Students respond to detention of Muslims in China

By MARVIS GUTIERREZ | November 15, 2018

Over one hundred United Nations (UN) member states responded to China’s human rights violations last Tuesday during China’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). 

Many were looking to see the UN’s response to these human rights violations, which include the mass detention of Uyghur Muslims currently ongoing in Xinjiang. Only 13 of the present countries brought the issue to attention. 

UPR is a tool that the UN’s Human Rights Council uses to shed light on a particular member state’s handling of human rights. Almost four years have passed since China’s last review. 

According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated one million Uyghur Muslims are currently being arbitrarily detained by the Chinese government. 

Following riots in Xinjiang’s capital and Uyghur-connected terrorist attacks, leadership of Xinjiang Party Secretary transferred to Chen Quanguo in 2016. Chen strengthened the police force by heavily recruiting the local population and began aggressively repressing Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in the region. 

Kevin Kind, a History graduate student at Hopkins who specializes in the region, recounted his own experience while in Xinjiang after the implementation of this military surveillance.

“You would be walking down the street and there would be three policemen on every other street corner, standing back to back in a triangular formation with automatic weapons in their hands. You would see armored vehicles just rolling down the street,” Kind said. “You would occasionally see patrols of full-uniformed, fully-armed military men down the streets.”

Following Chen’s election, new security measures were put in place in Xinjiang. Residents were required to go through multiple checkpoints and show their passports to even get into their neighborhoods or common public areas. Thousands of facial-recognition cameras were installed in the region, and an extensive DNA collection and analysis program was launched to track citizens.

The government began building detention camps for Uyghurs in the region a year later in March 2017. In October, the Chinese government reclassified the camps as “re-education centers” intent to improve the lives of Uyghurs. 

Kind further elaborated that other populations, such as Kazakh and Kyrgyz Muslims, are also being persecuted. 

“It’s not just the Uyghurs that are being caught up in this policy. They’re the most numerically dominant,” he said.

The classification system of identifying government threats to send to these camps is incredibly broad — religious practices, contact with foreigners and experience in traveling abroad can all increase the chances of being detained.

Kind said that his Uyghur teacher once spoke to him about her own husband’s detainment, though at the time she thought it was only temporary.

“All she knew was that her husband has been put in this place with the rest of his danwei, or work unit — and these are all Uyghurs — and [they] haven’t been let out or allowed out in a long time. They do a lot of political training and recite party songs,” he said.

Kind returned back to the U.S. soon after this, but as of now he has been unable to contact this teacher. Kind believes it’s likely she was either detained or believed reaching out to her foreign contacts was too risky.

Zoya Sattar, president of the Johns Hopkins University Muslim Student Association, pointed out the difficulties American Uyghurs have when trying to contact their families in Xinjiang. 

“If you are a Uyghur American and you send money back to China, to your Uyghur relatives, the government flags it as terrorist money essentially. They use that to target Uyghurs, and that’ll send them to camps,” Zoya said.

Sattar, reflecting on her own experience as club president, has noticed that Muslims who are not part of a predominantly Muslim country are not given as much attention. 

“I think even [the Muslim Student Association] can sometimes play into the stereotypes of focusing on areas that we’re most familiar with — which ends up being about poverty in Yemen, playing more into that and relegating crisis with the Uyghurs to a lesser stance,” she said.

Anishta Khan, co-president of the Hopkins chapter of United Muslim Relief (UMR), also identified similar concerns with lack of awareness of the Uyghur Muslim crisis within the Hopkins community advocacy initiatives.

“It’s definitely not talked about at all. We haven’t even spoken about it as a club. A lot of attention right now is being put on the Middle East and other refugee crises,” Khan said. “In terms of displacement of oppressed populations, that’s being more spoken about. For most people, there’s no conception that there are Muslims in China under Chinese rule.” 

She added that she hopes to see the topic discussed more in the future across the University. 

“It is some of UMR’s responsibility to bring that conversation on campus. I’d like to urge other organizations, such as the Agora Institute, which are less student-run and more administration-run, to have some responsibility to increase dialogue about these global issues,” she said.

Sattar is hopeful that there can be future advocacy efforts, however, especially from the Muslim Student Association. 

U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation this Wednesday intended to address the Uyghur crisis and condemn the discriminatory actions of the Chinese government.

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