Kanji: The Uighurs remain forgotten in debates over human rights in China

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Originally published by Ottawa Citizen on January 8, 2019

In detaining Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor as alleged threats to “national security” in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, China provided an exemplary demonstration of one of the most transparent and hackneyed tricks in the authoritarian repertoire: invoking vague concerns of “national security” to disguise and rationalize politically repressive ends.

This trick is one that Canadians have seen performed by China before; Kovrig and Spavor are not the first Canadians to be accused of poorly specified offences against the security of the Chinese state. In 2006, Uighur Canadian human rights activist Huseyin Celil was arrested and charged with “terrorism” and “separatism” for his work advocating for the basic religious and political rights of the brutalized Muslim Uighur minority in China.

Celil was sentenced to life in prison after a sham of a trial, during which he was detained in secrecy, tortured, denied access to a lawyer, and forced into giving a confession, while Chinese authorities refused to recognize his Canadian citizenship. He remains incarcerated in China – largely “forgotten” by Canada, his wife lamented in a 2012 interview – although his sentence was reduced to 20 years following his participation in a state “re-education” program.

Celil’s case illustrates the use of counter-terrorism as an instrument of state terror against the most vulnerable. China’s recently exposed campaign of mass internment and “re-education” against the Uighur population – involving the extrajudicial detention, brainwashing, and torture of one million or more Uighur men, women, and children in prison-like camps – is not an isolated aberration, but the culmination of decades of oppression and persecution.

Chinese policies have turned the Uighurs’ ancestral homeland of East Turkestan/Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region – an area not only rich in natural resources, but also of key geostrategic importance for China’s One Belt, One Road development initiative – into one of the most intensively surveilled and policed spaces in the world.

Almost every aspect and stage of Uighur life has been placed under state scrutiny and control: from the communal, with the eyes of the state pervasive in Uighur mosques, neighbourhoods, and homes – to the cellular, with the coerced mass collection and databasing of Uighur DNA; from birth, with the banning of Muslim names for babies – to death, with the prohibition of Muslim funeral rites for the deceased. State officials’ characterizations of Islam as a “virus” or “tumour” to be eradicated are themselves manifestations of an extreme strain of virulent Islamophobia.

In the wake of 9/11 and the launch of America’s global “war on terror,” China took advantage of the opportunity to reframe its longstanding abuse of the Muslim Uighurs as an exercise in fighting global terrorism: a conceit that western governments were happy to swallow; never mind that just days before 9/11, Communist Party official Wang Lequan had confidently stated that “Xinjiang is not a place of terror.”

In order to garner Chinese support for the invasion of Iraq, the United States designated the Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organization, on the basis of official Chinese documents that “contain[ed] much inaccurate, questionable, or contradictory reporting and slanted conclusions reflecting ulterior agendas,” in the words of Georgetown University professor and China expert James Millward.

In fact, “it remains unclear whether a militant Uyghur organization even exists that is capable of carrying out substantial and organized acts of terrorism,” according to 2012 research by Prof. Sean Roberts, George Washington University specialist on Xinjiang.

Under the pretext of countering the terrorist threat supposedly posed by the Uighurs and other oppressed groups (such as the Tibetans), the Chinese government has implemented a sweeping set of grossly repressive and rights-abusive national security laws – including the draconian Foreign NGO Law that Canadian Michael Kovrig has been accused by Chinese authorities of violating.

Predictably, the anti-terror crackdown has been disproportionately visited on Uighur heads. One-fifth of all arrests in China in 2017 occurred in Xinjiang, which constitutes only 1.5 per cent of the Chinese population. Uighurs have been sentenced to multi-year prison terms for such offences as attending Qur’an classes and growing a beard.

A 2018 report by the NGO coalition Chinese Human Rights Defenders illuminates the Kafkaesque quality of terrorism trials in Xinjiang: “defendants are not allowed to plead ‘not guilty,’ ” and “verdicts have often been prepared [by government officials] before trials take place.”

Just as the Chinese government exported policing and surveillance tactics originally developed in Tibet to Xinjiang, it is now exporting the means of subjugation honed in Xinjiang to other regions and countries. In the name of the “war on terror,” state terror has been permitted to flourish and spread.

As a group of Uighur women told me at a recent community event in Toronto, after sharing stories of aunts and nephews in internment camps and parents they hadn’t been able to contact in months, “no one ever cares until it is too late.”

Azeezah Kanji is a legal academic and writer based in Toronto.

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