In the Uighur-Australian communities of Adelaide, Sydney, and Melbourne, almost everyone can tell you a story of losing contact with family members in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China, known as East Turkistan to the Uighur people.
What is occurring in the Uighur homeland constitutes the most egregious example of mass repression in the world today and is also emblematic of China’s broader challenge to the rules-based order.
They are experiencing a living nightmare: crippling anxiety and fear for their loved ones disappeared into the vast detention facilities in their homeland. Since 2017, over one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims have been interned in what experts are now calling concentration camps.
The world is now taking action. US Senator Marco Rubio has shown true global leadership, mounting a Churchillian defence of the democratic values now under attack. On 14 November, the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act was introduced in the Senate and the House by a bipartisan coalition led by Senator Rubio, Senator Menendez, Representative Chris Smith, and Representative Tom Suozzi.
The Act ramps up momentum for sanctions on Chinese officials and companies complicit in rights abuses. It also supports vigorous law-enforcement investigation of Chinese security forces carrying out threats, intimidation and coercion against Uighur-Americans.
In an extraordinary statement issued on 26 November at the National Press Club in Washington DC, over 300 leading academics from around the globe have endorsed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act. They urge academic institutions around the world to suspend their partnerships until the camps have been closed and all detainees are released.
These experts estimate that around one million people have been extra-judicially detained in hundreds of camps throughout the region. In the camps, these detainees, most of whom are Uighur, endure deeply invasive forms of surveillance and psychological stress as they are forced to abandon their native language, religious beliefs and cultural practices. Outside of the camps, more than 10 million Turkic Muslim minorities in the region are subjected to a dense network of surveillance systems, checkpoints, and interpersonal monitoring which severely limit all forms of personal freedom.
At China’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations on 6 November, European countries led the criticism against the system of internment camps. Canadian diplomats in Beijing spearheaded a group of 15 ambassadors, including Australia’s envoy to China, requesting a meeting with Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of the XUAR.
Australian legislators and officials have voiced their concern, especially opposition Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Senator Penny Wong and her leader Bill Shorten. During a November visit to China, Foreign Minister Marise Payne told reporters she had raised the camps with her Chinese counterparts. At China’s UPR, the Australian delegation urged China to cease arbitrary detention of Uighurs and other Muslim groups.
Australians are in the midst of an intensive debate about the impact of Chinese government influence on the country’s interests and values. Canberra has acted to outlaw foreign interference in its political process. It now needs to defend its citizens from the Chinese state’s export of repression.
The evidence of China’s ability to strike fear into Uighur-Australians is mounting. ABC, the Australian Financial Review, The Australian, among others, have documented the helplessness and guilt felt in Uighur communities. A Uighur woman from Adelaide, Horigul Yusuf, told Sydney Morning Herald reporters:
We live in this country freely and without difficulty. We can do whatever we want. But at the moment, it’s so hard for us. I can’t even explain. I can’t express how difficult it is. I don’t want to socialise with anyone, I just want to be at home and think about my family.
In the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, journalist Louisa Lim calls attention to a series of disturbing interviews she and her colleague, Graeme Smith, conducted with Adelaide’s Uighurs (see: China: re-engineering the Uighur): “‘My husband is struggling at the moment to deal with everything’ Meyassar Ablat told us, as her husband, Dolkun, sat beside her, tears flowing down his cheeks. When he rang his family inside China, they would hang up. The couple had started tabulating names of those they knew in camps; there were already 28 names on the list.”
International momentum is now building to hold China to account and act to end the shocking atrocities unfolding in East Turkistan. Australia needs to go further in ending “business as usual” with China. It needs to consider its own version of the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction human rights abusers like Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo. It also needs to re-consider cooperation with universities controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.
Such action would not only be consistent with Australia’s democratic values but also its core security and strategic interests.
Australian policy-makers must recognise that what is occurring in the Uighur homeland not only constitutes the most egregious example of mass repression in the world today but is also emblematic of China’s broader challenge to the rules-based order that has been crucial to Australia’s own security for decades.
In fact, the model and technology underpinning mass repression in Xinjiang looks set to bleed beyond China’s frontiers. Not only is Beijing is seeking to export its surveillance systems around the globe but President Xi Jinping himself has suggested that the model of “social stability” implemented there should be exported to regions such as the Middle East.
China’s challenge to the rules-based global order is thus multifaceted: a rigid and coercive ideology, a preference for coercion over cooperation, and technological innovations harnessed to the service of autocracy.
Ultimately President Xi’s “China Dream” seeks to return China to what it perceives to be its rightful place as a powerful and respected state. However, action now must be taken to send a message to Beijing that while it may be powerful it will never be respected as long it continues to systematically abuse the human rights of a significant proportion of its population.
Nury Turkel will be part of a panel on China’s Xinjiang Detentions on 5 December at the Lowy Institute. Register here.