2021 Islamophobia in review: China

Published on 05 Jan 2022
Overall, 2021 demonstrated that Islamophobia remains a constant and growing threat around the globe. Anti-Muslim racism in 2021 remained ever present as hate crimes and individual attacks targeting Muslims persisted. Across the globe, the key players of anti-Muslim racism were again states themselves, as this year witnessed increasing discriminatory legislation and policies. China continued to deny the growing body of evidence pointing to genocide being committed against Uyghur Muslims and an international tribunal was held in the U.K. with testimony from survivors of Xinjiang’s concentration camps. In Canada, a man killed a Muslim family of four in a horrific calculated hit-and-run, leading to Canadian Muslims demanding the government take concrete measures to tackle Islamophobic violence. In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s government took a page from China’s book by implementing legislation aimed at constructing a state-approved Islam, resulting in widespread discrimination targeting Muslim civil society and curtailing the rights of French Muslims, especially women. Similarly, the Austrian government took measures to intimidate and silence Austrian Muslim activists and organizations, even going so far as to publish a map detailing the locations of hundreds of mosques and associations. In the United Kingdom, the ruling Conservative party persisted in evading calls to address institutional Islamophobia within its ranks. State hostility and prejudice towards Muslims was present across the European continent, with rulings aimed at restricting Muslim identity such as halal meat and hijab bans. In India, the country’s growing Hindu nationalist forces retained last year’s theme of conspiracy theories, claiming Indian Muslims were engaging in “love jihad,” “economic jihad,” and even “narcotics jihad.” Additionally, there were large episodes of anti-Muslim violence in various parts of the country such as Tripura, Gurgaon, and Assam, all of which were supported by the rising Hindu nationalist voices. The year was also spent uncovering the role of social media platforms in larger campaigns of violence targeting Muslims as seen in India and Myanmar. In the United States, the country marked twenty years since the deadly September 11th attacks and reckoned with the impacts and consequences of two decades of the War on Terror at home and abroad.


2021 Islamophobia in review: China

In 2021, the world heard more personal testimonies from Uyghurs who had survived China’s network of concentration camps as a growing international movement called on countries to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. This year also involved Chinese authorities restructuring their targeting of Uyghurs, moving many prisoners to forced labor camps and institutionalizing discriminatory practices, such as removing domes from mosques, aimed at erasing Uyghur culture and identity. Growing calls from activists and rights organizations for action from the international community also contributed to an unofficial tribunal held in the UK, which found that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is committing genocide, a conclusion made by a number of countries this year including the Canadian parliament, MPs in the UK, Dutch parliament, and the Lithuanian parliament.

China’s campaign targeting Uyghurs goes back decades and must be understood in the settler-colonial context of the region. However, following 9/11 and the introduction of the war on terror discourse, Chinese authorities adopted this rhetoric framing Uyghur Muslims as a security threat to the state and began slowly criminalizing various aspect of Uyghur culture and identity, all under the banner of tackling the “three evil forces” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism. The establishment of concentration camps, dubbed “re-education” centers by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in 2017 and the projected growth of these fortresses of torture and psychological manipulation is just one aspect of China’s wider campaign in the occupied Uyghur homeland (which Chinese authorities refer to as Xinjiang). 

In 2021, the world heard more harrowing stories from survivors of China’s crackdown in the region: a project involving torture, rape, detention, indoctrination, and psychological abuse. In January, Gulbahar Haitiwaji wrote in detail her experience in China’s police state as she returned to Xinjiang in late 2016 to sign some documents, only to be arrested and locked up for two years, where she was “systematically dehumanized, humiliated and brainwashed.” Authorities told Haitiwaji she would be going to “school,” a code word for the camps, which the government had built to “correct” Uighurs. Her recollection of her time in the camps echoed the personal testimonies of other survivors, as she recounted the psychological brainwashing and physical torture, with the ultimate aim being to “to deny who we were. To spit on our own traditions, our beliefs. To criticize our language. To insult our own people.” Further a BBC piece interviewed a number of survivors who either experienced or witnessed “mass rape, sexual abuse and torture” in the camps.

Along with harrowing testimonies, researchers and journalists in 2021 continued to unlock the secrets of Xinjiang’s prison state that’s been equipped with the latest in surveillance technology. A New Yorker piece from this year noted that Chinese authorities had claimed prisoners had “graduated” from the “re-education centers,” but rather than being released many were either sentenced to long prison terms or sent to forced labor camps. Amnesty International delved into Beijing’s practice of separating Uyghur children from their parents, a policy that would certainly result in the government’s aim to “break their [Uyghur] lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” The human rights organization estimated that thousands of Uyghur families have been separated for years due to the government’s actions in Xinjiang.

This year also brought attention to the gendered aspect and coercive fertility practices of the CCP’s campaign targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, particularly how the government rebranded its forced sterilization policy as a feminist measure aimed at saving Uyghur women from being “baby-making machines.” This argument came after reports showed that birthrates in the Uyghur homeland have “dropped dramatically in recent years – something that many international observers believe is down to forced sterilizations.” A May 2021 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) found that “birth-rate across the region fell by nearly half (48.74 percent)” between 2017-2019, with the largest declines in “counties where Uyghurs and other indigenous communities are concentrated.” 

In addition to suppressing birthrates, the government has continued to imprison intellectuals and cultural and religious leaders of the community, often seen as lifelines to preserving the culture and heritage of particular groups. Two groups, Justice for All and the Uyghur Human Rights Project, released a report on how the government is cutting off “transmission of religious knowledge across Uyghur generations,” as the authorities have  “imprisoned or detained at least 630 Imams.” A second report in December from UHRP found that “at least 312 intellectual and cultural elites were currently being held in some form of detention in the region,” including scholars, professors, poets, musicians, doctors and writers. CCP policies in the region are not just aimed at the living as reporting from Sky News revealed that authorities have systematically paved over Uyghur graveyards, religious buildings, and shrines. The erasure of culture by bulldozing religious sites also brought attention to plans announced by Hilton Hotel, which would see a Hilton hotel built upon the former site of Duling Mosque in Hotan that was demolished by the government. 

2021 also produced documentation illustrating the role of President Xi Jinping in the ongoing atrocities in Xinjiang. Secret documents with some marked “top secret” were leaked around November and included a number of speeches by Jinping that coveredsecurity, population control and the need to punish the Uyghur population.” In another leak, the ASPI was able to uncover “The Architecture of Repression,” after receiving thousands of confidential documentation detailing how the “vast system of coercive state control works.” This system includes human surveillance in the form of “neighborhood committees” and police, who monitor the community, sending “micro clues … when someone does something irregular”.

The documentation involving speeches by Jinping were leaked to the Uyghur Tribunal, a people’s tribunal held in the UK composed of lawyers and rights experts to investigate whether China’s persecution of Uyghurs amounts to genocide. The Tribunal, which had “no state backing and any judgement would not be binding on any government,” heard witness testimony detailing mass torture, abuse, and rape. In December, the Tribunal issued its findings, stating that China is carrying out a genocide targeting Uyghur Muslims and crimes include “torture and the systematic suppression of births.” Additionally, Human Rights Watch also published a report this year finding that China is committing “crimes against humanity” in its treatment of Uyghurs. 

In response to the growing body of evidence illustrating the repression in the region, human rights activists and Uyghurs in the diaspora made numerous calls on the international community to take action, one being to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. They weren’t alone as politicians including UK members of Parliament and US members of Congress supported this action against the CCP. Shortly before the end of the year, President Biden announced a diplomatic boycott of the games in Beijing with Canada, the UK, and Australia following suit and joining the boycott as well. Additionally this year, the US, the Canadian parliament, UK MPs, Netherlands, and Lithuania declared that China is committing genocide. Lastly, President Biden ended the year by signing the Uyghur Forced Labor Act into law, which aims to ensure that goods made with forced labor in Xinjiang do not enter the United States market.

While there seems to be a growing movement calling attention to China’s repression of Uyghur Muslims, the CCP is continuing its campaign, including by expanding it to target other areas where Muslims live in the country, such as by removing the “Arab-style” entrance hall of Xining’s famous Dongguan Mosque, one of the largest in China. Further, the CCP spent the year responding to the growing international fervor by denying the repression and instead producing propaganda in an attempt to control the narrative on Xinjiang. Additionally, a Foreign Policy piece found that militarization in the region is being “scaled down” but it’s being replaced with more insidious forms of control such as internal surveillance and greater propaganda. 

Islamophobia in China has resulted in what rights groups and a number of governments around the globe have called a genocide targeting Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. China’s arguments to justify this repression have all relied on anti-Muslim tropes, claiming that Uyghurs are a “threat” to the state and must be reformed to be good Chinese citizens. This “reform” has involved concentration camps, torture, surveillance, separation of families, forced sterilization, and so much more. While many powerful voices have stepped up to call out the repression, tangible efforts remain to be seen as China continues its mission to “destroy an entire people.”

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