Source: Jae C. Hong / AP

2022 Islamophobia in Review: China

Published on 09 Jan 2023

In 2022, China’s repression against Uyghur Muslims continued. There was growing international concern over the use of forced labor in the camps and how the international supply chain could be tainted with human rights violations.

China’s coordinated discriminatory campaign against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang began in 2017 when the authorities started building a network of concentration camps, which human rights activists have stated hold between one to three million people. China justified its policies by claiming Uyghurs were prone to extremism and needed to be reformed and “re-educated” to be good Chinese citizens. The campaign, which the United States described as genocide in 2021, has involved the criminalization of Islam and expressions of Uyghur Muslim culture, including the shutting down of mosques, razing of Uyghur gravesites, the imprisonment of Uyghur intellectuals, the separation of families, and forced marriages of Uyghur women to Han Chinese men.  

Over the years, public attention has increased regarding the plight of Uyghurs in China as international rights organizations have raised awareness about the situation, and Uyghurs abroad have called on governments and the United Nations to take action. In an effort to divert attention away from the the genocide this year, Chinese authorities took new measures by employing social media to spread misinformation about the current situation in the region.

2022 Beijing winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics were held in Beijing in 2022, despite an international campaign from rights activists and organizations who argued that a country that was undertaking a genocide against a minority community should not have the right to host an international sports competition. In January, over 240 international NGOs issued a statement urging “governments to join a diplomatic boycott of the Games, slated to begin February 4, 2022, and for athletes and sponsors not to legitimize government abuses.”

Despite this pressure, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to engage with questions of human rights, stating that the Games are politically neutral, despite historical evidence suggesting otherwise. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin noted that the IOC “refused to even meet with groups raising awareness about Uyghur forced labor.” He stated that the Olympics in “China, where the government is committing a genocide against Uyghur Muslims, is turning all of its partners into atrocity deniers before our eyes.”

In a February USA Today piece, Uyghur activist Rushan Abbas wrote about what the presence of the Games in China meant for Uyghurs abroad who are unable to contact their families back home, with many having loved ones detained in the camps. Abbas wrote about her role as an activist and how in 2018, her sister Dr. Gulshan Abbas, was detained by the Chinese authorities in retaliation for Rushan’s activism. In 2020, the family learned that Dr. Abbas was “secretly sentenced on false charges designed to give the regime impunity in punishing Uyghurs.” Abbas argued that by allowing China to host the games, it made the sponsors, the IOC, and broadcasters all complicit in the ongoing genocide. 

The Games began with the lighting of the cauldron, and the identity of the individual chosen to do this caused controversy. Journalist Amy Qin for The New York Times wrote the person chosen to light the cauldron is “traditionally an honor given to people who symbolize the host nation, or its sporting history, or its vision of itself. China’s selection of the Uyghur athlete, Dinigeer Yilamujiang for that role, along with a teammate of the Han Chinese ethnic majority, was immediately divisive.” Some stated it was tactical as Beijing used the athlete and her Uyghur identity in a “provocative fashion to whitewash its suppression of Uyghurs.” It was just one of a number of media efforts by the Chinese authorities to dispel international criticism about the country’s treatment of Uyghurs, instead painting a very calculated picture of a minority group that lived a happy and prosperous life in the country. Professor Michael Clarke wrote that given there has been no real action to pressure Beijing from the international community, “China’s propaganda machine will continue to deflect accountability, instead touting the false narrative that Uyghurs enjoy a ‘peaceful, harmonious and happy life.’”

Forced Labor

Forced labor and its presence in the international market was a major issue this year, especially as there have been numerous reports that found that Uyghurs detained in Xinjiang are being forced to work in factories producing goods for the international market. This year in June, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) in the United States came into force. It “assumes that any product partly or wholly made in Xinjiang, north-west China, is linked to the region’s labor camps.” The law greatly impacts the fashion industry, as it’s estimated that “about 20% of the world’s cotton comes from China, and 84% of that comes from Xinjiang.” Additionally, the world’s supply of solar panels are also feared to be tainted with forced labor, as “Xinjiang produces about 45% of the world’s supply of polysilicon, the key component of solar power panels.” In May, researchers at the Agroisolab in Jülich and the Hochschule Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences found that traces of cotton from Xinjiang were found in clothing made by Adidas, Puma, and Hugo Boss. Additionally, there were new reports showing that public pension funds might be complicit in the oppression of Uyghurs as they were passively investing in companies that were “using forced labor or constructing the surveillance state in Xinjiang.” This year was also met with growing calls from students and activists for divestment of “university endowments from companies that are complicit in the Uyghur genocide.”

State propaganda

In 2022, Chinese authorities rolled out strategic campaigns to deflect attention away from its repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Authorities tactically employed state propaganda as a way to divert attention and cover up the ongoing atrocities against Uyghurs in the country.

State propaganda was not only visible at the Olympics’ opening ceremony, it was also present online. In April, a new report from a US-based intelligence company “uncovered a network of more than 600 inauthentic Twitter accounts that spread a positive narrative of China’s far-western Xinjiang region.” The accounts posted thousands of tweets with hashtags such as “#forcedlabor and #humanrights, with seemingly innocuous content such as traditional dancing and scenic photos, as well as videos with individuals denying that forced labor exists in Xinjiang.” The report found that these tweets targeted a foreign audience with the aim being to present a “positive narrative.” Chinese authorities were also accused of using social media influencers to parrot official government talking points to dispel accusations of genocide and maltreatment of Ugyhurs, instead employing carefully vetted vloggers to produce videos showing a more personal and organic experience of life in the region. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (APSI) published a report highlighting this new state propaganda and found that the government’s “disinformation capabilities are evolving and increasing in sophistication,” and that the CCP’s efforts to influence “international discourse on China is largely flying under the radar of US social media platforms and western policymakers.”

The UN Human Rights Chief visits China

In 2022, for the first time in seventeen years, a UN Human Rights Chief was able to go on a country visit to China. In May, Michelle Bachelet embarked on a six-day official mission to China, a historic event which many Uyghurs abroad hoped would mean UN questioning of the Chinese authorities regarding the Uyghur genocide. However, the visit was met with disappointment from rights activists as Bachelet failed to question Chinese officials on their policies against Uyghurs, did not condemn the government’s actions in Xinjiang, and on her visit to the region was unable to speak to detained Uyghurs or families. Following her visit, Bachelet issued an official statement, noting that the visit was “not an investigation,” rather it was an “opportunity to hold direct discussions on human rights.” She noted that she “raised questions and concerns” about China’s counter-terrorism measures and their impact on the rights of Uyghurs but little more was said about the increasing repression in the region. Bachelet’s trip was fully coordinated by Chinese authorities and her free movement was heavily restricted, which affected her ability to carry out a truly independent assessment of human rights in the country. Of the visit, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin wrote that Bachelet tour of the country “ended up helping China deny its genocide against Uyghur Muslims and other repressive policies, harming the cause of human rights accountability in the process.”

During Bachelet’s visit, there was a large leak of classified documents. The Xinjiang police files included thousands of photographs of the faces of prisoners who have been detained in China’s network of concentration camps, and documents revealed that top Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, are personally involved in the mass internment campaign. The documents show the widespread usage of terrorism charges against Uyghurs, and contradict China’s official narrative describing the camps as “schools,” as the images and documents reveal the existence of a shoot-to-kill policy, and states that “blindfolds, handcuffs and shackles are mandatory for any ‘student’ being transferred between facilities or even to hospital.” In May, the Associated Press reviewed leaked data and found that “nearly one in 25 people in a county in the Uyghur heartland has been sentenced to prison on terrorism-related charges.” The number is believed to be the highest known imprisonment rate in the world. All of those arrested were Uyghurs from all walks of life, including the elderly, and had been largely arrested in 2017. The vast majority are still believed to be in prison given the lengthy prison sentences.

Uyghur activists abroad stated Bachelet’s statement of her visit did nothing to dispel Chinese propaganda rather, “she repeated talking points from China itself, offering soft words that do not match the thousands of testimonies of survivors and families in the diaspora.” In addition to Uyghur activists who expressed disappointment at the human rights chief’s allegedly endorsing the government’s official story, dozens of international academics signed an open letter stating they were “deeply disturbed” by Bachelet’s post-visit remarks, which “ignored and even contradicted” the academic consensus on China’s repression against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. During this period of increased criticism aimed at Bachelet’s approach to China, the human rights chief announced that she would forgo a second term in her position. It was unclear if the decision was a result of the backlash around her trip to China, as Bachelet stated she made the decision due to personal reasons. 

Months after the UN visit to China, rights activists and academics demanded the international body release the long-awaited report on the human rights situation in China. Bachelet had previously promised that she would release an official report on her findings from her trip before her term was over. In July, Reuters revealed that China had been actively trying to suppress the release of the report, stating that “if published, [the report] will intensify politicization and block confrontation in the area of human rights.” Beijing’s pressures at the UN were unsuccessful and the human rights chief released her report on August 31, which found that China’s treatment of Uyghurs “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

Ongoing destruction of Uyghur culture

One aspect of China’s genocide of Uyghurs has been to erase the presence of Uyghur history, culture, and identity in Xinijang, which has involved the destruction of mosques and uyghur graveyards. In June, Buzzfeed News published a piece examining China’s campaign in Kashgar, a centuries old city that served as a stop on the silk road. The article discussed the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) reconstruction of Kashgar, specifically how it aimed to erase the Islamic identity of the city by removing the minarets and painting over the Arabic calligraphy on the city’s mosques and installing surveillance cameras inside the prayer halls. While the government tries to remove the physical identifiers of the Islamic faith, it’s also using the mosques as a way to draw in tourists from around the country. The article found that along with the detention of millions of Uyghurs and the erasure of their culture and identity in the region, authorities are “hollowing out Uyghur culture in Xinjiang’s towns and cities, degrading Muslim landmarks, and inviting non-Uyghurs to move in — or visit for a vacation.”

COVID-19 lockdowns

Mandatory lockdowns also continued across China as authorities instituted strict measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, a November fire in a high-rise in Urumqi, which killed at least 10 people, sparked unprecedented protests across the country. People in the city alleged that the individuals died as a result of strict COVID measures, claiming that the doors of the apartment buildings were bolted shut from the outside, trapping residents in. Many noted that Uyghurs were not present in these protests, despite the victims all being Uyghur themselves and many of the protests taking part in Uyghur-majority cities. They stated this was because Uyghurs understand that any criticism of party policy and attempts to protest will result in detention in the camps. They know that any attempt to protest will be met with heavy-handed repressive measures. In light of these protests, academic Jo Smith Finley wrote that “the impact of years of systematic strategies of Chinese state terror against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims means that those communities have remained deathly quiet in the aftermath of the fire.”

Targeting Uyghurs abroad

It wasn’t just Uyghurs in China who lived in fear of the Chinese authorities in 2022, as increasing reports demonstrated that Uyghurs abroad also faced the long-reach of China’s security apparatus. The authorities have employed dangerous measures to target and bring back Uyghur dissidents around the world, including having a “web of spies, informers and sleeping agents scattered or dispatched around the world.” In its efforts to detain and extradite Uyghurs from around the world, China has received cooperation from a number of countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. According to a 2022 report by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, “more than 1,500 Uyghurs have been detained or forced to return to China to face imprisonment and torture in police custody.” A study by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs also found that “around 292 Uighurs have been detained or deported from Arab states at China’s behest since 2002.” China has been able to effectively buy the support of a number of Muslim-majority countries (ex. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan) who would otherwise be sympathetic to the Uyghur cause, by using its economic power.

Preservation of Uyghur Culture 

In the face of an ongoing genocide, Uyghurs abroad have taken steps to preserve their culture and heritage. This has included building schools to teach the next generation. One such school has been founded in Boston, Massachusetts for Uyghur children and adults, where they can take language, religion, and cultural classes. There are also schools in Turkey, which is home to a large number of Uyghurs who’ve escaped Xinjiang. An August Al Jazeera piece profiled one of these schools, noting that of its 160 students, all had family members imprisoned or forced into the concentration camps in Xinjiang. For many Uyghurs abroad, keeping their culture and identity alive and passing it on the next generation is vital, especially given the genocide happening back home in China. In the face of government measures aimed at erasing their Uyghur identity, speaking their language, singing Uyghur songs, and making Uyghur food is an act of resistance as well as self-preservation.