Let us not forget the Uyghurs


The focus on Ukraine risks us forgetting other abuses around the world

One of the problems with crises such as that in Ukraine following the Russian invasion, is that other terrible events can risk being forgotten. It is as though we can only cope with one crisis at a time which may well be true enough. As we watch the horrific events unfold in Ukraine, we must not forget that millions suffer in Syria, Myanmar, Yemen and in China.

In a recent edition of the New Statesman magazine (18 – 24 February 2022), there were several articles under the general heading of The Silencing focusing on the plight of the Uyghurs in China. There were pieces by Katie Stallard, John Simpson, Elif Shafak, Rian Thum and Musapir. Some of the points made are repeated below.

The opening ceremony of the recent Winter Olympics which was described as ‘jarring and banal’. A Uyghur skier stood on a podium with a member of the Han community (the dominant one in China) in an attempt to show harmony and to send the message ‘genocide, what genocide?’ Unfortunately she could not be interviewed as she failed to appear in the media zone. It was denounced by the Uyghur Human Rights Project as a ‘political stunt meant to deflect international criticism as though parading a Uyghur athlete around somehow disproves the party state’s well document atrocity crimes’.

The state has implemented a ‘devastating system of collective punishment that targets the Muslim population of Xinjiang’. Attending a mosque or growing a beard is considered suspect. Hundreds of internment camps and a suffocating network of surveillance technology have been built and between 10% and 20% of the adult population has been detained.

John Simpson notes that ‘the 12 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China are suffering one of the most intense policies of collective punishment since the end of the Second World War: a campaign designed to change them as a people, remould their beliefs and limit their numbers.’

Satellite images examined by the Australian Strategic Policy Unit (ASPI) have identified at least 380 detention centres ranging from low-security installations to fortified prisons complete with watch towers, high walls and barbed wire. Some of these were seen in a recent Channel 4 documentary.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation is that they estimate 83 Chinese and foreign brands have allegedly benefitted from the forced labour of Uyghur prisoners and they name Apple, Amazon, Marks and Spencer, Nike and Adidas among others. There have been repeated claims that much of China’s cotton, which is grown in Xinjiang, is produced by slave labour.

Elif Shafak bemoans the shear number of crises around the world and the difficulty we have in coping with it all. She quotes the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, attacks on abortion rights in USA and the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans in Ethiopia as well as Myanmar. She says one thing that dictators and demagogues know is that numbness is transmissible – that is our indifference and detachment as global citizens.

Every time we fail to investigate a gross human right violation, every time we turn a blind eye to atrocities because we have trade deals or financial engagements, we are closely observed not only by that particular country’s government but also be the authoritarian regimes across the world. for they know that when one of them is met with numbness it will benefit them all. This is how democracy loses. Not only “there” but here and everywhere.

New Statesman 18 – 24 February 2022

As we are learning with Russia and Ukraine, financial interests have dominated our policy and there is now, belatedly, an attempt to control the flow of Oligarch money following the invasion.

UPDATE 8 March 2022: The full ASPI report on Uyghur oppression. Other reports can be found on the ASPI site. More companies listed in the appendix include: Microsoft, Google, Samsung, Electrolux, Gap, Diesel, Zara, Rover, Mercedes-Benz, VW, Nintendo, Nokia, Levi’s, Victoria’s Secret, Gap, Calvin Klein, Adidas and many more [accessed 10 March 2022]. NB: the appendix has been updated to include denials by some of the companies named (not included in this list) and other less well-known companies in the UK have not been included.

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