The World Uyghur Congress is releasing its annual report on the human rights situation in East Turkestan covering events of 2016. The report presents a detailed review of China’s actions in East Turkestan vis-à-vis the Uyghur population there and provides in-depth analysis of the most critical issues facing Uyghurs there.
The year 2016 saw no relief in terms of the continued harassment of Uyghurs living in East Turkestan (officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China). The Chinese Communist Party (CPC) extended its outright assault by effectively criminalising even the most basic aspects of Uyghur life, and in doing so, violating human rights and fundamental freedoms guaranteed under international law.
The Chinese government maintained its heavy-handed policies in the region, specifically targeting religious and cultural freedom, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and movement with renewed vigour. China continues to engage in practices ranging from arbitrary detention to the outright denial of legal rights to the collective punishment of the Uyghur population, to name a few.
The Chinese government in 2016 maintained its heavy-handed policies in the region, specifically targeting religious and cultural freedom, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and movement with renewed vigour.
We witnessed the introduction and implementation of draconian laws that directly target Uyghurs and their way of life, ostensibly in the name of security and protection against terrorist threats. China’s Counter-Terror Law came into effect on 1 January 2016 and has already led to unparalleled abuse. Its drafting was widely condemned by the international community for its excessively broad and vague language and has already been used as a tool to assert even greater control over the Uyghur people.
Direct connections have been made through the law between the role of religion and the recent uptick in violence perpetrated by a tiny fraction of the population. Key changes have been proposed for China’s Regulations on Religious Affairs including the addition of “extremism” as a threat to national security and something that must be fervently guarded against, as well as new focus on the spread of illegal religious content online. Regional authorities also demolished thousands of mosques across the region under the guise of a “Mosque Rectification” campaign during a three month period towards the end of 2016, effectively leaving thousands of Uyghurs without a legal venue to take part in religious practices.
An already tightly constrained population took even more of a hit last year as restrictions on freedom of movement remained a priority for regional authorities. Most significantly, in an announcement that came on 19 October 2016, all passports in the region were ordered to be submitted for annual review to local police stations, at which point police would hold them for “safekeeping”. Those wishing to leave the country now have to apply for approval from their local government offices.
In addition, a vast increase in roadblocks and the introduction of “police convenience stations” as well as additions to the already extensive network of security cameras and surveillance infrastructure continues to restrict and regulate movement and behaviour. The newly implemented system of “grid-style social management”—a hallmark of the region’s recently appointed Party Secretary, Chen Quanguo, formerly Tibet Party Secretary—has been modelled on those already in use in Tibet as a means of controlling and monitoring large areas of cities.
Economic discrimination intensified in 2016 for Uyghurs and with the development of China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative emerging from its nascent stages there are real worries that problems will only intensify. OBOR has bolstered the government’s claims that development in the west remains an imperative, but despite the increase in development projects in the region, there is little evidence suggesting that the projects have had any positive effect on Uyghurs there. To the contrary, Uyghurs, who disproportionately populate rural areas, continue to face starker economic challenges than do Chinese who more often take up employment in urban centers in industries like construction, the energy service sector and resource extraction.
The list of punishable offences has grown to such an extent that Uyghur life has effectively been criminalised.
In more direct actions taken against Uyghurs, arbitrary arrests remain one of the sharpest tools employed by the government to silence dissent. Building on previous years, we have now seen the impact and chilling effect produced by the real threat of arrest and detention facing Uyghurs whose heretofore quotidian religious and cultural practices are now considered illegal and subject to harsh sanction.
The list of punishable offences has grown to such an extent that Uyghur life has effectively been criminalised. Given this environment, the legal rights of Uyghurs caught up in the justice system are non-existent, as legal representation, although guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution, remains far out of reach.
Prominent Uyghur academic and economist Ilham Tohti stands as a reminder of such a repressive and tenuous legal justice system. As a writer and intellectual, Tohti made concerted efforts to build bridges between the Uyghur and Chinese communities, but was arrested in a case that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found to be officially arbitrary, and sentenced to life in prison in September 2014. His case, which was marred by irregularities, and trial, which involved numerous procedural errors, stands as cruel testament to the response of the Chinese government to those who seemingly challenge policy and look for a more practical way forward. Seven of Tohti’s students were sentenced from three to eight years in prison at the end of 2014 for their association with Tohti and remain in detention.
In addition to Uyghurs suffering on the mainland, the internationally recognized rights of Uyghur asylum seekers were largely ignored by China in 2016 in relation to neighbouring states. For many years, Uyghur asylum seekers have been forcibly deported from states with strong trade and diplomatic ties to China.
The most recent case remains a group of 109 Uyghurs who were forcibly deported to China from immigration detention facilities across Thailand in July 2015 in a move that was met by widespread condemnation from the international community. The remainder of the group, who have now been held in the facilities since early 2014, include 60 Uyghurs who are being held across the country. Out of desperation, the group has resorted to hunger strikes to protest their continued unlawful detention and a number of escape attempts.
Despite continued efforts from rights groups around the world working to bring to light issues that remain purposely obscured and largely overlooked by the international community, many of the rights that Uyghurs once held—one year ago, five years ago or ten years ago—are quickly being eroded. Not only does the state continue to violate its obligations under international law, but the standards set by its very own Constitution in many cases.
Rather than scrutinizing the roots of resentment between ethnic groups, the government has chosen to lay the blame on Islam for violence committed by a tiny fraction.
Rather than scrutinizing the roots of resentment between ethnic groups, the government has largely chosen to lay the blame on Islam for violence committed by a tiny fraction of the population. In doing so, restrictive policies continued to be implemented in 2016 that add to an existing architecture aimed at sinicizing Uyghurs in East Turkestan. Collective punishment is the net result as the government has continued to push the idea that Uyghur cultural expression and religious practice naturally leads to instability, without recognizing that tolerance and genuine autonomy will act as a remedial force instead.
The goal, then, of this annual report has been to bring renewed attention to the human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese government against Uyghurs in East Turkestan. Because useful and reliable information coming from the region remains a premium, our hope has been to highlight the most important cases of the last year and situate them within a broader historical context of Chinese policy for decades.
The report can be read and downloaded in full here.