After Pakistan, China is another country in Asia, which vehemently alters societal norms for its minorities by crushing their rights and it does so nonchalantly–without letting the international community come in the way of its treatment of minorities like Uighurs, who reside in the East Asian country’s Xinjiang region.

In its latest attempt to radically overhaul society, Chinese authorities have changed names of about 630 villages in Xinjiang which have religious, historical, and cultural connotations for Uighurs, constituting roughly 12 million of the total Chinese population, Human Rights Watch said.

These changes, as per Human Rights Watch, have been markedly done in three areas like religion, history, and culture. For example, Islamic terms such as ‘Hoja,’ a title for a religious teacher, ‘Haniqa,’ a kind of Sufi religious building and ‘Baxshi,’ a spiritualist-have been removed.

History related to Uighurs, including the names of their kingdoms, republics, and local leaders who existed prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949—has been removed. Terms that suggested Uighurs’ cultural practices, such as ‘Mazar,’(shrine), and ‘Dutar,’ (a two-stringed lute)—have also been changed.

Besides Xinjiang, Uighur Muslims reside in areas like Qinghai, Gansu, and Ningxia of China. However, most of the renaming of Uighur areas occurred between 2017 and 2019—the period when the Chinese government escalated crackdown against Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region, which has also been flooded with Han Chinese migrants from mainland China in a bid to change the demographic profile of the province.

From barely constituting 6 per cent of the population at the time of the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Han Chinese are now about 44 percent of the population.

In 2018, the world was shocked and traumatised when the United Nations said at least one million Muslim Uighurs and other Turkic minorities were being kept in internment camps in China. Although the East Asian country in defence said these camps were meant for vocational training, teaching Mandarins and other skills, it failed to convince the international community.

BBC in a report in 2022, which was based on a series of police files, revealed details on the existence of internment camps spread across the Xinjiang region where a shoot-to-kill policy existed for those trying to escape.

The British public service broadcaster in its report said “highly coercive and potentially lethal systems of control” were used against Uighurs in these internment camps in China. The BBC report further said these systems of controls were “designed to target almost any aspect of Uighur identity, and replace it with an enforced loyalty to the Communist Party.”

South China Morning Post in an article published on September 17, 2023 admitted that Beijing resorted to “ruthless crack down, affecting large swathes of the Uighur population.” But the Hong Kong-based English newspaper said “harsh measures” were introduced to stop the terror and regain control of the Xinjiang region.

In 2019, following international outcry, China said it was closing most of its internment camps, which were called as re-education centres by Chinese authorities. However, media reports suggest that these camps remain operational or have been renamed as formal prisons or detention centres. Various social media posts of Uighurs who are living in different parts of the world, also speak about existence of these camps, where, as per these posts, Uighurs are tortured, women are raped, men are sterilized and subjected to psychological and mental agonies through various means.

Incidentally, China’s ruthless clampdown on Uighurs is taking place not just inside the country, but also outside its national boundary.  In his book “Great Wall of Steel: China’s Global Campaign to Suppress the Uighurs,”

Bradly Jardine, a Washington-based journalist says more than 5,500 Uighurs living abroad, have been targeted by Beijing in the recent past. The book, published by the Woodrow Wilson Centre’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, maintains that Uighurs’ targeting is done methodically–through cyberattacks, threats to family members who remain in China.

This way more than 1,500 Uighurs have been detained or forced to return to China to face imprisonment and torture in police custody, the book reveals. Giving the breakup of forced return of Uighurs, the book says that from 1997 to 2007, as many as 89 Uighurs were deported from South and Central Asia; from 2008 to 2013, 126 Uighurs were extradited from Southeast Asia and from 2014 to present, 1364 Uighurs have been deported from 18 countries of the Middle East and North Africa regions.

The book further says that the forced repatriations to China are ongoing. In this regard, it cites an incident of April 13, 2022 when Saudi Arabia deported a Uighur woman and her13-year-old daughter to China, where their detention in the vast web of concentration camps cannot be ruled out.

By dangling allurements in terms of building infrastructure and providing economic assistance–under rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative—China pressurises countries, including those with majority Muslim population to stay away from supporting Uighurs.

As per the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s 2020 report, Uighurs work in range of supply chains including electronics, textiles and automotive under a central government policy known as ‘Xinjiang Aid’.  The report further said that Uighurs are not just working in Xinjiang, they work in 27 factories spread across nine Chinese provinces.

In 2021, the US unveiled a law, preventing imports of products made by China by undertaking forced labour in Xinjiang, the region which is famous for its cotton and solar panels. Following a huge outcry by human rights activists, the European Parliament in April 2024, approved rules for banning the sale, import and export of goods made using forced labour.

Whatever be the world’s reactions to China’s abuses of its Uighurs, China is sparing no moment to masquerade its two-face character. It lodged a diplomatic protest with the US and the European Union after the two sides during their dialogue raised concern on Xinjiang and issues relating to Taiwan.

“China firmly rejects the US and the EU’s groundless interference in China’s internal affairs and unwarranted denigration and smearing against China” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said.

That means, China can interfere in internal matters of any country and can ask Sweden to “respect the religious beliefs of Muslims and other minority groups, protect their lawful rights and interest,” but seldom will it follow the same principle while treating Uighurs. The country which is aspiring to become a super power by 2047 is lacking the moral spine to own up its wrongs.





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