PRAGUE -- Four years after Beijing launched a brutal crackdown that swept more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in detention camps and prisons in its western Xinjiang Province, members of the Uyghur diaspora and activists are frustrated over a lack of international recognition for alleged atrocities committed by the Chinese government.
Chinese authorities have been accused of imposing forced labor, mass internment, forced birth control, erasing Uyghur cultural and religious identity, and separating children from incarcerated parents.
Despite such moves and a growing body of evidence documenting such abuses, members of the Uyghur community and researchers focused on the issue say there has not been enough international political or legal action and called for greater global pressure at a November 11-14 meeting in Prague by the World Uyghur Congress, an international organization of the ethnic group’s diaspora spread across 25 countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America.
“On the whole the international response has been abysmal and utterly shameful. It has been extremely inadequate given the scope of the atrocities,” Adrian Zenz, an expert on China’s ethnic policies who has published detailed evidence of Beijing’s alleged abuses against Uyghurs, told RFE/RL on the sidelines of the event.
Though the focus of the meeting was to elect the organization’s leadership for a three-year term, the gathering also featured panels with legal experts, human rights groups, and survivors of China’s camp system -- all of whom expressed disappointment over what they described as a lagging international response given the scale and severity of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang.
“The Uyghurs are becoming hopeless because the world is letting them down,” said Zenz. “In 2019, they were more hopeful because there was a feeling that more evidence would lead to action, but nothing has changed. People and governments are not acting on the evidence that is out.”
'Unprecedented' Level Of Evidence
A German academic who works for the Victims of Communism, a U.S.-based research organization, Zenz has been at the forefront of the effort to gather and publish evidence about the mass detention and repression of Uyghurs as well as ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other groups from Xinjiang that have also been caught up in the Chinese dragnet.
His investigations have helped reveal the scale of Beijing's security buildup in Xinjiang, showing billions of dollars spent toward building internment camps and high-tech surveillance networks, as well as a large-scale recruitment drive for police officers and officials to run them. Other research by Zenz documented forced sterilizations among Uyghur women, which has led international rights groups to accuse the Chinese government of genocide in pointing to plunging birthrates and mass detentions.
Chinese officials have rejected the genocide and rights abuse allegations as groundless and characterized the camps as vocational training centers to teach the Chinese language, give job training, and help combat radicalism. China saw a wave of Xinjiang-related terror attacks through 2016.
But some of the strongest evidence showing the full scale of Beijing’s policies towards Xinjiang, researchers say, have come from China itself. In 2019, The New York Times disclosed more than 400 leaked internal Chinese government documents that outlined detailed policies for how to repress Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities -- and placing Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the center of the decision to do so.
“We’ve never had this level of documentation for an atrocity in real time. It’s unprecedented,” Rian Thum, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham and an expert on Xinjiang, told RFE/RL. “We continue to learn more as new information is revealed, but there isn’t any scarcity of evidence. In fact, most of what we do know comes from the Chinese government’s own documents.”
China has long struggled to integrate Uyghurs, a historically Muslim group of 13 million people with close linguistic, ethnic, and cultural ties to Turkey and Central Asia. Policy in Xinjiang has swung back and forth for decades, but took a harsher direction under Xi that culminated in the crackdown and camp system that took hold in 2017.
Beijing has also silenced Uyghurs living abroad, monitoring the diaspora and locking up and abusing relatives in China of members of the community who speak out.
The scale of this effort was documented in a series of reports released in 2021 by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, a Washington-based research organization, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
In addition to showing the scope of intimidation toward the global Uyghur community, the reports also showed how Beijing has co-opted governments in Central and South Asia -- such as Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan -- to help in its efforts to silence discussion over the camps and extradite Uyghurs from the region back to China.
Tajikistan is also the subject of a recent filing by Uyghur groups to the International Criminal Court alleging that the Central Asian government has allowed Chinese officials to operate on its territory in order to deport Uyghurs back to China and to coerce them into becoming informants.
The new evidence alleges that due to these efforts the Uyghur population in Tajikistan decreased by more than 85 percent and in Kyrgyzstan by 87 percent.
First-hand testimony from those who have been interned or forced to work at the camps have also played a central role in raising awareness over alleged atrocities in Xinjiang.
Kazakhstan, which shares a lengthy border with Western China, became an unexpected flashpoint of activism on the issue due to family connections between Kazakhs and Xinjiang’s ethnic Kazakh minority, with several former detainees publishing testimonies after fleeing China for the Central Asian country.
“We are giving the world evidence, so why aren’t they believing us?” said Qelbinur Sidik, an Uyghur teacher who was forced to work at a camp and has since received asylum in the Netherlands.
Pushing For A Response
Calls for stronger international pushback against China over Xinjiang are likely to increase following U.S. President Joe Biden's virtual summit with Xi on November 15, the first time in Biden’s term that the two leaders have communicated face-to-face in a formal summit format.
So far, the U.S. government and parliaments in the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada have declared that Beijing’s policies against the Uyghurs amount to genocide and crimes against humanity. The United States has gone further, blocking imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang and companies linked to forced labor in the region. The European Union and the United Kingdom have also imposed sanctions on lower-ranking Chinese officials reportedly involved in organizing the camp system.
Calls have also grown to boycott the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, with Human Rights Watch calling on major sponsors of the event to press China's government and the International Olympics Committee about the host nation's human rights violations.
It also remains unclear if the economic sanctions would compel Beijing or Chinese companies linked to forced labor in Xinjiang to change their ways.
China has retaliated against economic pressure by imposing sanctions of its own on Western individuals and institutions. It has also called for boycotts against leading retailers such as Nike and H&M after they expressed concerns in March about forced labor in Xinjiang.
Diplomatically, Beijing has also managed to weather pushback.
While more than 40 mainly Western countries criticized China at the UN in October -- a new high for the number of signatories expressing concern over abuses in Xinjiang -- 62 countries expressed support for Beijing.
The statement of support, which said that the matter was an internal affair, was put forward by Cuba and backed by a large group of countries across the developing world, many of whom benefit from Chinese investment and receive vitally needed aid from Beijing.
“The Chinese government is only going to react so much to pushback that is mostly coming from the West,” said Thum. “A global response would be different, but that’s difficult to imagine given the number of countries that depend on Chinese economic engagement right now.”