At the end of March, the EU sanctioned China over Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang following the U.S.; the first time China faced such international backlash since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Europe also continues to debate the use of Chinese technologies like 5G, all while China is actively threatening and surveilling dissidents outside its borders to continue its attempt for cultural genocide against Uyghurs, Tibetans, and other ethnic minorities.
Dissident Alerk Ablikim, a Uyghur activist studying philosophy at Leiden University, described an account of one threat he received from the Chinese government: “After I met with the former American ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra, I took the train to go back home. I was called by private number, I answered and said hello, and it was silent, but I could hear in the background screaming in what sounded like Chinese,” he said. “And after about eight seconds, there was only a heavy breathing in the foreground, which was quite, quite intimidating.” Alerk went to the police. They traced the call to China. This was the second threat he received as an activist, the first being an email in Uyghur telling him if his activism continued, it would affect his family.
Alerk has become a target of the Chinese government because he has spoken out about his own experience as a member of the FreeUyghur which is a part of the East Turkestan Youth Congress and through being featuredVice. When Alerk was eight he fled to the Netherlands with his mother. His father stayed in China, but eventually Alerk lost contact with him. He later found out his father was in a concentration camp. That was all Alerk knew until a year ago when he received a TikTok video for the Chinese propaganda assimilation campaign, in which after “about thirty eight seconds, my father came into the picture and that was a crazy moment because there was a confirmation for me that he was still alive.”
The Chinese Communist Party has used concentration camps in East Turkestan, also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a Muslim majority region in China, to spread Chinese economic and intelligence capabilities globally and in Europe. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Uyghur concentration camps hold “some eight hundred thousand to two million Uyghurs and other Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, who have been detained since April 2017.” Despite international backlash, China has framed these efforts as a part of an “anti-terrorism” agenda into Europe. The Washington Post confirmed last week that China is spying on Muslim dissidents and journalists in Europe and in the United States.
When I spoke with Alerk about his homeland, he wanted to clarify the correct way to refer to the region of Xinjiang, “Xinjiang is the term that we Uyghurs tend not to use because Xinjiang literally means, New Borderland, ” he explained that “there’s an equivalent word for Tibet, which is Shi Zone — but nobody uses Shi Zone, yet everybody uses Xinjiang. We call it East Turkestan because that was the name of our former republic.”
East Turkestan and Tibet are both regions that China has made its priority to submit and control. Alerk recognizes the economic pressures behind China’s decision making, like the Belt and Road Initiative, and the fact that “most of the uranium deposits come from the Uyghur area, gold, gas, coal, of all things that the rapidly industrializing nation needs are there.” That said, he does not think these pressures are the main determinant: “I think the more fundamental policy of the Communist Party is the one party, one state idea, to have a homogenous country that listens to the party.”
While Alerk lives in Europe his story and the message he tells is similar to other Uyghurs living outside of China. Murat Mexman, an Uyghur living in Almaty, Kazakhstan has had five families in his extended family go missing in China, suspected to be imprisoned in the Chinese concentration camps. Murat himself has been imprisoned multiple times by the Chinese government for “minor misdemeanors” like having a photo of a Chinese tank on his phone or for protesting outside of the Chinese embassy.
Murat makes it clear that no one is safe from Chinese influence, even in Central Asia. “When I was in jail there was a group of about 15 people sitting there. I talked to them. Mostly there were Uyghurs, Kazakhs, there were no Chinese there at all, everyone was admitted for administrative violations, facing three years of hard labor for Chinese railways,” he said.
Both Murat and Alerk hold the same desires for the future. Alerk said, “even if the international pressure helps and the camps were closed and the whole genocide is stopped with perhaps millions of casualties, the Uyghur people and the Chinese people will never be able to live together,” because Alerk understands it as a “cultural trauma that is never going to go away.”
While the EU’s sanctions in response to these atrocities are mainly political symbolism, it is a newly hardened stance from Brussels towards Beijing, as written by Henrik B. L. Larsen, a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in the Harvard International Review, “In contrast to the United States,” who sanctioned China in early 2020, “Europe only fully woke up to the dangers of Chinese technology during the COVID-19 crisis.”
Still, Alerk sees these sanctions as half baked and largely symbolic: “(the U.S and Europe) place sanctions on people that don’t really matter, for example the leader Chen Zhengrong, he wasn’t sanctioned at all.” As for the strength of the sanctions, the sanctions on China are “less restrictive than for example, Russia.”
This hesitation from the EU comes with China being their largest trading partner, but now the risks of Chinese human rights violations and Chinese technologies in Europe are becoming more direct.
The CCP has been able to detain Muslim minorities due to new technology capabilities such as artificial intelligence (A.I.). Rushan Abbas, the executive director of the rights group Campaign for Uyghurs, told Reuters: “We cannot ignore the fact that these technologies have been developed in order to be able to efficiently carry out…brutal oppression.”
These exact technologies are now making their way to Europe as China has reached 700,000 5G towers worldwide, and Germany is currently brokering tech agreements with Chinese companies directly linked to the camps in Xinjiang.
According to Roman Barták, professor of computer sciences and A.I. at Charles University, said when it comes to A.I. technologies, “what may have seemed impossible a couple of years ago is now becoming very possible.”
Barták made it clear that A.I. here in Europe has the ability to distinguish between race and physical features down to the ability to track one single person in a crowd of hundreds, but he stresses to not put many restrictions on what can be done during the research, “But in the area of usage of technology, the ethical issues and also the legal issues are much more imperative,” he said.
China’s influence is advancing into Europe, but for many it has been felt heavily for some time. What Alerk and Murat hope for, is that everyone, including young people get involved, because they can make a difference in this issue. Alerk highlights three key components to getting involved:
- To sign various Uyghur human rights petitions (list posted below)
- To boycott brands and companies supporting or profiting off the Uyghur concentration camps. (list posted below)
- And lastly, to vote. Alerk said it’s very important to “vote for a party that stands with the issue.”
Petitions to Sign
Sanction China for Human Rrights Abuses: https://www.change.org/p/claire-mccaskill-sanction-china-for-human-rights-abuses-against-the-uyghur-muslim-minority
Stand up for the Uyghurs: https://www.change.org/p/stand-up-for-the-uyghur-muslims-in-china-antonioguterres-amnesty-un\
Free Uyghurs: https://www.freedomunited.org/advocate/free-uyghurs/
Beijing 2022 Olympics: https://www.norightsnogames.org/petition/
Release of Professor Rahile Dawut and other Uyghur scholars: https://www.change.org/p/xi-jinping-petition-for-the-immediate-release-of-professor-rahile-dawut-and-other-uyghur-scholars
US Congress: https://www.stopgenocide.org/close-the-camps/
UK Sanctions: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/300146
Companies to Boycott
- Xinjiang Silk Road BGI (gene editing)
- Beijing Liuhe BGI (gene editing)
- OFilm Group (forced transportation of Uyghurs across China)
- Changji Esquel Textile
- Hefei Bitland Information Technology
- Hefei Meiling
- Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories
- Hetian Taida Apparel
- KTK Group
- Nanjing Synergy Textiles
- Tanyuan Technology
- Lens Technology
- BAIC Motor
- Calvin Klein
- Cerruti 1881
- Changan Automobile
- Founder Group
- GAC Group (automobiles)
- Geely Auto
- General Motors
- Hugo Boss
- Hart Schaffner Marx
- Jack & Jones,
- Japan Display Inc.
- Land Rover
- SAIC Motor
- Tsinghua Tongfang
*Written in collaboration with Julie Ostapjukova, an International Relations student at Anglo American University