The world’s most unrecognised human rights tragedy

    CHINA / Genocide by any other name – President Xi Jinping’s campaign to eradicate the Muslim Uyghurs of Western China.

    Surrounded by high barb-wire topped walls, watchtowers and patrolled by uniformed armed guards, the thousands of concentration camps that dot the arid landscape of Western China’s Xinjiang province are officially described as «training centres.»

    For the estimated million indigenous Muslim Uyghurs who are incarcerated in these austere boxy concrete and metal institutions, they are concentration camps. But for the lack of gas chambers and automated killing systems, China’s penal «training centres» are as close as the world today gets to a Nazi «Final Solution», suggests China: The Uyghur Drama.

    And what is the reason for this 21st century Final Solution? According to Franco-German TV channel ARTE’s latest documentary, the answer lies in how the Communist Party of China sees the Uyghurs as an obstacle to a key part of its policy of global economic domination.

    China: The Uyghur Drama, a film by François Reinhardt
    China: The Uyghur Drama, a film by François Reinhardt

    Belt and road

    The Belt and Road is an ambitious plan to develop two new trade routes connecting China with the rest of the world: the belt along the old Silk Road route via Xinjiang to Central Asia and Europe, and via a maritime road along the old Marco Polo route, to the rest of the world.

    The film’s director François Reinhardt pull together all the parts of a puzzle that has produced one of the world’s biggest – still not widely recognised human rights crises.

    The forensic detail with which Reinhardt presents the painful story of the repression of the Uyghurs is impressive and unforgettable.

    There is an academic semester’s worth of material here, all presented in the highly professional and watchable style one expects of an ARTE production. Fluently told, supported by compelling contemporary and archive images, and the testimony of international experts and those Uyghurs who have suffered torture, rape, and abuse in China’s Gulag, China: The Uyghur Drama is a must-see.

    Testimony from a woman who was gang-raped by «training centre» guards is one of the most upsetting sequences in the film. Resorting to euphemism, the woman – who was later released and fled to the USA – stutters as she recalls becoming unconscious and «unaware of what they were doing to me.»

    Another man, still haunted by his experiences in what can only be described as medieval torture cells – strapped for hours to crossed iron bars, held in a «tiger chair» that completely restricts movement, or made to stand outdoor in all weathers naked apart from underpants – could have come straight out of post-war accounts of Nazi practices. Tears stream down his face as he recounts the seven months he spent chained at night to his bed.

    Like the woman, this man too escaped and now lives in the EU. He weeps at the memory of his father – first threatened, after his escape, and then murdered – he alleges – by Chinese authorities.

    The forensic detail with which Reinhardt presents the painful story of the repression of the Uyghurs is impressive and unforgettable.

    Chronic tragedy

    The scandal of China’s mass-detention, sterilisation and forced relocation programs for young women, the destruction of Uyghur history, culture, cemeteries and ancient monuments, is made worse by the extent to which the world is only beginning to tread around the edges of this now chronic tragedy.

    If this were happening in Vladimir Putin’s Russia – concentration camps for the Muslims of, say, Tatarstan, or the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Birobidzhan in Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region situated in its Far Eastern Federal District, some 150km from the Chinese border – there would be an international outcry.

    But, as China: The Uyghur Drama explains, a range of factors combine to make much of the rest of the world complicit in China’s campaign, including how remote and relatively unknown Xinjiang is, China’s size and geopolitical clout, and its global economic reach.

    China: The Uyghur Drama, a film by François Reinhardt
    China: The Uyghur Drama, a film by François Reinhardt

    Top partners

    In a world where – for example – 10 of the EU’s 27 member states count China as their top international trade partner, and small non-EU countries, such as Montenegro, sign billion Euro infrastructure development deals with China where any contractual default can result in Beijing cherry-picking choice parts of the country’s state assets to pay off the debt, criticising Xi Jinping carries a heavy perceived cost.

    In Montenegro, a controversial new and as yet unfinished highway could result in the country losing a prime Adriatic port if it defaults on paying the billion Euro bill for a road being built almost exclusively by Chinese labour brought into the country along with their management teams, food and supplies.

    There are signs that some countries are beginning to wake up to the Uyghur tragedy. On January 20, 2022, the French parliament denounced as «genocide» China’s repression of the Uyghurs. In a non-binding resolution proposed by socialist MPs and backed by President Emmanuel Macron’s Republic on the Move party, voted 169-1 that the National Assembly «officially recognises the violence perpetrated by the People’s Republic of China against the Uyghurs as constituting crimes against humanity and genocide.»

    It also calls on the French government to undertake «the necessary measures within the international community and in its foreign policy towards the People’s Republic of China» to protect the minority group in the Xinjiang region, according to international news channel, France 24.

    «China is a great power. We love the Chinese people. But we refuse to submit to propaganda from a regime that is banking on our cowardice and our avarice to perpetrate genocide in plain sight,» Socialist party chief Olivier Faure said.

    Other countries have censured China, with sanctions, travel bans and asset freezes imposed in March 2021 by the EU, UK, Canada and US on several regional government officials in Xinjiang. Although China reciprocated, such measures represent little more than a slap on the wrist compared with the gravity of the proven abuses of the Muslim population of western China.

    Last year, more than 40, mostly Western countries, used the UN as a platform for criticising Beijing, demanding access for observers to check «credible reports» of the existence of «re-education camps.» However, a rival statement by 62 countries condemned the move as «disinformation.»

    as China: The Uyghur Drama explains, a range of factors combine to make much of the rest of the world complicit in China’s campaign

    Keen to exploit

    None of this has stopped the UN’s religious freedom envoy, Ahmed Shaheed, agreeing to take part in China’s Winter Olympics torch relay – with the games due to start February 4 – despite the US leading a diplomatic boycott of the games over China’s human rights record and its treatment of the Uyghurs.

    Western companies, including top snowboarding firm Burton – which has seen its Chinese market grow 300% in recent years – invest heavily in marketing its winter sports equipment and clothing lines to Chinese enthusiasts, many of whom flood to Xinjiang every winter to take advantage of the perfect snowy mountainous conditions for downhill skiing and snowboarding. Speaking to BBC radio in mid-January, Craig Smith, Chief Executive of Burton China, claimed that despite a new-age socially responsible company ethos (in a statement carried on its website, the company states: «The path forward is clear: Minimise harm to the environment, positively impact the lives we touch, and have as much fun as possible»), Smith said Burton «wants to divorce itself from that,» adding that, «we can’t change what is happening [to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.].»

    Tesla and VW are also a couple of major western companies keen to exploit the Chinese market that defends their presence despite growing evidence of a genocidal policy against the Uyghurs.

    For a people who were once proud residents of an independent region (which was only taken under Chinese control after fierce military campaigns in the 18th century) and as recently as the late 1940s had an independent and recognised country known as East Turkistan, today’s repression, where they face imprisonment for a wide range of activities ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous (terrorist activity is a legitimate matter for the security services; reading the Koran or praying to Allah, perhaps less so), life today is lived in fear.

    Beijing aims to eradicate Uyghur identity and the domination of China’s massive Han majority, China: The Uyghur Drama asserts.

    With a breadth and depth of detail that takes in the historical struggle for independence – from 1949 when Mao’s Red Army invaded, and East Turkistan’s leaders were lured into a trap that led to their deaths in a plane crash over Russia’s Lake Baikal, to armed resistance in the 1950s and a resurgence of violence in the 1980s and 1990s – China: The Uyghur Drama is a disturbing crash course on a stain on humankind’s global conscience at a time when so many ordinary people are dreaming of a better world.

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    Nick Holdsworth
    Nick Holdsworth
    Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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