“Anyone infected with an ideological ‘virus’ must be swiftly sent for the ‘residential care’ of transformation-through-education classes before illness arises,” reads an official memo defining the purpose of regional internment camps.
No, this is not a Nazi party memo on detaining Jews, or even a Russian statement on the “re-education” of gays. It’s the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) policy when it comes to the Uyghur minority that lives in the northwest province of Xinjiang. While shocking, the purposeful abuse of human rights has been a longstanding tradition in Chinese history that serves the nation on both domestic and international stages.
Even before its hostile takeover in 1949, the CCP has made a routine practice of brutalizing, torturing, and blatantly ignoring any semblance of human rights. Mao’s government regularly executed political opponents en masse, and the abuse continues today with the systematic murder of cultural outsiders for their organs.
Since the turn of the century ethnic and political tensions have been growing in Xinjiang, where the population is ethnically and religiously distinct from the Han Chinese majority. In 2009, protests culminated in massive riots with over 200 deaths. Chinese officials view the province as a security threat and instituted a crackdown in 2014 with the intent of transforming this volatile region into peaceful and loyal subjects of the CCP. Such animosity is reflected in President Xi Jinping’s remarks that “Xinjiang is in an active period of terrorist activities, intense struggle against separatism and painful intervention to treat this”.
Such treatment has culminated in what’s known as “re-education centers”. In a New York Times interview, inmates from these centers described “physical and verbal abuse by guards; grinding routines of singing, lectures and self-criticism meetings; and the gnawing anxiety of not knowing when they would be released.”
China’s rise as a dominating power on the global stage is the sole reason its behavior has been tolerated, and top CCP officials know and feed off of this. The Chinese government denies all allegations (Hu Lianhe, a CCP official, stated that “there is no such thing as re-education centers”). China’s influence internationally, exemplified by its status as a veto-member of the UN Security Council, is potent enough to prevent foreign interference.
Silence on the international front also comes from a point of economic fear. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, seven out of ten European nations named China as the world’s leading economic power as opposed to the US. China’s economic growth has made it a vital trading partner for any modern, globalized economy, and to take any action against the CCP for its egregious human rights abuses could have catastrophic implications. That’s why the only action taken thus far on the Xinjiang issue has been a UN report decrying the possibility of “reports” of “mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uyghurs” as well as reiterating the need for Tibetan access to passports and Tibetan language education. Nothing substantial, as per usual.
Chinese officials know this, and for them unification is worth it. The Chinese economy functions off of a complete disregard for human life, and any means necessary to convert its population into a stable, uniform workforce is worth the human risk. Indeed, the international community has reached a high enough point of fear of the Chinese economy that such risk has virtually disappeared. In fact, many worldwide are completely oblivious to such heinous actions (another Pew poll in 2017 gathered that 44% of Americans have a favorable view of China).
Going forward, if President Trump wishes to pursue a trade war with China, calling it out on such egregious human rights abuses could be a useful tool in combating its threatening rise. For many western democracies, human rights are as serious a concern as economic stability, and if public awareness were raised, perhaps China’s trading power could be chipped away. If the United States and its allies wish to stall or even end China’s rise globally, a human-rights based strategy could be the answer.