A few weeks ago, the Anchor published an article on the Chinese oppression of Uighur Muslims. Despite its massive scale, this human rights crisis still isn’t widely known or condemned. The government of China has gone to great lengths to make sure that these abuses stay under the radar and to quiet international criticism. That’s because the government of China has both an incentive to repressively police the region home to the Uighur people and a means of ensuring that other countries don’t speak out about the situation: a trillion-dollar, continent-crossing trade and infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As the BRI attracts more international support, the internment of Uighur Muslims increases and the United States attempts to make a trade compromise with China, it’s important to get the facts on China’s plans and understand their full implications. In 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the start of two major development efforts: the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
The names of the two initiatives, later known collectively as the Belt and Road Initiative, refer to the original Silk Road trade routes that extended from Central Asia to Europe, setting China at the center of early globalization. A similar ambition underlies the BRI, which President Jinping hopes will assert his country’s economic power and open new markets with a vast network of highways, pipelines, railways and maritime shipping passages stretching westward and southward. Now, almost six years later, the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that China has invested up to eight trillion USD in BRI projects. More than 65 countries, which account for a third of the world’s GDP, are involved. Although China advertises the BRI on its official website as “the road that links us all” and a project open to private investment, the initiative has been surrounded by controversy from the beginning. Some see it as an aggressive assertion of Chinese ambition while others have called attention to the way BRI involvement could trap countries in debt. The most serious of these concerns, however, is the BRI’s connection to the ongoing oppression of Chinese Muslims. Business Insider explains that the Xianjiang region, home to the Uighur minority, stands in the path of multiple BRI routes.
Experts have noticed that growing emphasis on these projects corresponds to an escalating crackdown on the Uighurs. The Chinese government has tried to prevent human rights objections from countries involved in the BRI by inviting journalists and diplomats to take carefullycontrolled tours of their “reeducation camps” in Xianjiang. Claiming that these camps offer vocational and cultural education to Uighurs, the government of China has asserted that it has nothing to hide. Those who have been imprisoned in these camps tell a different story, one that involves abuse, brainwashing and forced renunciation of their faith. During her visit to Hope College’s campus early last month, Dr. Larcyia Hawkins, who became famous for her controversial display of solidarity with Muslims around the world, said in an interview with the Anchor, “If we’re not seeing the dispossessed, the marginalized, we need to figure out where they are.” As China’s projects progress and gain increasing support, the U.S. and the international community must not fail to see the marginalized people caught in the middle of this massive economic initiative. While the BRI presses forward and the U.S. debates its policy toward China, the freedom of the estimated two million Uighur Muslims hangs in the balance.