Cultural Genocide in Xinjiang

Posted on Thursday, December 13th, 2018

By Barcuh Solomon

This week we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Seventy years is a long time however, and few of us will have heard of Peng Chun Chang, a distinguished Chinese dramatist, diplomat and humanitarian. Together with René Cassin and others, he helped draft the Declaration. He was also a scholar of Confucius and Mencius and brought a much needed oriental perspective to the enterprise.

The UDHR was conceived in direct response to the horrors of World War II, but in the years that followed ‘never again’ has all too often come to mean ‘time and time again’. China is no exception.

Since Chairman Mao’s death, China has transformed itself almost beyond recognition. But in the 21st century, his legacy is being revived under an increasingly authoritarian regime. This is especially  evident  in Xinjiang, where possibly over a million people, mostly Uyghur Muslims, are being arbitrarily detained and indoctrinated in secret detention camps whose existence we only know about through satellite images.

Xinjiang, in Northwest China, is home to several million Uyghur Muslims who, together with other smaller groups such as the Khazaks, have their own languages and cultures and often feel a kinship with their Turkic and Muslim neighbours in Central Asia. Many have separatist aspirations and are viewed with suspicion by the Chinese authorities. Tensions have risen in the last few decades, partly fuelled by urbanisation, economic disparity and ethnic conflict.

In recent years there were a number of terrorist incidents and violent protests, during which hundreds of mainly Han Chinese were killed, and the Chinese government responded with suppressing religious and political activities, and high tech surveillance; this in turn has increased the risk of communicating with anyone outside China, as being Uyghur with relatives in another country renders one liable to arrest and indefinite incarceration.

Accounts from former detainees suggest that conditions in the detention facilities are inhumane and detainees are forced to repeatedly disavow their religion, their values, their culture and their fellow Uyghurs. Those who refuse are punished with beatings, starvation and solitary confinement.

In little over a year, the numbers detained have increased from a few thousand to possibly more than a million. We know about this from satellite pictures showing enormous and newly built detention centres, usually in uninhabited desert areas. Establishing what happens inside these facilities is more difficult. It is several months since significant numbers of prisoners were released, and all outsiders such as foreign journalists and human rights organisations have been barred from entering or even approaching the camps.

After months of virtual silence, the Chinese Authorities are finally acknowledging the existence of ‘vocational’ centres, releasing video footage in which supposedly grateful inmates are given the educational, occupational and cultural training they need in order to adapt to life in modern China.

The UDHR is a remarkable document, but it is a hollow one if China, home to a sixth of the world’s population and at the heart of the community of nations; is making a complete mockery of the Declaration.

If the Seventieth Anniversary of the Declaration is to mean anything, it must remind us that as human rights activists we have a part to play in holding governments and institutions to account and a duty to ensure that they abide by the Declaration’s principles.

As Jews we have a special responsibility not to remain silent in the face of arbitrary arrests and secret deportations. We may be limited in what we can do as individuals, but we are all capable of raising awareness on the issue. Any action, however small, will demonstrate that we have not forgotten our own past.