U.S. Declares China's Human Rights Abuses Against Muslim Uighurs 'Genocide'

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Members of the Muslim Uighur minority hold placards as they demonstrate in front of the Chinese consulate on December 30, 2020, in Istanbul, to ask for news of their relatives. (Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of the Muslim Uighur minority hold placards as they demonstrate in front of the Chinese consulate on December 30, 2020, in Istanbul, to ask for news of their relatives. (Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)

The United States government has declared the Chinese government is committing genocide against the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, in northwest China.

Last week, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s actions against the Uighurs “crimes against humanity.” The Biden administration agrees that the mass internment, forced labor and sterilization of Uighur women constitutes a genocide.

The U.S. is now the only country to use these terms to describe China’s human rights abuses against the Uighurs. Rushan Abbas, an activist and leader of the Campaign for Uyghurs, says the declaration is a long-time coming.

“What is happening in China is active genocide, and we have been crying out loud for years. I have been being very vocal and calling this as a genocide for past two years,” she says. “So this is rightfully being labeled as, you know, for what it is.”

There are an estimated 11 million Uighurs living in China’s Xinjiang province. Over the past three years, at least 1 million of them have been detained in forced labor camps, though some activists say the number is even higher. More than 80 global brands including Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei and Nike are buying the products made by the Uighurs in these camps.

The Chinese government claims Uighurs are being sent to factories as part of a “labor transfer program,” which helps provide Uighurs with well-paying jobs and alleviates poverty in the region.

But according to former detainees, Uighurs inside these camps are subject to “mental and physical torture” and constant indoctrination in Chinese Communist Party ideologies, Abbas says. Crematoriums are being built next to the camps.

“That's just for the people in the camps,” she says. “Even the people living in their  regular daily lives, they are subject to 24-hour Orwellian-style surveillance to monitor their daily activities,” which includes the use of facial recognition software and GPS tracking.

Uighur women are also subject to forced sterilization and abortions, Abbas says. Many are mandated to marry men who identify as Han Chinese, the country’s largest ethnic group. If a Uighur woman refuses to marry, she is labeled as a terrorist.

The plight of the Uighurs is personal for Abbas, whose sister, Dr. Gulshan Abbas, has been missing since 2018. On Christmas Day, Abbas and her family discovered from a third-party source that her sister has been sentenced to 20 years in prison by the Chinese government.

“Only six days after my public speech at one of the think tanks here in Washington, D.C., my sister and my aunt both got picked up from two different cities from about 900 miles away from each other,” Abbas says. “So that was a clear indication to silencing me.”

Abbas says the Chinese government is punishing her for her activism on behalf of the Uighurs by imprisoning her sister.

“This is the indication of how dreadful the situation has become,” she says. “The Chinese regime is unlawfully sentencing family members of foreign citizens, which I'm an American citizen, in sham trials on fake charges.”

Abbas’ devastating story is not unique. Every Uighur in diaspora fears for the safety of their family back in China, she says. Her husband’s entire family is also missing, and they have no information on their whereabouts.

The Uighurs’ homeland is at the center of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan designed to reshape global trade. But the root of the conflict goes back much further — to China’s occupation of Turkestan in 1949, Abbas says. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, China relabeled Uighurs as radicalized Muslims and criminalized the practice of their religion.

“Chinese government currently has more than 3 million Uighurs in concentration camps,” she says. “Do you think all 3 million people are radicalized Muslims? No.”

The U.S. government is now paying close attention to the Uighurs, recently banning imports of cotton and tomatoes from the Uighur region. Meanwhile, the European Union signed a major investment deal with the Chinese despite the human rights abuses.

The U.S. ban on imports from the Uighur region is an important first step, Abbas says. One in five cotton garments can be traced back to the region. But it’s only a start.

“There are so many more things that must be regulated, including the tech industry,” she says. “No products from the Uighur region should be entering the United States. This should be a wake up call to Western corporations and the other countries in Europe that they are completely complicit in genocide.”

Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Raphelson also adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on January 25, 2021.


Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.


Samantha Raphelson Associate Producer, Here & Now
Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



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