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China’s Xinjiang camps are eerily familiar

Posted on Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

By Mia Hasenson-Gross, René Cassin Executive Director – reproduced by permission of Jewish Renaissance magazine.


It’s a shocking image. Row upon row of men, in dark blue prison-issue boiler-suits, eyes downcast, sitting with hands placed obediently on their knees. In the background, black-clad helmeted guards, and high barbed-wire fences.

It looks like a scene from a TV drama, set in a dystopian future. Or worse, an echo of the past. But this is not a warning for tomorrow, or a lament of yesterday. It is not fiction. It is film footage shown in a report by the BBC’s Panorama in November 2019.

The film shows Xinjiang province in western China. The men pictured are Uyghurs. They are being persecuted because of their Turkic culture and Muslim faith. And this is happening on an industrial scale – at least a million Uyghurs, possibly three times that many, are being detained in massive purpose-built camps.

Stamping out ethnic and religious identity

The Chinese authorities don’t deny the existence of these new facilities, but they do dispute their purpose. According to Beijing, these are ‘re-education camps’, voluntarily attended by the Uyghurs and set up to counter extremism and terrorism in the region.

Always almost laughably flimsy, China’s attempt to put a benign gloss on this brutal repression was fully exposed by the recent leak of official documents. Amongst these is a memo to those responsible for running the camps, from the region’s top security official – and deputy-secretary of the Communist Party – Zhu Hailun.

From the stark instructions in the official memo, including orders such as: “Never allow escapes”, “Increase discipline and punishment of behavioural violations” and “Make remedial Mandarin studies the top priority”, it is clear that these camps are not educational establishments, but high-security prisons. There is also the hint of something more sinister – that their purpose goes beyond punishment, to the obliteration of an entire ethnic and religious minority’s identity.

“It looks like a Nazi playbook …”

Commenting on the leaked document, Nury Turkel of the Uyghur Human Rights Project told the BBC Panorama’s journalist Richard Bilton: “Everything that we’ve been hearing from the witnesses, from the survivors, everything that we’ve been told, is consistent with this document. It looks like a Nazi playbook to me. Copies of this document should be on the desk of policy makers and legislators around the world.”

Panorama also spoke to a woman called Sayragul, who had been forced to ‘teach’ inmates in one of the camps. She told the BBC: “It’s not about teaching them, it’s about completely destroying them”. Gulzira, a Uyghur woman interned in one of Xinjiang’s camps, has a message that is simple but stark: “They are destroying my religion and language there.

Leading British QC, Ben Emmerson, told Bilton: “It’s very difficult to view that as anything other than a mass brainwashing scheme designed and directed at an entire ethnic community. It’s designed to wipe the Uyghurs as a separate cultural group, off the face of the earth”.

Emmerson is well qualified to comment on this issue. Between 2011 and 2017, he was the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism. He is a judge currently sitting on UN Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, having previously served as special adviser both at the International Criminal Court and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia. He knows about ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Genocide. Is there a more chilling word in the English language? For Jews, both its horror and its resonance are obvious. The word was coined by a Polish-Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, in the aftermath of World War II. He was the driving force behind the UN’s Genocide Convention, signed on 9 December 1948. If what is happening in Xinjiang is, in Ben Emmerson’s words, “designed to wipe the Uyghurs … off the face of the earth”, then China is guilty of committing genocide against one of its minorities.

Genocide – Jews have moral duty to protest

Jews have a particular authority and an acute moral responsibility to protest at what China is doing to its Uyghur citizens. Beyond the clear parallels with the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and other minorities are other related issues that reverberate with Jewish experience throughout history. Issues of cultural identity and religious freedom, for example. In parallel to its detention of Uyghurs, China appears to be systematically destroying the mosques where they worship. There are unsettling reports of Uyghurs being forced to eat pork, particularly on Fridays when they would otherwise be attending traditional prayers, and some men have been banned from growing beards.

So, we know what is happening. But what can we do about it? Last year the London-based charity, René Cassin – the Jewish voice for human rights – held a public meeting to raise awareness of the plight of China’s Uyghurs. The charity is named after René Cassin, a Jewish lawyer, like Lemkin, and the principal drafter of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed on 10 December 1948, the day after Lemkin’s Genocide Convention.

René Cassin works to encourage the UK’s Jewish community to advocate for the rights of other minorities on issues that resonate with Jewish values and experience – such as asylum, modern slavery, hate crime, and discrimination against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. And, of course, genocide.

Momentum is building. In October, in a document subtitled ‘Xinjiang – ‘never again’ is happening again’, René Cassin submitted detailed evidence of China’s repression of Uyghurs to Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and made urgent recommendations for action at a diplomatic level.

Prompted by the leak of China’s security memo, grassroots responses are growing too. In November 2019, 17-year-old American, Feroza Aziz, posted a video ostensibly to show viewers how to curl their eyelashes. But she had something else on her mind. Brandishing the eyelash curlers, she instructs “… then you’re going to put them down and use your phone … to search up what’s happening in China, how they’re getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there, separating families, kidnapping them, forcing them to eat pork and to drink…”.

Feroza’s video went viral – with millions of views on Tik Tok and Twitter. Awareness is increasing and René Cassin intends to play its part in that process: first, by ensuring that the UK’s Jewish community is aware of the horror of what is happening to China’s Muslim minorities; and second by helping to channel that awareness into a response that, because of the particular authority that experience gives to a Jewish voice on these issues, has the best chance of a successful outcome.

Human rights in the ‘Chinese century’

The fate of China’s Uyghurs has a significance that goes beyond the well-being of this beleaguered minority. Already the 21st century is being dubbed ‘the Chinese century’, as China’s meteoric rise means it is on course to replace the United States as the world’s dominant superpower. That has profound implications for the democratic values that were established after World War II, to which human rights are central.

China can choose to build on the liberal advances of the 20th century. Or, judging that might is right and that minorities are a disposable impediment to its power, it can rip up the rule book on human rights.

Xinjiang is emblematic – it raises the question: what kind of world do we want to live in? On the Chinese embassy website, Ambassador Liu Xiaoming trumpets the “… growing mutual understanding and friendship …” between China and the UK. He goes on to say that the “development of Sino-British relations is not only in the fundamental interests of the two peoples, but also conducive to peace, stability and prosperity around the world.”

We must pressure our government to make it clear to China that ‘understanding and friendship’ is unsustainable whilst the oppression of the Uyghurs – or any other minority – continues. The ambassador’s hopes for ‘peace, stability and prosperity around the world’ can be countered with the opening sentence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’.

If that task seems daunting, let’s take encouragement from Feroza Aziz. In another video, she said: “Generations before us didn’t have the same power as we do now and that’s technology. We can reach millions… We can reach those who have power to do something about it. Our voices can do so much.”


Take action! René Cassin is currently working with the World Uyghur Congress to devise a UK campaign to put pressure on China to stop repressing this vulnerable minority. In the meantime, visit our campaign page for ideas on how you can get involved.