Students speak out against China’s Xinjiang internment camps

Saharla Mohamoud

China is experiencing the largest mass internment of a minority group since WWII. According to Vox, an estimated one to three million Uyghur Muslims are currently being detained in “re-education centers” and are forced to undergo “psychological indoctrination camps,” along with torture, forced conversions, and many more in the Xinjiang region. These camps have inspired numerous WS students to take action on behalf of the Uyghur people.

The news has shocked many people around the world, but more specifically, students in WS. To some students, like junior Sofia Zaidi, these camps sound almost too horrific to be true. 

“It hurts me in a negative way to even imagine the pain these Muslims have to face daily,” said Zaidi, “I find it unfair and cruel to treat humans in such a manner, and I want justice to be served.”

Multiple students have taken to social media to spread awareness by posting infographics, articles, videos, and petitions relating to the subject matter to assist.

  “I have posted on my Instagram about what’s going on in China, and I participated in a petition [about] not watching the movie Mulan and getting it removed due to it being filmed in the place where Uyghur Muslims are being held,” said Zaidi, “Similarly, many others have been posting awareness to educate the general population to help take action!”

Even a few protests around the DMV have also sprung out, where students have shown up to support not only the Uyghur community but also Hongkongers, Tibetans, the people of Taiwan, and other organizations who have also fallen victim to the Chinese Government.

“I always go to free Tibet protests, [and] often at these protests we often see Uyghurs too,” said freshman Tenzin Werner, “Just a month [ago] I participated in a Tibetan, Uyghur, Hongkonger, and Taiwanese anti-China protest.”

According to UHRP (Uyghur Human Rights Project), the Uyghurs are ethnic and cultural Turks that reside in Central Asia areas, commonly known as East Turkestan, which takes up around one-sixth of China’s total land. Uyghurs have had a long history dating back almost 4,000 years relating to trade and religion, but today, they practice Islam and live predominantly secular lives.

Within the last couple of centuries, Uyghurs have been routinely discriminated against on their land by the Chinese Government. Since 1949, East Turkestan has been a sight for nuclear testing, Chinese military encampments, and parliamentary groups. Because of this, Uyghurs have been struggling with cultural survival and escaping harsh punishments for expressing their identity and values for decades. Mosques are closed down, the Uyghur language is banned from school, and Uyghurs continue to be the only ethnic population in China frequently, with a few rare exceptions, executed for religious and political offenses.

“It’s an extremely sickening situation,” said junior Zohal Sadiq, “it saddens me that millions of people are being tortured, etc. because of their religion or beliefs”.

Although these abuses have been going on for decades, the introduction of internment camps, or “Vocational Education and Training Centers” as the Chinese Government officially calls them, started their operation back in 2017. According to PBS, inside these nearly 400 camps in the Xinjiang region, there have been reports of interrogations, forced labor, and brutality towards numerous Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turk Muslims, Christians, and other marginalized groups. 

Many victims of these camps gave testimonies about their experiences like 30-year-old Mihrigul Tursun, an Uyghur who told the National Press Club that detainees would often get electrocuted, starved, beaten, and strip-searched. She went on to describe how she would rather die than go through the torture she experienced. Gulzira Mogdyn, a Kazakh and Chinese citizen, detained in December 2017 and later put on house arrest, told the Washington Post that she was forced to undergo a physical examination where her child was terminated against her will.

Other former inmates have recalled being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol (which is forbidden in Islam), read propaganda, praise Chinese President XiJingping, and subject themselves to sexual abuse.

Uyghurs’ discrimination for their Islamic faith has also hit close to home for Muslim students, as it reminds them of their own experiences of being a Muslim in today’s world.

“As a Muslim myself, it hurts seeing more of my own people getting treated like this for believing the same things I do,” said Sadiq, “and what hurts me even more is seeing the whole world do nothing to put an end to this.”

Other students, like Werner, have a personal connection to the discrimination taking place in Xinjiang due to their place of origin.

“I’m Tibetan. My people were brutally massacred by the Chinese,” said Werner. “Currently, we are facing mass internment, no religious freedom, etc., just like the Uyghurs.”

The Chinese Government has denied all claims about mistreatment and abuse until overhead images of camp construction surfaced. They were recognized as “re-education centers” meant for “de-radicalization.” Despite this, China refuses to allow any UN officials to inspect them. It has made it extremely hard to get information on what goes on in them, mainly due to their disinformation policies.

A few students, like Zaidi, believe that this is still happening because of internalized hatred in the western world.

“The cause of the situation is most likely due to racism [and] religious differences,” said Zaidi. “The situation was never addressed by world leaders, so it spread and had gotten worse.”

Others believe it has more to do with world politics surrounding China as a whole.

“By going against the Chinese government, it could negatively affect that country’s economy, which is selfish,” said Sadiq, “But that’s how the world is, especially with first-world countries. They don’t intervene in issues that won’t benefit them in any way.”

According to the UN, In October 2020, 39 letters they received relating to China’s Xinjiang policies were negative, while 45 (including China) supported the camps. No country, however, has taken direct action against the bases. To some students, like Zaidi, this news was disappointing.

“The world has not done a good job of addressing this situation. Many Muslims are still held hostage within these camps, and [China has] not stopped,” said Zaidi, “No one has taken enough action to stop anything going on in China to stop and help prevent innocent lives from facing cruel punishments.”

When it comes to finding a solution, students believe that they should actively go against China in the name of morality instead of siding with them in economics.

“World leaders need to sanction China,” said Werner, “They need to hurt China’s pocket, strip visas from Chinese nationals, and actively condemn the communist party.”

As for what’s going on in Xinjiang, the conflict is only growing, with around 60 new camps being built just this year. Students, however, are still holding out hope for the Uyghur people and wishing them the best.

“Inshallah, the world will open their eyes and stop the pain Uyghurs are going through,” said Sadiq.