China Owes Muslim Uyghurs Their Basic Human Rights

Settler-colonial states must stand up for oppressed religious minorities, even if their own historical legacy is far from laudable.

Id Kah Mosque, Kashgar, Xinjiang, China

Luke Peterson

January/February 2022

Last September, a large public photo exhibition opened in Geneva, Switzerland. It was deliberately set to coincide with the UN Human Rights Council’s meeting, scheduled for that month in the famously neutral European state. Entitled “The Wall of the Disappeared,” it prominently displayed the names and photos of dozens of Uyghurs whom Beijing has disappeared during its campaign to ethnically cleanse western China of its Islamic presence. This long-running project has sequestered and restricted this minority for the better part of a decade simply because of their ethnic and/or religious identification.

In the 1930s, pre-communist Peking first defined this ethnic minority, which has always lived in Xinjiang, now China’s western-most province, as “oasis-dwelling Muslims of Xinjiang’s Tarim Basin.” Today, applying policies eerily reminiscent of Nazi population control, state officials’ efforts to eliminate the Uyghurs have been planned and executed at the highest levels of government, among them surveillance, video monitoring, movement restriction, civil policing, satellite image forgery, facial recognition software and many other human rights violations. The over 12 million Uyghurs are now effectively a captive population subjected to a differentiated set of laws and restrictions in their homeland, which they prefer to call Uyghurstan (East Turkestan).

Worse still, at the time of this writing, at least 2 million Uyghurs languish in state-run “reeducation” camps, euphemistically named prison camps, where entire families of Muslims (alongside some Chinese Christians) are being inculcated with pro-state propaganda and tested on their devotion to the state, their love for the Communist party and the extent to which they have truly rejected Islam. Officially, these camps are state-run “vocational training centres” designed to eliminate local “religious extremism.” In practice, these camps are catch-all detention centres imprisoning men, women, and children alike, regardless of the fact that only a handful of Uyghurs have ever been involved in extremist political or religious activities beyond China’s borders. 

The photo display in Switzerland was one of many international efforts intended to draw global attention to the Uyghurs’ situation. More specifically, activists in Switzerland and elsewhere hope to put the apartheid treatment of the Uyghurs at the forefront of various governments’ agendas to pressure China through economic sanctions or trade restrictions. This would be a particularly useful ploy as it concerns the U.S., which remains among this economic behemoth’s primary trading partners. And for a brief moment in September, it appeared that the marriage of U.S policy and concern for Uyghur rights had been successfully arranged.

Alongside the Geneva exhibit, a large placard placed just above the official government seal read, in part, “In partnership with the U.S. Mission.” As it turns out, some of the exhibit’s financial backing came from official U.S. sources. According to Reuters, this exhibit shedding light on the Uyghur minority’s suffering was also displayed at a U.S. diplomatic reception in September. Washington’s overt support for it predictably drew Beijing’s ire, very nearly provoking an international incident.

Commenting on this connection, Jiang Duan, the Chinese ambassador to Washington, pointed out the obvious hypocrisy inherent in any American castigation of another state’s policies toward ethnic minorities. He reminded audiences of Washington’s settler-colonial genocide against the new country’s indigenous populations, as well as the ongoing and systemic racism against minority groups — a fact all too painfully visible in communities from Ferguson, Mo., to Kenosha, Wisc.

Offering a weak retort, Benjamin Moeling, the American ambassador to Beijing, suggested, “There is a difference between countries that have confronted immoral acts in the past and sought to improve, and countries that are committing crimes against humanity in the present.”

So, who’s right, Mr Duan or Mr Moeling? Does the U.S. have any ground to stand on when it comes to assessing international human rights violations? Has it, as Moeling reports, “confronted [the] immoral acts” in our past? Are we global leaders in human rights or not? Answers to these questions might be found in the responses of other settler-colonial governments vis-à-vis the indigenous populations they have displaced, removed or, as is more often the case, eliminated.

In Australia, for example, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd initiated a National Day of Apology in 2008 to the Aboriginal peoples to acknowledge Canberra’ child removal policies and forced indigenous assimilation. In New Zealand, in 2020 Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern formally apologized to Pacific Islanders for the so-called Dawn Raids that attempted to force the deportation of thousands of New Zealand’s indigenous peoples. Canada has officially apologized for creating the Indian Residential Schools that removed thousands of indigenous children to white Canadian schools and kept them in miserable conditions. Recently discovered mass graves connected to these “schools,” in which the Canadian authorities interred hundreds of abused and murdered indigenous children, have made headlines worldwide.

Each of these formal apologies has been instituted by state governments in recognition of past “immoral acts,” to use ambassador Moeling’s language. They have begun officially sanctioned conversations of reconciliation between white settler communities and their displaced and dispossessed native inhabitants.

Naturally, these apologies don’t undo the policies that have destroyed lives and permanently changed hundreds of communities’ cultural and historical landscapes. But at least the governments have acknowledged past wrongdoings, guilt has been publicly admitted and a national shame at what was done has been revealed. But here in the U.S., as Ambassador Moeling well knows, no such thing has ever happened.

Indeed, no American president or administration has uttered such a national apology or admitted any guilt for destroying this country’s native peoples. Rather, those who survived the genocidal campaigns unleashed against them throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Native Americans were sequestered on some of the country’s worst land, offered a pittance of public assistance and were asked, in so many words, “to kindly go away so we can get on with the business of running the world.”

The U.S. character is partly defined by this blasé attitude toward its numerous documented crimes of the past. We do nothing to acknowledge them and are frequently irate when reminded of them. In sum, the U.S. has become an expert at leaving its past in the past and has no qualms about burying it crimes like the many dead and buried natives killed at Bear River (1863), Sand Creek (1864) and Wounded Knee (1890).

So, does our criminal legacy against millions of Native Americans prevent us from commenting on human rights violations committed elsewhere?

The definitive answer to this question must be “No. While clearly, much work remains to be done before beginning a process of reconciliation with the Native Americans scattered throughout this country’s decrepit reservation system (and no, proceeds from legalized gambling does not equate to apology or reconciliation), we nevertheless must reserve the right to point out disgusting displays of inhumanity from Gaza to Xinjiang and all points in between. The weight of Washington’s criminal past — and present — cannot mean that we close our eyes to crimes committed elsewhere. Doing so with our allies, namely, Israel and Saudi Arabia, only heaps further shame upon our already stained national legacy.

Occasionally, though, we do get it right. Such is the case with Washington’s criticism of Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur minority. If anything, we should urge Moeling to be more robust in his criticism and to begin bringing the weight of the American government and economy to bear upon Beijing until it remedies these apartheid policies. It may not please Duan or Xi Jinping to hear it, but this issue must be addressed and ultimately come to an end. Human rights must be observed; international law must be brought to bear. In this case, it cannot matter that the judge’s robes are also stained in blood.

Luke Peterson, PhD (The University of Cambridge [King’s College]), Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, investigates language, media and knowledge surrounding the political conflict in the Middle East. He lives in Pittsburgh, where he regularly contributes articles to local, national and international media.