As the world turns its focus and resources to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) across Asia, Europe and North America, far less attention is being paid to the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable populations, including Uighurs in Xinjiang – formerly Eastern Turkmenistan and currently China’s most northwest region. In recent years, the Chinese government has waged a campaign of abuse, which has included political imprisonment, forced labor and torture. Within the camps, prisoners are deprived of basic human rights, contact with their families, religious freedoms and are forced to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). To make matters worse, since the beginning of the outbreak, many reports out of the region have described how the CCP’s reaction has led to the starvation and effective house arrest of millions of Uighurs.
Others have also voiced concerns about the health of over 1 million unjustly imprisoned Uighurs in state-run “reeducation camps.” The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) described extremely overcrowded cells and concentration camp-like conditions within the reeducation camps – both of which are not conducive to social distancing and could lead to a faster spread of the virus. Some experts have used a cruise ship as an example, which closely illustrates the speed and deadliness that a COVID-19 outbreak in prison-like conditions. The United States Institute for Peace also shows how pandemics like the global COVID-19 outbreak pose even greater challenges to low capacity and fragile regions, because they can exacerbate existing instability. The state-run reeducation camps and restrictive quarantine measures have created similar deficiencies of capacity in many parts of the Xinjiang region, so it is not unlikely that they will be similarly affected.
Across Xinjiang, Chinese authorities have taken various methods to lock people in their homes, thereby effectively putting millions of Uighurs under house arrest. Social media posts have documented CCP officials sticking pre-printed seals across doorways to reveal whether anyone has gone outside without permission, thus preventing access to food and other everyday commodities. Because these restrictions were enacted unannounced, people had little to no time to prepare or stockpile food and supplies which has led to mass starvations within Uighur families. Along with this, many people who have COVID-19 symptoms or are sick have no access to testing or healthcare because of the quarantine measures. One video from the UHRP shows a Uighur man who was confronted for being outside: “What’s a person supposed to eat when they get hungry,” he replied. “What should I do, bite into a building?”
Another aspect of China’s war against Uighurs’ basic freedoms has been forced labor as the Chinese government has been accused of transferring Uighurs from Xinjiang across the country to keep factories open in the wake of COVID-19-driven worker shortages. Since the beginning of this year, there has been “a huge increase in the amount of Uyghurs who have been assigned, or ‘graduated’ from these camps and assigned to work in factories,” Nadine Maenza, vice chair of the U.S. commission on international religious freedom (USCIRF), told CNA. While the relocation of Uighurs to other provinces for the purpose of production is a new trend, forced labor has been going on in Xinjiang for some time now. A report published in March 2020 documents 83 multinational corporations who benefit from Uighur forced labor, including regular household names like Nike, Adidas and Apple.
Finally, there is a conspicuous absence of concrete reporting and information from the province – largely attributable to the Chinese government – which has hindered any international response to the crisis. This is combined with an aggressive campaign of harassment and repression against Uighurs living aboard who are willing to speak out. In the U.S. Congress, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019 and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act work to impose sanctions and force companies operating in Xinjiang to prove their supply chains are free of forced labor. One existing law that can also be applied are the Global Magnitsky Sanctions, which allow the U.S. government impose visa bans and place financial holds on human rights abusers’ assets. In all, China’s persecution of Uighurs has been nothing short of a state-led genocide of an ethnic minority. If residents are continued to be denied freedom of movement and access to food, supplies and healthcare, millions of lives will be at risk of sickness, starvation and death.
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.