By Tim Maby, 22 July 2020
China is one of the worst violators of religious freedom, claims Ben Rogers, of the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He has been campaigning for years to persuade religious leaders to take this up with the Beijing government.
This week, the issue has been prominent in media coverage, especially the plight of the Uyghar population in northwest China. A film went viral on social media, showing men, widely believed to be Uyghur, blindfolded and chained, being led onto trains. The Chinese ambassador to the UK, interviewed by the BBC, denied all knowledge.
LBC radio presenter Maajid Nawaz went on hunger strike to secure 100,000 signatures for a parliamentary debate. Then US customs seized a ship loaded with 13 tonnes of human hair, thought to be from Uyghur people, a story that so outraged Jewish communities that the Jewish Times devoted a whole front page to it.
In a Religion Media Centre webinar, Jewish Times news editor Justin Cohen said his team were “utterly shocked . . . When people visit Auschwitz, the thing that they come away with, perhaps above all else, is the piles of shoes and piles of hair. You can’t help but feel the consequences. The response to the story has been massive. I hope that it has generated further conversations. There’s no doubt that it has woken people up.”
James Palmer of the Foreign Policy magazine in Washington, who has spent many years in China, explained that after initially denying all reports of mistreatment of the Uyghurs, the Chinese government is now itself publishing much detail. They have admitted that the camps pictured on BBC news are holding many hundreds of Uyghurs, but claim that their purpose is re-education, not detention.
Journalists from Radio Free Asia, who speak Uyghur and Chinese, have been calling police stations in China demanding information and are often given details about arrests because they are taken for officials.
Enver Tohti, a Uyghur who escaped China 25 years ago, told the RMC webinar he had been an oncology surgeon in Xinjiang when he found he was being expected to cut out an organ from a healthy Uyghur prisoner. He has since become a campaigner against what he believes is a widespread practice of selling organs forcibly harvested from prisoners. He says the register of people volunteering to donate their organs in China is one of the lowest in the world proportionately, while the number of transplants is one of the highest.
Another refugee, Rahima Mahmut, who is UK director of the exiled World Uyghur Congress, said she left after being caught up in protests in Xianjiang in 2000. Many were killed in a government crackdown, including members of her family. She said people dared not argue with the police, nor even go to the police stations to ask about family members, because they would be arrested.
Dr Rian Thum of Nottingham University specialises in Islam in China. He says the community is long established over many centuries. Xinjiang is known to the Uyghurs as Eastern Turkestan and their language and culture has links to Turkey, Iran and Uzbekistan. Being at the end of the Silk Road through Asia, the area contains many other minorities and was only brought under Chinese rule 260 years ago.
It is only in the past two decades that the Beijing government began its campaign to subjugate the Uyghurs said Dr Thum and it was “staggering” how open it now was, issuing details of how much the camps were costing and even admitting that women were being sterilised, or being made to marry Han Chinese.
Ben Rogers, who is east Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said he was distressed at the lack of Christian leaders speaking out against the Chinese oppression of the Uyghurs. As a Roman Catholic he was shocked at the silence of Pope Francis. He believed a secret deal had been made between the Vatican and Beijing two years ago, presumably to protect Chinese Catholics. He knew that the Vatican gave the atheist Communist Party a say in the appointment of bishops. It did not, however, seem to have led to the release of many Christian clergy and members, and indeed arrests were still going on.
David Taube of the Quilliam anti-terrorism think tank said it was a mystery why there had been no outrage on behalf of the Muslim Uyghurs from the rest of the Muslim world. He thought that partly it was because Muslims did not want to be associated with Donald Trump’s confrontation with China, but also that it did not fit into theories about western imperialism.
In the United Nations, Muslim countries lined up to support China, which he thought was because they depended on trade relations. Also, most Islamist organisations were funded by either Qatar or Iran, both of which were politically aligned with China.
Edwin Shuker, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the webinar that they had been campaigning for more than a year to support the Uyghurs, including lobbying the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The expression “concentration camp” had struck a chord with many Jewish people as had the pictures of shaven-headed men being loaded onto trains, The Board of Deputies had planned a joint platform with Muslim organisations, but it had collapsed because they were “bombarded” by complaints from Islamists for sharing with Jews.