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China’s repression of Uighurs won’t stop until the international community intervenes

The world at large needs to organize itself to address a crackdown on Muslim minorities whose heroic fight against repression we have so far comfortably ignored.

Mihrigul Tursun, left, testifies about her experiences as a Uighur in China before the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China in Washington on Nov. 28, 2018. Video screenshot

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Mihrigul Tursun is a 29-year-old woman of Uighur ethnicity with a story to tell the world.

“At age 12, I was sent to a school in inner China to deny my culture, identity and religious belief,” Turson told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington last week (Nov. 26). Her testimony, in which she told of the loss of her 4-month-old child, was a dramatic highlight of an event organized by an international group of scholars to call attention to China’s mass internment and psychological torture of innocent civilians.

In a statement, the Concerned Scholars on China’s Mass Detention of Turkic Minorities denounced the escalating atrocities facing Uighurs and called internment camps like the one Tursun was sent to a gross violation of human rights.

Tursun’s experience of family separation, threats, violence, re-education and torture at the hands of the Chinese government puts a human face on these abuses. More than that, it makes clear that the communist regime is not prepared for a woman like Turson. The repression, she said, “only made me more confident in my identity.”

Turson, who wore a headscarf tied at her neck, said she was forbidden in China from wearing the hijab. Most other forms of Muslim devotion are also proscribed.

After praying for death rather than endure more brutality, she said, she was “blessed to have miraculously escaped from the camps and have an opportunity to speak out.”

Uighurs and their supporters march to the United Nations to protest in New York, on March 15, 2018. Members of the Uighur Muslim ethnic group held demonstrations in cities around the world to protest a sweeping Chinese surveillance and security campaign that has sent thousands of their people into detention and political indoctrination centers. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The State Department brought her to the United States in hopes she will inspire Americans to combat faraway human-rights violations the international community has been trying to ignore.

It would be tempting to think of Turson as one of the lucky ones. But even in the relative safety of her new home in Virginia, Turson has suffered debilitating post-traumatic stress: nightmares, sudden bouts of anxiety that the Chinese police will knock on her door in the night and kill her.

There are also physical reminders. She has scars on her body and pain from the chains and beatings. Her two surviving children have extreme physical and psychological health issues.

Stories like Turson’s happen every day in China’s northwest Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Home to Kazakhs and Kyrgyz people as well as Uighurs, together known as the Turkic Minorities, the region has seen detentions, religious repression, invasive surveillance and psychological stress — all of which the world has known about for years, thanks mostly to investigative journalists who have documented the abuses.

So far, however, China has been given a free pass, largely because developing and advanced economies alike want to engage in lucrative trade and commerce with an economy that is the world’s second largest and still rising in its influence.

The U.K., looking to establish trade agreements with China after exiting the European Union, has a particular incentive to turn a blind eye. The United States, though it prides itself on defending international religious freedom, is hampered in its response by its own recent coldness toward refugees and asylum-seekers — as well as its concern for a domestic constituency focused on the persecution of Christians abroad.

To regain its credibility on the Uighur crisis, and on religious freedom and human rights in general, the Trump administration should boldly condemn China for its repression of Muslim minorities.

The Xinjiang province in western China where many Uighurs live. Map courtesy of Creative Commons

The world at large, too, needs to organize itself to address the crackdown. The scholar-advocates at last week’s news conference offered a list of policy proscriptions: States and institutions can demand that China’s dictator-president, Xi Jinping, and regional governor Chen Quanguo immediately abolish the “transformation through education” detention system and release all minority detainees.

Countries can go further and impose economic sanctions. Regulators and consumers can pressure technology companies backed by Western investors, whose concessions on internet surveillance in China implicate them in the repression taking place.

Trump boasted of his successful meeting with Xi at the recent G-20 summit in Argentina. Good (or even mediocre) world leaders can tout trade deals with China. It will take great leaders to confront China on human rights.

The U.S. Congress could pass the bipartisan Uyghur Human Rights Act of 2018, currently pending in both the House and the Senate, directing the executive branch to take action on behalf of China’s ethnic and religious minorities.

The Uighurs’ dire situation may seem far off, but in today’s intertwined world, we must realize that all people of good faith and goodwill can affect lives around the globe. Mihrigul Tursun’s plea may sound impractical, but it reminds us how humanly possible making a difference can be. “If you ever go to China,” she said, “ask about my parents and family. I pray I see them alive again someday.”

(Jacob Lupfer, a frequent commentator on religion and politics, is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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