At last it appears that Britain is willing to address what is perhaps the greatest ongoing human rights atrocity on the planet: the mass incarceration and mistreatment of Uighurs and other minority Muslim people of China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. On Sunday, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, publicly recognised the “gross and egregious human rights abuses” under way there, despite the denials of the Chinese ambassador, Liu Xiaoming.
The ambassador’s denials were to be expected: they are invariably China’s first response when challenged about the mistreatment of its own citizens. Indeed, the mass internment of large sections of the Uighur and other minority populations were denied until the evidence became incontrovertible, after which the argument moved to the treatment of the inmates. How long were they being imprisoned for? What were the conditions they were being held under? Why had they been detained?
These have not been easy questions to answer. In his BBC interview on Sunday, Liu Xiaoming complained of false accusations being made at China, and about a lack of evidence to support them. At the same time, however, China rigorously controls the information that crosses its borders. Foreign academics and journalists who have attempted to gather details are regularly denied access, or followed and directed by Chinese officials. Chinese researchers do not even attempt such investigations. During my own time in Xinjiang, where I spent nearly two years conducting my PhD research, the police and security forces presence was pervasive and oppressive. In the time since I left in 2014, it has intensified enormously.
Nonetheless, evidence builds up. Former staff and inhabitants of the so-called “re-education centres” – where inmates are expected to abandon their religion and cultivate loyalty to the state – have travelled abroad and shared their experiences, satellite data has confirmed the construction of the camps, and journalists and researchers have covertly visited Xinjiang or made contact with friends in the region.
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