The predicament of Uighurs in the People’s Republic of China

Updated: May 26

Pratham Sharma,

Research Intern,

Internationalism Research.

The plight of Muslims has been a hot topic in the Asian continent for the past few decades especially due to the rise of the Narendra Modi Government in the Republic of India. Comparatively less discussed is the issue of Uighurs in the Xinjiang province of the People’s Republic of China. The problem escalated back in 2017 when the Chinese government came up with new restrictions which although termed as general restrictions, seemed like targeted to a specific community in the country. The Chinese government on April 1, 2017, introduced bans on keeping long beards and wearing veils in public. There was also a restriction on the names of children born. It was declared that any names which were exaggerating religious fervour were not allowed in the country. In addition to this, the government introduced a restriction on refusal to watch state-run television and radio broadcast. The measures introduced by the Chinese government evidently targeted a particular religious community. The effect of the measures introduced was mostly seen on the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the government was also alleged to carry out other oppressive measures against the minority in question. The minority was subjected to arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances over the past few years. The government has allegedly set up detention centres in the Xinjiang province. The Chinese government explained the following restrictions were introduced as part of anti-terrorism efforts by the government and denied the presence of arbitrary detention centres rather termed them as “vocational training centres”.

The justification by the Chinese government on the pretext of counter-terrorism for such restrictions was discussed in the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The committee in their review of the report of China scrutinised the definition of the term terrorism used by the Chinese government as broad and vague. The problem often with such a broad and vague definition is that the government takes advantage of the lack of specificity of the provision to misuse the law. Using the same definition, the Chinese government has often tried to justify its oppression against the Uighurs by claiming that the people targeted have connections with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and are engaged in violent extremism. The definition has allowed exploitation in the name of countering extremism. The application of counter-terrorism law in China has resulted in arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances and lack of judicial oversight.

The definition as used by China is “propositions and actions that create social panic, endanger public safety, violate person and property, or coerce national organs or international organizations, through methods such violence, destruction, intimidation, so as to achieve their political, ideological, or other objectives.” The definition uses phrases like ‘create social panic’ and ‘methods such as intimidation’ which can be very widely interpreted and exploited to further political benefits. The government of the autonomous province of Xinjiang has done exactly this and have intensified its crackdown and oppression on Uighurs.

United States takes up the role of a ‘Liberator’

The United States of America have introduced the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020. The legislation was overwhelmingly approved by the US House of Representatives on 27th May 2020. The legislation is pending signature from the President of the United States and is expected to pass the same to be incorporated into law. The major talking point of the bill is its advocacy for sanctions against those responsible for the oppression against the Uighurs. The bill has singled out one of the Politburo members. Chen Quanguo, the communist party secretary for the Xinjiang province has been named in the bill as the one responsible for “gross human rights violations”. The bill indicates that United States are looking to intensify their policy efforts in relation to the Uighurs. The bill seeks to impose sanctions under the umbrella of the Magnitsky act of 2012 which now applies universally since 2016. The act is nothing but a foreign policy technique to impose punishment on individuals majorly belonging to the political opponents of the United States internationally for alleged human rights abuses. Even though the act is not properly used by the United States, it represents an important effort in combating human rights violations, if it is applied without any bias and prejudice. The government of the United States has also encouraged other state actors like Australia, South Africa and the European Union to adopt such laws to combat the human rights abuses. The United States has done well to act as a global leader in the fight against human rights abuses from their point of view since it is much needed in today’s time. If most countries and the European Union pass such laws in their legislatures then it will be really helpful in combatting the human rights abuses across the globe. The act would impose sanctions on individuals and also ban them from entering in these countries and it can serve as an important step in curbing the problem by isolating such individuals.

However, the interesting point that comes to light here is the role of United States in curbing and fighting human rights violations such as arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances by China in detention camps. While the United States has passed a bill to sanction the Chinese officials, the question is who will pass a bill to sanction the United States officials and maybe the President himself.

It is ironical that President Trump himself signed an executive order in 2018 to keep Guantanamo Bay indefinitely open and promised to punish the “bad dudes”. On one hand, the United States is looking to wage war against human rights violations and on the other hand; the symbolic representation of arbitrary detention for the 21st century is being extended indefinitely. The Americans have been alleged to conduct gross human rights violations in the Guantanamo Bay and President Obama even vowed to close the prison due to the huge controversy over the same. The prison was not closed but rather extended indefinitely by Donald Trump and continues to harbour prisoners that were brought to the prison in violation of the procedure established by law.