In 2017 China began a harsh campaign against the Uighurs, a primarily Muslim ethnic minority group in the Xinjiang region, under the pretense of “reeducation.” Over one million Uighurs have been detained in what Beijing has called “vocational, educational and training centers” over periods ranging from weeks to years with reports of torture, forced labor, rape, involuntary sterilization and the mandatory learning of Mandarin. While the population of Xinjiang is mostly composed of Uighurs, growing numbers of Han Chinese—the main ethnic group in China—worsened existing tensions between the groups and helped lead to the government’s oppressive crackdown.
A sample poll, taken in Hope College’s Scott Hall dormitory, showed that roughly 61% of students knew about the atrocities committed against the Uighurs, while 39% had never heard of them at all.
China has met international condemnation in response to its horrific internment camps. In January the U.S. State Department classified this wide-scale repression of Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities as genocide and “crimes against humanity.” This move, a culmination of a years-long debate about how to respond to the situation, was made on the Trump administration’s last full day in office. “I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state,” said then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, calling the concentration camps “forced assimilation” and the “eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group.”
“Personally, I was glad that the Trump administration declared that the treatment of the Uighurs is considered genocide and that the Biden administration intends to maintain that declaration,” said Dr. Anne Heath, Hope’s Howard R. and Margaret E. Sluyter Associate Professor of Art History. “As a professional who teaches Islamic art history, it is troubling to think that children are being deprived of their culture, language, history and religion when they are being placed into boarding schools for the purpose of denying them their culture. This practice has an unfortunately long history, including in this country, and so I hope the United States can lean forward and use its influence to forbid this practice.”
The Netherlands and Canada, too, have recently passed legislation and spoken out against China’s treatment of the Uighars. The Dutch Parliament passed a motion last Thursday classifying the atrocities as genocide and calling China’s actions “measures intended to prevent births” and “punishment camps.” Just three days earlier, Canadian lawmakers also passed a motion accusing China of committing genocide, although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet abstained from the otherwise well-supported vote.
“I would imagine that many feel helpless, as this is intertwined with international politics at the highest level,” said Heath. “I am not sure that even humanitarian groups have access to Xinjiang. Giving to Islamic humanitarian organizations such as the Red Crescent, the Zakat Foundation or Islamic Relief USA could be one way [to help]. I suppose we could all contribute by thinking about the things we use and where they come from. China has economic clout via trade and manufacturing. Using less, purchasing American-made products and supporting policies that encourage domestic manufacturing and workers would be part of the larger, long-term solution.”