China’s Unprecedented Campaign to Eradicate the Faith and Identity of the Uyghur People

October 3, 2018
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China’s Unprecedented Campaign to Eradicate the Faith and Identity of the Uyghur People

Remarks at the International Religious Freedom Roundtable

Washington, DC

October 2, 2018

Omer Kanat, Director

Uyghur Human Rights Project

Thank you, Ambassador Brownback, and all of you, for your concern.

The Chinese government’s crackdown on the Uyghur people in East Turkestan is not leveling off. It is getting worse. More and more people are being put into the camps, and almost nobody is being released. This has been happening for nearly two years. Experts and scholars have begun to describe the crackdown as cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Chinese authorities have long violated Uyghurs’ cultural, linguistic, and religious rights, marginalizing them in their own homeland. Now they are being rounded up on an unprecedented scale. These ethnic internment camps hold more than 10 percent of the Uyghur population in indefinite detention. Another 2 million people, according to estimates, are forced to attend day and evening “study sessions.” More facilities are being built.

The people in the camps are farmers, students, musicians, and business owners. There are people who are over 80 years old, at least 60 professors, and even local government officials. Religious scholars and imams were some of the first people to be rounded up.

Even mothers of young children have been taken without warning, and their children have been put in so-called “orphanages.” The authorities have been continuously building new dormitories to house these children. We are afraid that this a permanent plan to keep Uyghur children under state control from a very young age. Millions of Uyghurs do not know if they will ever see their family members again.

There is intense psychological pressure inside the detention camps. It is aimed at forcing the Uyghurs to give up their religion, their language, and their identity. The prisoners have to spend hours denouncing Islam and criticizing Muslim religious practices. Detainees are forced to repeat slogans praising Xi Jinping and the Communist Party, and to spend hours in Chinese language classes, with threats of further punishment if they do not succeed in speaking and reading it.

The evidence for these shocking revelations comes from Chinese government communications, government construction and hiring tenders for the camps, satellite imagery, testimony of family members, and eyewitness accounts from former detainees who have managed to reach safety. They describe overcrowded conditions and physical abuse in addition to intense ideological indoctrination sessions.

The Chinese government claims that it is carrying out a ‘counterterrorism’ campaign. This is nonsense. Putting more than a million people in detention camps has nothing to do with legitimate security measures. Our religious identity as Muslims, and our ethnicity, is the focus of the Chinese government’s brutal treatment of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim ethnic groups.

Uyghurs outside China are frustrated, depressed, and traumatized, due to their inability to help loved ones back home, or even to get any information about their whereabouts and wellbeing.

As you know, the House Asia Subcommittee held a hearing last week. UHRP’s chairman submitted 20 policy responses in his testimony.

We are concerned that it has been almost six months since the U.S. government first publicly discussed sanctions. Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Laura Stone said in April that the government was considering Global Magnitsky sanctions. We are concerned that when the U.S. government does not take action, the Chinese government takes it as a green light for its repression.

We also urge the U.S. to take a much stronger leadership role at the United Nations. The CERD panel in Geneva in August was the first time that the Chinese government was called to account for these massive crimes. China’s UPR review is on November 6. Some Foreign Ministries, including Canada, have more or less openly said that they cannot confront China on their own. Clearly, strong U.S. leadership is required. Otherwise, governments will remain silent, even though there is now worldwide condemnation by human rights groups, and daily reporting in the media.

In fact, we believe that it is a matter for the UN Security Council. A number of experts, such as Law Professor Jerome Cohen, have concluded that this is a case of Crimes Against Humanity.

I want to end by stressing that the future could be much worse. As Professor Rian Thum said in his Congressional testimony in July, “mass murder and genocide do not look like impossible outcomes.”


The Uyghur Human Rights Project is a research-based advocacy group. Since 2004, it has issued 43 reports on the human rights situation in the Uyghur homeland.


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