Xinjiang: An Indictment of Our Generation

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It is rather strange to watch video footage of people kneeling, blindfolded and shaven, being herded onto trains – reportedly to concentration camps. One would be forgiven for assuming it was colourised footage from Nazi Germany. But no. All of this in the 21st century, and in a nation that many believe is rising to be the next global hegemon.

It really does evoke strong emotions. Intrigue at first, whilst trying to figure out exactly what you are watching. That intrigue quickly turns to concern, then disgust and horror. Perhaps some of you even felt sick to the stomach.

In recent years the Chinese government has reportedly detained over 1 million citizens of ethnic Turkic origin – primarily Muslim Uyghurs – in so-called “vocational training centres” in its northwestern territory of Xinjiang. China defends these measures as necessary to prevent domestic terrorism committed by Uyghurs. Unsurprisingly, there is little evidence to support this claim.

Whilst details are hard to come by, there have been reports of torture, starvation, sleep deprivation, rape, forced abortions and sterilisation of the female inmates – just to name a few. This July, U.S. federal authorities seized a 13-ton shipment of human hair believed to have been taken from prisoners of these camps.

Renowned human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler is urging Canadian parliament to recognise China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide. This is without doubt a great accusation, however when those such as Irwin Cotler label it as such, the world should take notice.

Even more shocking than these reports, however, is the indifference displayed by world leaders. To its credit, the United States has stood out in condemning the Chinese government, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labelling Chinese actions the “stain of the century”, and placing China “in a league of its own” when it comes to human rights violations.

Sanctions have also been placed on certain Chinese officials, with President Trump signing into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, expanding the United States’ ability to punish these abuses. Congress too, is busy discussing a bipartisan bill aimed at preventing goods made through Uyghur forced labour in Xinjiang from entering the United States.

Bar the United States, however, the silence from the international community has been deafening. In response to a 2019 joint statement issued to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, urging China to end its “mass arbitrary detentions and related violations” of the Uyghur population, 37 countries – including Muslim majority nations – responded by praising China for its “remarkable achievement in the field of human rights”.

The absolute abandonment of the Uyghurs by their fellow Muslims is beyond shameful. With some 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide and 50 Muslim majority countries, Turkey became in February 2019 the first Muslim majority nation to speak out against China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, labelling it “a great shame for humanity”. 18 months later, the rest of the Muslim world remains silent.

Europe, a region all too familiar with the genocides of the 20th century, and one that claims to be enlightened and concerned with human rights, has also remained relatively tight-lipped, despite recently amassing over 1,000 signatures from parliamentarians condemning Israel’s proposed extension of sovereignty over areas of the West Bank.

To add insult to injury, if U.N. Watch is to be believed, China may very well be elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council, an event that appears to be taken straight out of an Orwellian universe.

Spanish philosopher George Santayana remarked that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It seems however that even those who do remember the past simply do not care or are too cowardly to speak up.

We often lament the failure of the Allies to prevent – or at least minimise – the horrors of the Holocaust. So too, does the world look back on the Rwandan genocide – in which 800,000 (primarily Tutsis) were slaughtered in just 100 days – and regret our utter impotence in preventing the tragedy. It appears that we are taking the same path with the Uyghurs.

Whilst the Allies claimed at the time they did not know about Auschwitz (a claim which has since been debunked), the Rwandan genocide occurred in full view for the world to see. It did not catch world leaders by surprise. We watched on as Tutsis were hacked to pieces with machetes.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once cautioned that “there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Until now we have no way of knowing if we can prevent this injustice, given our pathetic failure to protest. 

History will not look kindly on our generation for staying silent. It is time for us to speak up.

About the Author
Josh Feldman is studying International Relations and History at Monash University. He is currently working with Act-IL and the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism - both at IDC Herzliya - on their projects, as well as being actively involved in the Melbourne Jewish community's informal education in youth movements and schools.
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