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Beijing Turned Xinjiang Into ‘Open-Air Prison,’ Senior Official Claims

Tensions over China’s reported abuses of Turkic Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region continued to flare Wednesday after Western nations led by the United States, Britain and Germany demanded “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” for United Nations experts to investigate the allegations.

Speaking at a UN virtual event, diplomats, human-rights groups, labor advocates and academics condemned the ruling Communist Party’s “systematic” persecution of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic groups in the northwestern cotton-producing region, where evidence for crimes against humanity, including forced labor, extrajudicial detention, forced sterilizations, forced separation of families, torture, sexual violence and cultural repression, continues to mount.

“We will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told attendees at a virtual session, which Beijing had earlier denounced as an “anti-China event” that was “politically motivated” and a “desecration” to the intergovernmental institution. “And we will keep working in concert with our allies and our partners until China’s government respects the universal human rights of all its people,” she added.

Germany’s UN ambassador Christoph Heusgen encouraged “all the co-sponsors,” who “came together despite some massive Chinese threats,” to remain committed “until the Uyghurs can live again in freedom, until they are no longer detained, no longer victims of forced labor and other human-rights abuses, until they can exercise freedom of religion and freedom of speech.”

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He further urged Beijing to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and “tear down” its so-called vocational centers, which critics say are essentially brainwashing camps designed to erase inmates’ Islamic beliefs and remold them into model Communist Party members. “If you have nothing to hide, why don’t you finally grant unimpeded access to the [UN] High Commissioner for Human Rights?” he asked.

Describing the situation as “one of the worst human-rights crises of our time,” Britain’s UN ambassador Barbara Woodward noted that the body of proof from a “growing number of credible sources,” including satellite imagery, survivor testimony and publicly available Chinese government documents, is cause for “grave” concern. “The evidence points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups,” Woodward, who was previously the United Kingdom’s ambassador in China, added.

Fernand de Varennes, the UN’s special rapporteur on minority issues, said the UN has wavered in its criticism of Beijing “given the scale of what we have been hearing or the allegations that have been made.”

“I must admit it seems very timid from the side of the UN not to be more vocal and assertive in trying to obtain collaboration from the government of China,” he said. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and there’s a heck of a lot of smoke right now affecting hundreds of thousands of people, most of them minorities, most of them Muslims and most of them Uyghurs.”

The entire apparel industry, said Jewher Ilham, a member of the Uyghur diaspora and a program associate at the Worker Rights Consortium, a Washington, D.C.-based labor advocacy organization, is “tainted by [the] forced labor” of at least a million Uyghurs who are being compelled against their will to pick cotton by hand or work in factories as part of state-sponsored “poverty alleviation” schemes.

“I do not support any use of Xinjiang cotton because that has the strongest connection with forced labor,” said Ilham, whose father, Ilham Tohti, an economist who has called for autonomy for Xinjiang, is serving a life sentence on separatist-related charges. Xinjiang cotton, now banned from entering the United States, accounts for 85 percent of Chinese cotton, which in turn makes up one-fifth of the global supply.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said the UN needs to pressure the Chinese government to end its atrocities against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, and that delegations should urge senior UN officials to press ahead with an investigation of these abuses, with or without access to Xinjiang.

“For years, Chinese officials have tried to cow UN member states into silence about the horrific abuses the authorities are inflicting on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang,” Roth said. “There is extraordinary momentum as governments around the world seek to hold the Chinese government accountable for human-rights violations. The UN’s leadership should follow their example, condemn China’s massive abuses, and publicly report on the rights situation in Xinjiang.”

While Beijing claims to be fighting terrorism in Xinjiang, “few rights-respecting governments buy that flimsy cover story anymore,” Roth said. “UN delegations should demand a full UN investigation that uncovers the unvarnished truth about Beijing’s human-rights record, starting with Xinjiang. The cost to China of continued abuses should be so high that it will have no choice but to change course.”

China has hit back at the event, which it derided as “full of shameless lies and misinformation.” At a press briefing in Beijing Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying called the event “just another clumsy performance and outright political farce by the United States and a few other countries that have no bottom lines.”

The UN session came just as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published new research concluding that coercive policies in Xinjiang have resulted in an “unprecedented and precipitous dip” in birth rates for Uyghurs and other minorities, further compounding accusations of genocide. Citing official Chinese data, ASPI said the birth rate in Xinjiang tumbled by 48.7 percent in the two years following the Communist Party’s campaign to control birth rates in the region. In counties where the population was at least 90 percent non-Han Chinese, the birthrate fell by an average of 56.5 percent between 2017 and 2018.

“Previous research by both Chinese and foreign experts has examined the tightening of birth control policy in Xinjiang and a corresponding drop in natural population growth beginning in 2015, but even more dramatically after 2017,” ASPI said. Authorities used methods such as fines, internment or the threat of internments to discourage births, it added.

At a press briefing coinciding with the release of the State Department’s 2020 International Religious Freedom Report Wednesday, Daniel Nadel, a senior official in the Office of International Freedom, said that Beijing has essentially turned Xinjiang into an “open-air prison.”

“People’s movements are closely tracked,” he said. “You have minders who have been assigned to live with Uyghurs to keep tabs on them. You have people going to the market who have to check in every time they go to a different market stall.”

The oppression of Uyghurs is the “culmination of decades of repression of religious adherents, from Tibetan Buddhists to Christians to Falun Gong practitioners,” Nadel added.

The State Department report on Xinjiang notes that Chinese authorities have “subjected individuals to forced disappearance, political indoctrination, torture, physical and psychological abuse, including forced sterilization and sexual abuse, forced labor, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity.”