The Uighur Holocaust: is history repeating itself?

The Holocaust Memorial Day takes place every year on the 27th January to commemorate the 6 million victims who lost their lives in the Holocaust, a campaign of genocide that was undertaken by the Nazis and their collaborators. The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘be the light in the darkness‘, which encourages people the world over to reflect on the resilience individuals and communities gained during and after the genocide, and to channel this for good. It also draws attention to another serious matter in China, with international voices exposing China’s egregious abuse of Uighur Muslims. 

Allegations have been made against China on account of its detainment of over one million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. The majority of this Turkic-speaking ethnic group resides in the Xinjiang province of northwestern China, but communities also live in other Asian countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Mass detainment is being euphemized by authorities as ‘re-education’, which disguises the dehumanising policies being enforced in these camps, such as the forced sterilization of Uighur women, the separation of families, and brainwashing by means of Mandarin propaganda. The Uighurs are indoctrinated into abandoning all their religious beliefs and practices, and the mandatory installment of mobile spyware and vehicle tracking devices has become the norm.

Even those Uighurs fortunate enough to avoid detainment still live under Beijing’s inhumane rule, which imposes oppressive government surveillance and other restrictions aimed at eradicating religious traditions and cultural practices. In 2019, Adrian Zenz, a leading scholar whose work focuses on Xinjiang, published a report which exposed the various methods used by the Chinese government to conduct this brainwashing campaign in internment camps. His report called international attention to what he called a “demographic campaign of genocide”. In response, China strongly defended these camps as a necessary measure against national terrorism.

Despite China’s denial about the operation of internment camps, Zenz’s report certainly raised international awareness of this matter. Since its publication, many countries have expressed their concerns about the violation of basic human rights, specifically noting the chilling similarities between these re-education camps and concentration camps in Nazi Germany. In June 2020, the US Senate signed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act into law, imposing sanctions on foreign individuals and bodies involved in the abuses of ethnic Turkish Muslims and demanding an end to their arbitrary detention. Similarly, British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, introduced new measures and tightened restrictions to deter local companies from sourcing materials from Chinese firms linked to forced Uighur labour.

Many international bodies have taken it upon themselves to investigate more deeply, and are attempting to raise global awareness of this brutal oppression which demonstrates China’s contempt for basic human rights. Some have suggested boycotting the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in the hope of pressurising China into redressing these violations. The hope is that if athletes and sponsors propose to avoid this event, it could force the Olympic committee to reconsider its host country. Promoting the boycott of such a high-profile public event in China would certainly bring much needed publicity to this urgent humanitarian tragedy.

With people voicing their concerns over the resemblance between China’s treatment of its Uighur population and past genocides, many international public authorities are imposing sanctions and regulations. Citizens, however, can also help to spread awareness about these shocking attempts to erase Uighur cultural identity. Firstly, boycotting global fashion labels that employ the Uighur forced labour force would announce a strong stance in opposition to China’s policies. The New York Times reported that roughly one in five pieces of cotton garment is produced in Xinjiang, supplying to the production chains of major fashion retailers such as Adidas, Gap and Calvin Klein. Peaceful assemblies and large-scale campaigns are also an effective method to advocate for the plight of the mistreated Uighur minority, as is signing online petitions to expose the atrocities led by the Chinese government.

The mass repression of Uighur Muslims and the attempts to eradicate their cultural identity in China is an on-going campaign that deserves greater international attention and intervention. The harsh detainment and surveillance employed in China’s anti-Uighur campaign chillingly echoes the tragic genocide in Nazi Germany. It is only with the involvement and condemnation of other nations that China’s identity-based hostility can be stopped.

Image: Holocaust Memorial, Berlin by David Melchor Diaz accessed via Flickr

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