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The erasure of Xinjiang

IS CHINA trying to erase the identity of the Uyghur people? Of the 10m Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, western China, around one in eight is now interned in a re-education camp, and the rest might as well be.

China is using intense surveillance, street-based facial recognition, QR-coding of homes, obligatory tissue typing and iris scanning, not to mention detention and re-education, to achieve an Orwellian level of control. Intelligence officials are allocated as “adopted” family members, and digital devices have spyware installed. Uyghur rights groups say children are now being taken from their families, the Uyghur language is banned in schools and workplaces, mosques are being destroyed and there are restrictions on wearing a headscarf, growing facial hair and choosing culturally-significant baby names.

According to Human Rights Watch, having too many children, owning a tent, watching a film made abroad, refusing to denounce family members, speaking Uyghur in public, refusing tissue-typing, having a VPN (virtual private computer network) or making or receiving an international telephone call can all result in indefinite internment.

Personal citizenship scores are allocated based on behaviour. Fewer points mean heavy restrictions on everything from employment to freedom of movement. It is nearly impossible for Uyghurs to live outside Xinjiang, since renting rooms to them is a crime. Uyghurs living overseas have lost contact with relatives back home, now knowing if they’re just afraid to respond, in detention or dead. Executions for “separatism” are common, but in November a prominent Uyghur businessman, Abdughapar Abdurusul, was sentenced to death for performing Hajj.

The rest of the world, meanwhile, remains silent. Even Arab nations, vociferous in their criticism of ill-treatment of Muslims in Israel and Myanmar, seem unaware that 10m Muslims are being corralled and controlled in western China, rendered increasingly invisible as their cultural identity is carefully eradicated.

Why does nobody object to this growing totalitarianism? In 1997, US president Bill Clinton confidently told China that repression left it on the wrong side of history; but in 2019 Big Trade speaks louder than rights and freedoms, and China is a hugely significant trading partner which spends untold billions around the world, not least on Middle Eastern oil.

It’s not only governments that are silent, however. Even private individuals are more complicit than they might realise. Mainstream western investment funds (on which most UK pensions rely) have profited from Chinese companies like surveillance camera makers Hikvision and Dahua, whose share prices rose sharply thanks to massive snooping contracts in Xinjiang. Chinese facial recognition company SenseTime has attracted huge western investment and is now the world’s most valuable AI platform.

Historically, the attempt to eliminate ethnic groups through suppression and ghettoisation has been a precursor to physical genocide, attracting international outrage; but China’s bloodless ethnic cleansing is more sophisticated and so avoids triggering those irritating accusations of crimes against humanity. Once people are contained, their children re-educated and their cultural identity erased, time and patience will do the rest. Thus may the Uyghurs, crushed by the Chinese state and condemned by global indifference, go quietly into that good night.

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