We Uyghurs Have No Say by Ilham Tohti review – a people ignored

Show caption The Id Kah mosque, Kashgar, Xinjiang, in 2012; Islamic motifs have since been removed from the building. Photograph: Peek Creative Collective/Alamy Book of the day We Uyghurs Have No Say by Ilham Tohti review – a people ignored ‘China’s Mandela’ draws attention to the shamefully overlooked plight of an ethnic group facing genocide Helena Kennedy Wed 9 Mar 2022 07.30 GMT Share on Facebook

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Only a few years ago the Uyghur minority in China was unknown to most people in the west. China’s record on human rights, however, was an open secret, albeit covered in a miasma of hypocrisy by foreign governments intent on expanding their trading opportunities. In the last few years the sites in Xinjiang province where the Uyghur Muslim people are detained have turned into something akin to concentration camps, with between 1 million and 3 million prisoners; the evidence points to a planned programme to erase an entire ethnic identity.

Recent years have seen more and more evidence of atrocities against the Uyghurs. As well as mass internment, there are accounts of forced labour, torture, death, disappearances, and the removal of children from their parents to orphanages in order to “de-racinate” them. Satellite and drone evidence has shown that mosques and Muslim burial grounds have been demolished. There are reliable reports of rapes, and of camp doctors sterilising Uyghur women. In 2020 the Jamestown Foundation released a report analysing Chinese government documents, including family planning records, which showed that between 2015 and 2018 forced sterilisations and abortions decreased the birthrate in two of the largest Uyghur prefectures by 84%.

We Uyghurs Have No Say comprises a set of essays and articles by the economist and social commentator described by some as “China’s Mandela”, Ilham Tohti, written before he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014. They include a number preserved by dissidents after the website on which they were published was shut down. In his writings, he explains that discrimination against the Uyghur people is not a recent phenomenon, but nor was it always so. Although he is no champion of “command and control” government, he argues that in the period when there was a planned economy, resources were distributed more fairly and equally, creating a positive sense of equality among ethnic groups. The constitution of 1982 and a protective law introduced in 1984 made Xinjiang the Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), allowing its inhabitants to preserve their own written and spoken language, their customs, traditions and religious freedom, and giving them the right to hold key positions in local government.

Ilham Tohti in Beijing, 2010. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Tohti’s view is that rapid marketisation from the early 2000s destroyed all that potential for the creation of a multi-ethnic society. It brought turbo-charged economic development, accompanied by an influx of Han Chinese migrants and the deliberate marginalisation of Uyghur people. Here was China’s own “left behind” population. In 1949, Han made up 6.7% of the Xinjiang population – by 2008 it was about 40%.

Local people have reaped few of the benefits of economic development, and suffer redundancy, poverty and homelessness. The power differential has made it difficult for Uyghurs to find work, which has led to an increase in ethnic opposition to the state and what Tohti calls a tendency towards “splittism” or a yearning for self-determination. The Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project has identified 435 Uyghur intellectuals – doctors, poets, journalists and professors – who are currently detained in the camps. Potential community leadership has been crushed.

At the same time, the Chinese government’s ideology under President Xi Jinping has increasingly emphasised atheism, introduced intensive hi-tech surveillance throughout China, further centralised state power and engineered a growing Han ethno-nationalism, all of which run counter to the promises of autonomy in the constitution. Tohti, who is clearly a substantial moral figure, tried through his writings to warn the Chinese Communist party of the consequences of leaving a whole ethnic group behind, and failing to respect their human rights and their right to their own identity. He was always clear about his opposition to violence and extremist acts, but his efforts to foster dialogue only led to repeated detentions. In 2014 he was charged with separatism, which led to his life sentence.

The genocide convention places a duty on states to prevent genocide; we are not supposed to wait until it takes place

The Chinese have moved from denying the existence of internment camps to claiming that their purpose is vocational training. They now say that they are part of a counter-terrorism programme to de-radicalise Muslim extremists. Nathan Sales, the former US state department coordinator for counter-terrorism, was clear the camps have nothing to do with terrorism. “Instead, what is going on is … the waging of war on religion … trying to stamp out the ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious identities of the people,” he said.

There is little to prevent the camps becoming death camps – yet the international response, even from Muslim-majority countries, has been abysmal. This is partly because more than 70 nations have accepted development funds from China as part of its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Indebtedness creates silence. But the UK is not in this position. We just want trade in cheap goods.

The genocide convention places a duty on states to prevent genocide; we are not supposed to wait until it takes place. Last December an independent tribunal chaired by Geoffrey Nice QC heard searing, probative evidence and decided that a genocide is in progress.With other parliamentarians, I have raised the issue of the crimes being committed against the Uyghurs and tried to introduce amendments into trade legislation and other acts of parliament. We called for the use of targeted sanctions against Chinese operatives who bear responsibility for these atrocities. This led to the Chinese government imposing sanctions on seven of us and all our family members. I have no summer house on the Yangtze or Chinese investments, so the impact is not great for me personally, but what it showed was that China minds when its human rights record is exposed.

Through his writings, Tohti tries to give the Uyghurs a voice. It is a tragic story that speaks volumes about the UK’s current retreat from international law. The government’s repeated mantra is that only a designated court of law should decide whether a genocide is taking place. As a result, China enjoys impunity for grievous crimes.

The comparison of Ilham Tohti to Nelson Mandela rings true as regards his moral courage and the absence of bitterness displayed in his writings. Despite the suffering of his people and his own imprisonment, he bears no hatred for the Han population who are pawns in a divisive state strategy. This book, representing rescued fragments of his thought, fills many gaps in our understanding of how we have got to this desperate place. The Uyghur may have no say. We do.

• Helena Kennedy QC is a member of the House of Lords and director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute. We Uyghurs Have No Say: An Imprisoned Writer Speaks by Ilham Tohti is published by Verso (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.