When fire The public was shocked last year when it spread in an apartment building in Urumqi, killing at least ten people. Hundreds of people took to the streets in major Chinese cities. They took great risks to express displeasure at covid-19 restrictions that may have prevented people from fleeing the blazes. But today, families of the victims are reluctant to tell their stories. Most are Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group native to the western Xinjiang region of which Urumqi is the capital. They have long been persecuted by the government, which has threatened more such treatment if they speak out.
China’s attempts to silence the Uyghurs have also come amid diplomatic moves in Europe, hoping that European officials will forget China’s grave human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Since 2017, China has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in “re-education” camps. Human rights groups have documented campaigns of forced sterilizations, assimilation and the destruction of mosques (pictured here is a broken minaret). More recently, though, the face of state oppression has changed. China is trying to convince the world that Xinjiang is like any other part of China.
That’s hard to do when Uyghurs talk about ongoing abuse. But China has been working hard to silence them. Those living abroad are sometimes threatened with deportation to China if they speak out. Another strategy is to control contact between relatives. Kewser Wayit, a Uighur in Boston, said he was unable to contact his family in Xinjiang after he began talking about his father’s detention in 2019. Last year, a Chinese police officer agreed to put him in touch with his parents as long as Mr Wayit stopped discussing the matter openly. But he broke his silence after his sister was detained in China for posting photos of protests sparked by the fire in Urumqi.
Uyghurs in China are still at risk of being detained, just not in re-education camps. In recent years, the government has closed many of them and eased some security measures in Xinjiang’s big cities. But the number of prisoners in the formal prison system has increased. Between 2017 and 2021, more than 500,000 people were prosecuted in the region (with a population of 26 million, about 11 million of whom are Uyghurs). This is a huge increase compared to the past five years. Human Rights Watch, a global watchdog, said many of them had been punished without trial. On average, their sentences seem to be getting longer and longer.
All this is in line with China’s long-term plan for Xinjiang. In 2018, the region’s Communist Party secretary, Chen Quanguo, outlined goals including “stability,” “consolidation,” and “normalization.” Today, his successor, Ma Xingrui, seems focused on the last of these. The local government says it wants to attract 200 million tourists by 2023. It has dispatched Uighur influencers to promote the region. In January, a delegation of religious leaders from 14 Islamic countries visited Xinjiang and praised its “major achievements” in counter-terrorism and deradicalization, according to China’s foreign ministry.
European leaders are harder to impress. In 2021, the European Union sanctioned several Chinese officials for its persecution of Uyghurs. China hit back, imposing sanctions on a range of European politicians, diplomats and academics. The European Parliament subsequently refused to ratify a bilateral investment agreement between China and the EU. European Union 2020, but now Chinese Ambassador to the United States Fu Cong European Union, wanting to “let the past be the past”. He called for the return of the investment agreement and the lifting of sanctions at the same time. “We don’t want to go back to the history of who sanctioned who was right and who was wrong, because that would be a useless debate,” Mr Fu said earlier this year. “We need to move forward.”
China appeared to be making progress in February, when it announced that Erkin Tuniyaz, the governor of Xinjiang, would meet officials in London and Brussels. But the trip was canceled after activists and politicians called for Mr Tuniyaz to be detained upon his arrival in London.Around the same time, a long-delayed U.S.-China human rights dialogue European Union recover. European officials say the meetings give them an opportunity to confront their Chinese counterparts. Activists say they impose no real cost on China, while providing cover for leaders on both sides to strengthen business ties.
Activists have a point.Xinjiang exports to European Union In 2022, there will be a one-third increase compared to the previous year. Total exports from Xinjiang have nearly doubled in the past two years (see chart), with most of them going to neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Although trade with the United States has fallen off a cliff with the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bans imports from Xinjiang unless there is clear evidence that they were produced without forced labour.
However, it is not just the people of countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan who are moving on. In a business district of Istanbul, a Uighur businessman said he had lost contact with his family in China and his son had been detained for several years. However, he declined to criticize the Chinese government. He said Xi needed to defend China’s borders. He needs to maintain good relations with Chinese partners. He is reluctant to discuss the future of his country. “I don’t think about these big questions,” he said. “I’m just focused on raising my kids. Maybe one day we can go home.” ■
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