Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Time to denounce China’s Muslim gulag

Australia should use an important opportunity at the UN Human Rights Council to condemn the extrajudicial detention of up to one million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China.

Ceiling art at the UN Human Rights Council, Geneva (Photo: Eric Bridiers/Flickr)
Ceiling art at the UN Human Rights Council, Geneva (Photo: Eric Bridiers/Flickr)
Published 19 Jun 2018   Follow @jleibold

One of the worst human rights abuses in recent times is occurring in China’s far-western region of Xinjiang. The Chinese Communist Party has rounded up possibly one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in purpose-built concentration camps where they are subjected to mental and physical abuse without legal recourse.

Despite the scale and intensity of this crackdown, few know what is happening inside Xinjiang, and even fewer are willing to say anything about it. The Australian Government must acknowledge the failure of its closed-door “dialogue” with China on human rights, and join other free countries in publicly condemning this egregious abuse of power.

China unsurprisingly denies the existence of such camps, claiming “the various ethnic groups in Xinjiang have seen great progress in the protection of their human rights”. Yet recent research by a handful of academics and journalists has meticulously documented the construction of a vast network of “collective re-education centres” across Xinjiang.

Anyone engaging in “abnormal behaviour” or exhibiting “symptoms” of radicalisation or political disloyalty can find themselves incarcerated. These “signs” include refusing to drink or smoke in public, wearing a veil, praying outside a mosque, or even wearing a watch on the right wrist. Internment quotas mean many ordinary citizens are now being held indefinitely against their will, and in some cases their families are forced to pay for their detention.

Using open-source procurement and construction bids, German scholar Adrian Zenz estimates that the Chinese Government has already spent more than US$100 million building these walled, barbwire compounds, and that more than 10% of the adult Muslim population of Xinjiang has been locked away.

Law student Shawn Zhang is using satellite imagery to visually document the rapid assembly of these camps, including one, outside the regional capital of Urumqi, that is the size of five aircraft carriers and likely houses ten thousand or more detainees.

We now have a handful of accounts about life inside Xinjiang’s secretive gulag, where detainees are subjected to around-the-clock political indoctrination and forced to denounce their culture and religion. Omir Bekali was detained without a legal warrant and held for eight months in a squalid, overcrowded camp in Karamay. After his release, he told AP News that he was placed in solitary confinement, physically tortured, and deprived food.

Uyghur student at an American university was forcefully removed from a plane in Shanghai when he tried to visit his parents over the summer holiday. He was blindfolded and transported thousands of kilometres to an internment camp in Xinjiang, where he was held in a tiny cell with 19 other inmates under the constant glow of a single light bulb and subjected to continual brainwashing. He was one of the lucky ones, released after 17 days and allowed to return to the US to resume his studies.

This systematic cultural cleansing is what Professor James Millward, one of world’s leading experts on Xinjiang, calls “Beijing’s attempt to find a final solution to the Xinjiang problem”.

These actions violate not only Chinese law but also international norms against the extrajudicial deprivation of liberty. Article 37 of the Chinese Constitution and Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, explicitly forbid any form of arbitrary detention.

In response, the Canadian and US governments have publicly censured Beijing, while the commission monitoring China’s human rights record for the US Congress has labelled these “political education camps” as “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today”.

The Australian Government, in sharp contrast, has said nothing publicly. This, despite the fact that many Australian citizens of Uyghur ethnicity have relatives in arbitrary detention in Xinjiang, including Adelaide resident Almas Nizamidin whose newly pregnant wife, Bizainafu Abudourexit, was detained without charge in Xinjiang and disappeared before she could join him in Australia. 

Over the past thirty years, both sides of politics in Australia have preferred to raise human rights issues behind closed doors, arguing that “non-confrontational, cooperative dialogue is the most effective way to address the human rights situation in other countries”. Yet these bilateral efforts to engage China on its own terms have failed to produce any concrete results.

In 2015 the Chinese Government made a unilateral decision to walk away from these annual, high-level human rights meetings, leaving Australia with fewer diplomatic options for altering China’s repressive behaviour at home. 

If Australia is unwilling to publicly name and shame Beijing, it has little hope of changing China’s behaviour. The failure to speak out not only sanitises the actions of an abusive regime, but also contributes to China’s efforts to redefine international human rights standards.

The Turnbull government has warned against the dangers of a “coercive China” and the Chinese Communist Party’s interference in Australian politics and national life, but has said little about the systematic abuses occurring inside China itself. The CCP’s autocratic, bullying culture begins at home, with Human Rights Watch, among other global NGOs, documenting “the broad and sustained offensive on human rights” since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

This week Australia has a perfect opportunity to openly condemn the transgressions in Xinjiang at the UN Human Rights Council. Australia lobbied hard to secure a seat on the council, promising a “pragmatic and principled approach” to its membership. We should now join other countries in deploring the oppression in Xinjiang and call for an independent international commission of inquiry to document what is happening inside these concentration camps and how they violate Chinese and international law.

China and its client states will inevitably block such a recommendation. But a principled approach to our engagement with China requires a firm moral compass. Future generations will judge Australia on whether it speaks out or turns a blind eye to the incarceration and forced domestication of Xinjiang’s Muslim population.

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