Updated: Oct 19, 2021
As the Uighur Muslim concentration camp-based genocide in China gradually gains more and more media coverage over these past few months, the number of individuals who are concerned with the safety and freedom of the millions of prisoners contained in the Chinese government run “re-education” camps has increased.
Uighurs are a persecuted Muslim minority group in China with a population of 11 to 15 million, making up roughly 0.45-2.85% of the total Chinese population. Most of the Uighur population lives in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the far north-west of China which is almost three times the size of France. It is officially described as an autonomous region rather than a province because of Uighurs’ ethnical and cultural differences from mainstream China.
A majority of Uighur traditions stem from Islam, such as marriage contract ceremonies, special customs when greeting others, and the receiving of gifts using two hands. Uighurs speak a Turkish language completely different from China’s official language, Mandarin Chinese. Common meals in Xinjiang include meats such as beef and mutton, given that in Islam, pork is strictly prohibited.
Although the Uighur Muslim camps in China have just recently made headlines in the United States, these large centers in Xinjiang were originally set up back in 2017. Authorities from the local area claimed in an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA) that millions of Muslims and ethnic minorities were being held to learn about “Counter-Extremism” and “Cultural Immersion.” They described the camps as a training school where Uighurs could learn how to safely integrate into mainstream culture and decrease violence, rather than forced detainment.
The reasoning behind the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) concentration camps is complex, but can be unraveled to one overwhelming factor: cultural differences. Amnesty International, a non-governmental organization focused on human rights, reported in 2013 that Beijing had criminalized “peaceful expressions of [Uighur] cultural identity” by labeling them as rebel activities.
The conditions of these prisons have been raising concern. In an interview with HAARETZ, Sayragul Sauytbay, a Muslim woman of Kazakh descent, offers a firsthand look into the horrific experience of being detained in a camp. She went into detail about the poor hygiene, inadequate food and clothing, mistreatment, and crowded living chambers. Sauytbay also mentioned prisoners are forced to recite Chinese propaganda with phrases such as “I love Xi Jin Ping” or “I love the Chinese Communist Party.” Many other ex-prisoners reported similar situations, saying that the conditions were “prison-like” and that every move they made was monitored with cameras and microphones. Furthermore, prisoners are forced to eat pork, a forbidden food in Islam.
The Chinese government has stayed silent about the health risk of the coronavirus to the detained Uighurs. On July 27, Chinese health authorities reported 68 new cases of the coronavirus—with a shocking 57 cases solely from the Xinjiang area where the concentration camps are located.
The crowded, cluttered conditions of the camp make it more likely for the coronavirus to infect the prisoners at a high rate. Dr. Anna Hayes, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at James Cook University in Australia, offered her opinion on this matter. Hayes mentioned how the poor sanitary conditions and inadequate food and clothing of the camps “increase people’s vulnerability, and they’re under incredible distress and duress which factor into someone’s immune system.” She went on to draw attention to the fact that “just the stress they’re under increases the chance of a very negative outcome if they get [COVID-19].”
Countless netizens have voiced their support for freeing the Uighur Muslim population from containment but do not discern that they are unintentionally feeding into the forced labor these Uighurs have to undergo.
They do not know that buying from big, everyday clothing brands and companies such as Amazon and Victoria’s Secret can actually fuel these concentration camps.
A study by the Australian Policy Strategic Institute earlier in March this year has shed light on how Uyghur Muslims are being used as slaves to work tirelessly in factories. They are forced into mandatory labor to manufacture clothes and items for common brands such as Adidas, Amazon, Nike, Victoria’s Secret and more. A total of 83 foreign and Chinese companies have been identified that directly or indirectly benefit from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang through abusive labour transfer programs.
The ASPI states that the research report in which this was conducted “draws on open-source Chinese-language documents, satellite imagery analysis, academic research and on-the-ground media reporting.”
The camps have been brought to the U.S.’s attention in the past and Congress recently passed a bill called the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. The bill calls for numerous U.S. government bodies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Agency for Global Media, to prepare legitimate reports on China’s treatment of the Uighurs. This includes directing more U.S. media into the Xinjiang area to get a more unbiased look on the issue, and countering attempts to downplay the crackdown. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act was signed by President Trump into effective action on June 17, 2020. Other countries have not stayed silent either. Earlier this month, the United Kingdom informed global authorities that it may sanction China over the “gross and egregious” abuse and complete disregard for human rights reported in Xinjiang. Additionally, countries such as France, Japan, Canada, and Australia have voiced their criticism for the concentration camps in a joint statement to the United Nations.
Through Teen Lenses: What are your opinions on the Uighur concentration camps in China? When did you first hear about the issue and were you aware of the allegations that the Uighur Muslims were doing forced labor for mainstream U.S. companies such as Amazon and Victoria’s Secret?
“I first heard about it on Instagram and think the situation is dreadful and shouldn’t be happening. I read into it online through different articles and it made me more cautious about where I shopped from.” Charlotte Rollins, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas Wootton High School, Potomac MD
“The first I heard about it was probably half a year ago through political instagram accounts. I was not aware at all that Amazon and Victoria’s Secret used their labor for their products. Seeing the pictures of what has gone on there which some news places won’t show was disturbing. People have their head shaved, women are raped, and many of them are beaten and left to die. I found the more disturbing images on smaller sites and not big media sites and I wish more people would talk about this issue.” Olivia Kim, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas Wootton High School, Rockville MD
“I can’t imagine how the Uighurs feel. The Chinese Communist Party’s repression of religious freedom is dangerous and sickening. I don’t remember when I heard about the ‘vocational training centers’ in Xinjiang but I was previously unaware that mainstream American companies benefit from Uighur labor. The whole situation is dreadful.” Justin Wang, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas Wootton High School, Rockville MD