The issue of Chinese Uighur camps

uighur protest in china
Emily Murphy

Emily Murphy

20th February 2021


On 2 February, the BBC released an article which consisted of numerous testimonies of alleged systemic rape of Uighur women in Chinas ‘re-education’ camps. The article also included reports of alleged beatings at the hands of prison guards as well as multiple forms of electrocution endured by detainees. Despite the atrocities detailed in the report, there seems to be very little backlash at all, anywhere in the world, and only a few days later, the news seems to have slipped into the collective subconscious. Reports like these are not new, we have been hearing rumours since late 2018, so why has nothing been done? Why does no one seem to care?


The Uighur are a Muslim Turkic minority based primarily in the Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China, that borders Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and five other countries. It is an autonomous region, which means, in theory, that it has some self-governance powers. However in reality the area is faced with major restrictions from China. Despite being briefly independent in the early 20th-century, the region has been under the control of the Chinese communist party since 1949.


There have been reports of China’s suppression of Uighur rights and rumours of growing tensions since 2013. The region that the Uighurs inhabit is the home to numerous development projects which have brought with them great economic prosperity. Xinjiang has therefore become very attractive to young, well-educated Han Chinese who migrate from the eastern regions. These economic migrants have become prosperous in Xinjiang, and rumours that they are given preferential treatment when applying for jobs has fueled resentment among the two groups. These tensions gave rise to increased support for anti-imperialism, pro-separatist movements. Under the guise of restoring peace and quashing the ‘terrorist’ movement, the Chinese government began imposing strict regulations and infringing on Uighur rights. In 2017, the government passed laws forbidding women from wearing veils or face coverings, men from growing beards, and began the demolition of dozens of mosques. The Chinese government also began implementing “residential surveillance” in many areas of Xinjiang as well as increasing the presence of armed guards and mandatory checkpoints.


Since 2017, more than 85 camps housing at least one million Uighurs have been discovered in the autonomous zone. China originally denied the existence of the camps however they later acknowledged them as “re-education centres” when images of camps with watchtowers and barbed wire fences emerged. This was met with mixed responses. The U.N. Human Rights Council penned a letter in which 22 countries condemned the Chinese leadership and the “large-scale arbitrary detention of Uighurs”. Four days later 37 countries, many of whom are Muslim majority defended China’s “achievements in the field of human rights” and their dedication to protecting the nation from “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism”. In February 2019, President Xi Jinping stated that the Chinese Communist Party should have absolute control over the legal system. The government then legalised ‘arbitrary and secret detention’ and created new legislation which would exempt police from any legal responsibilities for damage that may be caused to the private property or interests of individuals and organizations while they carry out duties.


Tursunay Ziawudun, the key interviewee in a BBC article describes some of the brutal acts inflicted on her and other inmates during the nine months she spent in the camp. It is incredibly rare to acquire a first-hand account from a former staff member or detainee, and because there is strict security surrounding the camps it is almost impossible to completely confirm the allegations made, however, the account given by Ziawudun is extremely similar to accounts given by other former detainees. Details given in her testimony are corroborated by immigration records and travel documents and her description of the camp in Xinyuan county match analysed satellite imagery. In her interview with the BBC, she stated that detainees were forced to watch propaganda programmes, forcibly injected with a “vaccine” which brought on numbness and nausea every 15 days and implanted with IUDs against their will. Later in her interview, Ziawudun stated that she had been gang-raped on three occasions and on one occasion officers took her to a room without surveillance and tortured her by pushing an electric stick inside her genital tract and electrocuting her.


“It is incredibly rare to acquire a first-hand account from a former staff member or detainee, and because there is strict security surrounding the camps it is almost impossible to completely confirm the allegations made”


Qelbinur Sedik, an Uzbek woman from Xinjiang, a former language teacher in the camp who has publicly stated since fleeing China that she was informed by a female police officer in the camp that the rape in the camp had become a culture. The officer also told her that it was commonly gang rape and electrocution. Sedik testified to the Uighur Human Rights Project that screams were often heard echoing through the buildings, and that she was aware of four forms of electric shock that were used. These included “the chair, the glove, the helmet and anal rape with a stick”. According to the Associated Press women in the camps were forcibly sterilised allegations the Chinese government have stated are “completely unfounded”. An anonymous camp guard who spoke to the BBC said that food deprivation and beatings were administered as punishment for failure to memorise book passages or patriotic songs.


On his last day as president, Donald Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo released the statement “I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systemic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state”. The current Biden administration has echoed this statement. The UK and Australian government ministers have issued calls to action with MP Nus Ghani stating “These horrifying stories add to the huge and growing body of evidence detailing atrocities perpetrated by the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang – atrocities which may even be genocidal.” In January, Canada and Britain announced a ban on goods which they suspect were made using forced labour in Xinjiang. The UK has also revoked the broadcasting licence of CGTN, a Chinese state-owned broadcaster. Ofcom, the UK regulator, has said that this decision was reached because the corporation was controlled by the Chinese communist party. The Chinese government have responded by banning BBC World News both in retaliation and as a result of the networks reporting on Covid-19 and the Uighur genocide.


We have been aware in one form or another of the Chinese Communist party’s treatment of Uighurs since at least 2014, it is high time that we do something to end this atrocity. It is baffling to me that no government has intervened prior to the latest allegations. We cannot allow this recent revelation to disappear from our minds. If we do, the abuse and torture will only continue.




Featured photo by Malcolm Brown on Flickr


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