We Jews know what happens in concentration camps. We cannot be silent about China’s abuses.
Recent revelations from drone footage showing large groups of Uighurs, an eleven-million strong Muslim Turkic ethnic minority in China, being forcibly transported to unknown locations, are just the latest in a series of disturbing reports out of China about the abhorrent treatment of the Uighur population by Beijing’s government.
In the past few months alone, horrific details have trickled out about the treatment of Uighurs interned in so-called “re-education” camps, which some experts have categorized as “concentration camps,” in China’s Xinjiang province. According to camp escapees and human rights groups, the over one-million imprisoned Uighurs have been subjected to a variety of human rights abuses, including mass sterilization, forced birth control tactics, rape, torture, and forced labor to produce goods sold internationally (including N95 masks).
In addition, a mass surveillance operation has been in place in Xinjiang for a number of years which is used by Chinese security officials to track the movement of millions of Uighurs throughout the province.
As one of the world’s most powerful countries, China has used its influence on the world stage to suppress criticism of its behavior towards the Uighurs, and continues to deny any impropriety in its actions. Beijing has maintained that the concentration camps are in fact just vocational training centers which do not infringe on Uighurs’ human rights, yet have refused to allow journalists or foreign investigators to examine them.
Many governments have close ties with the Chinese government, rely heavily on Chinese business, and are reluctant to criticize China for its behavior. Indeed, some experts have suggested that economic growth is the true purpose behind China’s campaign against Uighurs, with the Xinjiang province being an important link in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive development plan stretching through Asia and Europe, as well as holding China’s largest coal and natural gas reserves.
Beijing’s policy towards the Uighurs stems in part from the 2009 Xinjiang riots that killed nearly 200 people, in protests against state-incentivized Han Chinese migration to the region. In recent years, there have also been a number of terror attacks in the province that the government blames on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group founded by militant Uighurs. Through its assault on the Uighurs, the Chinese government aims to end any separatist activity which could endanger the region’s economic activities.
Some in the international community have recently intensified their criticism of China’s actions. The UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has accused China of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses against the Uighurs and said that reports of forced sterilization and wider persecution of the Muslim group were “reminiscent of something not seen for a long time” an apparent reference to past atrocities committed by the Nazis and others. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the forced sterilization revelations “shocking,” and said that China’s treatment of the Uighurs “demonstrate an utter disregard for the sanctity of human life and basic human dignity.” And to date, the US government has sanctioned nearly fifty Chinese companies accused of aiding in the repression of the Uighurs.
But such penalties for these horrific abuses should only be the beginning.
As Jews and Americans, we need to stand up to China’s efforts to explain away the true nature of its actions. With more and more evidence seeping out of Xinjiang and a clearer picture of China’s brutal repression of the Uighurs emerging, remaining silent is no longer an acceptable course of action for individuals and governments alike. Our history informs us about what actually happens when governments concentrate ethnic or religious groups in camps for “training” or “re-education.” Similar approaches and euphemisms were used when the Nazis rounded up millions of Jews, Roma, LGBTQ and others in camps across Europe, and by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Bosnian Serb forces during the Yugoslav Wars.
China cannot be allowed to replicate these dark historical chapters.
Additional international pressure must be applied on Beijing from both governments and companies that operate in China.
It is imperative that influential voices emerge from their silence and appeal to China to shut down these camps and end its vile campaign against the Uighurs.
And it almost goes without saying that companies operating within the Xinjiang province must take all measures to ensure their factories and products in no way benefit from Uighur forced labor.
We simply can no longer accept Beijing’s falsified claims of their treatment of the Uighur people, and ignore the Chinese government’s hateful efforts to forcibly dismantle an entire group’s religious foundation and ethnic identity.
Failure to act now will leave a stain on the consciousness of the world for years to come.
Sharon Nazarian is Senior Vice President, International Affairs at the Anti-Defamation League.