Uighur leaders have called on democratic governments to confront China over its treatment of ethnic minority Uighur Muslims, saying the government’s actions against the ethnic minority group are “precursors to genocide”.
On a visit to Australia, leaders of the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), based in Washington, said governments, businesses, academics and thinktanks all had a responsibility to stop “business as usual” relations with China.
They also warned of China’s “extra-territorial reach”, which saw coercion and threats against Australian Uighurs, who were unable to escape the reach of the Chinese state.
“It’s time for action, something horrific is happening on our watch,” said Nury Turkel, chair of the board for the UHRP.
An estimated one million Muslims are being held in detention camps in Xinjiang by the Chinese government as part of a sweeping crackdown on the rights of the minority group.
The authorities in Beijing call the camps “vocational training centres”, saying those detained within them are taught language, culture and vocational skills. In August, the UN called for the immediate release of people from the camps, saying they had received many credible reports that a million ethnic Uighurs were held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy”.
‘Mass murder cannot be ruled out’
Turkel cited James Millward, a historian at Georgetown University, who called cultural cleansing of Uighurs “Beijing’s attempt to find a final solution to the Xinjiang problem”. Turkel said: “those of us who are students of history know what that means. We’ve seen how it ends when a government or an authoritarian leader promotes that sort of ideology”, saying the Communist party of China had likened Uighurs to “a cancerous tumour”.
Asked whether he thought the Holocaust was the best historical comparison for the situation in Xinjiang, Turkel said: “The Chinese have not publicly shown any sign of gassing Uighurs” but that the few reports coming out of the camps suggested people were dying inside them. He added: “We may see mass murder.”
Louisa Greve, director for external affairs for the UHRP, said: “Academics believe that when you look at the progression of policies that dehumanise ethnic groups, you have to say that mass murder cannot be ruled out. We see many, many of the precursors of cultural and possibly physical genocide.”
Thomas Cliff, research fellow at the ANU college of Asia and the Pacific said what was going on in Xinjiang was “a form of genocide, although it’s not killing everybody”.
“The objective seems to be to wipe out all traces of what’s distinct about being a Uighur,” he said. Some people are coming out of the camps and saying ‘kill me, I don’t want to bear this anymore’,” he said.
Greve said government action needed to be taken in response to the repression of Uighurs, which included forcible separation of children from their parents, reports of forced marriage between Uighurs and Han Chinese, and the banning of Uighur language and culture.
Greve said Uighurs, including herself and fellow panellists, had received threats and coercion from the Chinese government to infiltrate or spy upon members of the Uighur community in the US and had been threatened with reprisals against their families in China if they didn’t stop their activism.
Australian Uighurs told the Guardian of China’s extra-territorial reach, with one woman saying she believed a Chinese spy came to her business in Sydney where he quizzed her about her political views, her opinion on the situation in Xinjiang and the ethnicity of her employees. Another Australian permanent resident said she is required by Chinese police to take a photo of herself holding her passport and the day’s paper and send it to them every few weeks.
Sultan Hiwilla, a prominent Australia-Uighur activist based in Sydney, said he had not been able to speak to his family in Xinjiang since 2014 and does not know what has happened to them, but a message reached him a few months ago through a friend telling him to stop his activism because it was affecting his family.
But he said he could not stop his work: “It’s not only affecting my family it’s affecting all Uighur people, if I stop, it will keep going, some one needs to make this sacrifice.”
By Kate Lyons