse and torture of detainees.

One woman testified that women were removed from their cells “every night” and raped by one or more masked Chinese men. A former guard at one of the camps, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described torture and food deprivation of inmates.

Arbitrary Detention and Tortures

China is in the midst of its darkest period for human rights since the Tiananmen Square massacre, Human Rights Watch has said in its annual report.

But 2020 was also the year that world governments found “safety in numbers” to push back on China’s policies of repression, with less fear of retaliation, it said.

Worsening persecutions of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet, targeting of whistleblowers, the crackdown on Hong Kong and attempts to cover up the coronavirus outbreak were all part of the deteriorating situation under President Xi Jinping, the organisation said.Advertisement

“This has been the darkest period for human rights in China since the 1989 massacre that ended the Tiananmen Square democracy movement,” the report on worldwide human rights abuses said.

“The Chinese government’s authoritarianism was on full display in 2020 as it grappled with the deadly coronavirus outbreak first reported in Wuhan,” the report said, describing the initial cover-up of the outbreak by authorities and the punishment of whistleblower doctors including Li Wenliang and journalists such as Zhang Zhan, who reported on the Wuhan lockdown and on surveillance and harassment of virus victims’ families .

At the same time, “Beijing’s repression – insisting on political loyalty to the Chinese Communist party – deepened across the country”, it said.

“In Xinjiang, Turkic Muslims continue to be arbitrarily detained on the basis of their identity, while others are subjected to forced labour, mass surveillance, and political indoctrination. In Inner Mongolia, protests broke out in September when education authorities decided to replace Mongolian with Mandarin Chinese in a number of classes in the region’s schools.”

And in Tibet, authorities continued “to severely restrict religious freedom, speech, movement and assembly, and fail to redress popular concerns about mining and land grabs by local officials, which often involve intimidation and unlawful use of force by security forces”.

The demand for political loyalty also intensified in the special administrative region of Hong Kong. After more than six months of protests in 2019, Beijing implemented the internationally criticised national security law on the city, outlawing even benign acts of opposition as crimes of secession, sedition, foreign collusion and terrorism. About 90 people have been arrested under the law since June.

Internet censorship, mass surveillance and efforts to “sinicise” religion also deepened across China, the report said. Prominent critics, human rights defenders and journalists were jailed, disappeared or forced into exile, many accused of “inciting subversion” or “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a common charged levelled against dissidents and activists.

“Since Xi Jinping came to power the repression has gotten worse and worse overall, in every aspect of Chinese society you can see how the party is becoming more intolerant of any kind of independent activity,” said HRW researcher Yaqiu Wang.

The 386-page report focused on China in large part because of the international response to worsening repression there. HRW said the rest of the world became more confident in criticizing Beijing, having previously feared retaliation.

End of “One Country Two Systems”

Beijing’s repression—insisting on political loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party—deepened across the country. In Hong Kong, following six months of large-scale protests in 2019, the Chinese government imposed a draconian “National Security Law” on June 30—its most aggressive assault on Hong Kong people’s freedoms since the transfer of sovereignty in 1997. In Xinjiang, Turkic Muslims continue to be arbitrarily detained on the basis of their identity, while others are subjected to forced labor, mass surveillance, and political indoctrination. In Inner Mongolia, protests broke out in September when education authorities decided to replace Mongolian with Mandarin Chinese in a number of classes in the region’s schools.

Chinese authorities’ silencing of human rights defenders, journalists, and activists, and restrictions on the internet, also make it difficult to obtain accurate information about Chinese government policies and actions. 

Pro-democracy lawmaker Andrew Wan is arrested by riot police during a protest in Hong Kong, China, July 1, 2020. Wan was one of the first people arrested under Hong Kong’s new National Security Law. 

In April, Beijing’s representatives in Hong Kong threatened pro-democracy legislators with “serious consequences” over their delay in selecting a new chairperson for an internal committee in the semi-democratic Legislative Council (LegCo), again interfering with the territory’s autonomy. The representatives then “reinterpreted” Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, stating that they were not bound by the law’s limitations on their powers. In May, with the help of dozens of security guards, pro-Beijing legislators removed at least 10 pro-democracy legislators from the LegCo internal committee through a dubious process. The leader of the pro-Beijing legislators, Starry Lee, asserted that she was now chair and had the power to oversee the proceedings. Lee’s power grab gave mainland authorities greater control over LegCo, which in June passed a bill criminalizing “disrespect” of the Chinese national anthem.

Freedom of religion and belief

Regulations, effective as of 1 February, stipulated that religious groups must “follow the leadership of the Communist Party of China… persist in the direction of sinicization of religion, and practise core socialist values”. The government sought to bring religious teachings and practices in line with state ideology and to comprehensively strengthen control over both state-approved and unregistered religious groups. Reports documented the destruction of thousands of cultural and religious sites, particularly in the north-west of China. The state’s repression of religion in Xinjiang and Tibet remained severe. People were arbitrarily detained for ordinary religious practices that authorities deemed “signs of extremism” under the “De-extremification Regulations”.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people

On 13 August, Shanghai Pride, China’s largest and longest-running LGBTI festival, announced the cancellation of all future activities amid shrinking space for the LGBTI community. Activists faced harassment for speaking out against discrimination and homophobia. Online platforms, including microblogs and magazines, blocked and removed LGBTI-related content and hashtags. Despite various challenges and mounting pressure, members of LGBTI communities continued to fight for their rights. A university student reportedly filed an official complaint about references to gay and lesbian people as suffering from a “common psychosexual disorder” in a government-approved textbook. The court rejected the lawsuit in August, even though China had stopped classifying “homosexuality” as a mental disorder in 2001. On 28 May, the National People’s Congress (NPC) adopted its first ever Civil Code, a draft of which had received 213,634 comments from the public regarding the marriage chapter. Although an NPC spokesperson acknowledged a large volume of calls for same-sex marriage, it was still not legalized under the Civil Code, which took effect on 1 January 2021.

EU Suspends Trade Talks

The EU is suspending plans for a trade deal with China, while reviving those for a pact with India, in a dispute on Chinese human-rights abuses.

“We now, in a sense, have suspended … political outreach activities from the European Commission side,” on ratification of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis told the AFP news agency on Tuesday (4 May).

EU leaders agreed stalled China pact last December (Photo: Council of the European Union)

“It’s clear in the current situation, with the EU sanctions in place against China and Chinese counter-sanctions in place, including against members of the European Parliament, [that] the environment is not conducive for ratification,” he added.

An EU official said the Europeans are “following developments closely and regret the recent deterioration in China/Australia relations. We hope that China and Australia can re-engage in dialogue, avoid escalation and unilateral pressure.”

And the future of the CAI would “depend really on how broader EU-China relations will evolve”, he said.

EU leaders and China signed the CAI last December, despite concern on China’s persecution of its Uighur Muslim minority, including forced labour and what some Western parliaments have called “genocide”.

New Zealand Passes Motion In Parliament

“It is not a criticism of the Chinese people. It is certainly not a criticism of our Chinese-Kiwi neighbours. In my experience, it is that last group who are often the most strident in warning us about the regime that this debate is about, the Chinese Communist Party,” she said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this week said the differences between China and New Zealand are becoming harder to reconcile.

“We know that a genocide is taking place, the evidence is voluminous […] To take one example, there has been mass imposition of contraceptive devices upon Uighur women, and forced sterilisation, matched by an enormous reduction in fertility rates in Xinjiang.”

Van Velden first put the “genocide” motion to Parliament last week.

What The West Has Done So Far?

Retaliation still occurred: China and the US entered a trade war, traded sanctions and new regulations on visas, diplomats and journalists, and closed embassies. Australia was subjected to damaging trade tariffs and bans after it voiced calls for a “robust” investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

HRW was critical of the EU’s response to China, and in particular the finalising of a trade deal with Beijing late last year.

“If the EU had been serious about ending forced labor in China’s Xinjiang province, they could have insisted on it before they agreed to the investment agreement,” said HRW head, Kenneth Roth.

But in 2020, many world governments found “safety in numbers, reflecting Beijing’s inability to retaliate against the entire world”, HRW said. Fewer members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – who in the past have tended to support China – supported Xinjiang policies, and multiple statements of condemnation were produced at the UN.

The US passed numerous pieces of legislation targeting China’s abuses, while the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US all tore up extradition treaties with the country over its crackdown on Hong Kong.

The sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, target senior officials in Xinjiang who have been accused of serious human rights violations against Uighur Muslims.

Those targeted have been named as:

  • Chen Mingguo, the director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, the local police force
  • Wang Mingshan, a member of Xinjiang’s Communist Party standing committee, who, the EU says, “holds a key political position in charge of overseeing” the detention of Uighurs
  • Wang Junzheng, party secretary of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a state-owned economic and paramilitary organisation
  • The former deputy Communist Party head in Xinjiang, Zhu Hailun, who is accused of having held a “key political position” in overseeing the running of the camps
  • The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau, which is in charge of implementing XPCC policies on security matters, including the management of detention centres

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