On what should be a day of celebration, 35 million Chinese citizens spent Chinese New Year in lockdown.
These quarantines are medical intervention on an unprecedented scale: the number of people quarantined in the 12 cities dwarfs the population of Australia by 9 million. However, they are not the only ones in lockdown.
As the coronavirus outbreak continues, an estimated three million Uighur Muslims — approximately 500 thousand of them children — remain incarcerated in government-operated re-education camps. Their situation is just as dire.
The Xinjiang internment camps have been in operation since 2017, opened as part of China’s “war on terror.” The centres have operated outside of the Chinese legal system, detaining many Uighur Muslims without charge or trial.
The China Cables
As international news outlets speculate about how China would quarantine entire cities, speculation was also rife about conditions inside the Xinjiang internment camps for the majority of their operation so far.
The first concrete information about camp conditions came in November 2019, when official documents were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists three years after the Xinjiang centres first opened. The documents — called the China Cables — describe an authoritarian regime with “full video surveillance coverage.”
Detainees are tightly controlled and monitored. “Students should have a fixed bed position, fixed queue position, fixed classroom seat … it is strictly forbidden for this to be changed,” the leaked documents specify.
A 2017 memo written by Zhu Hailun — the deputy-secretary of the Communist Party at the time — further instructs camp officials to “never allow escapes,” punish “behavioural violations,” and “encourage students to fully transform.”
The China Cables directly contradict past characterisation of the Xinjiang camps by the Chinese Government as “voluntary vocational education and training centres.”
In a statement, the U.K. Embassy of China called the leaked documents “fake news”. It said the camps were opened as a “preventative measure” in response to “thousands of terrorist incidents” in Xinjiang since the 1990s.
Conflict in Xinjiang stems from economic and cultural factors. The unrest originated in the 1930s and 40s, during which the disputed territory of Xinjiang changed regimes several times until China established permanent control in 1949. Between the 1950s and 70s, state-sponsored mass migration by Han Chinese into Xinjiang significantly changed the ethnic makeup of the region and exacerbated tensions.
BBC News reports that “the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of independent Muslim states” in the 1990s renewed support for Uighur separatist groups. Street protests at the time led to an intensified government crackdown on Uighurs, driving demonstrators underground until sizeable ethnic riots in 2009 that killed 200 Han Chinese.
The most prominent separatist group is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, blamed by the Chinese Government for unrest in the region and described as “the most militant of the ethnic Uighur separatist groups,” by the U.S. State Department in 2006.
ETIM has approximately 200 members according to the United Nations, a number dwarfed by the number of Uighur Muslims sent to the Xijiang camps in a single week as described by the China Cable.
The United Nations has criticised China’s counterterrorism policies on several occasions. In November 2019 — days before the publication of the China Cables — an expert panel of 12 officials released an assessment of China’s counterterrorism laws that states the policies contravene several human rights. These rights include “freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of religion or belief, the right to education and the right to be free from arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance.”
These criticisms have fallen on deaf ears.
However, Japanese manga artist Tomomi Shimizu has been using her art to change people’s knowledge of this issue, and the tide of public opinion is beginning to shift in a significant way.
‘What Has Happened To Me’
Tomomi Shimizu is a political activist who has been shining a light on the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang since April 2019. After learning about the issue through the news in 2018, Shimizu reached out to Uighurs and penned her first manga on the topic “No One Says the Name of the Country.”
Shimizu chose to depict the issue in manga form to make it more accessible to a broader audience, especially those who aren’t as politically engaged. In an interview with Reuters in November 2019, she said “the Uighur issue has been well known among people who are into politics. But little is known among the general public. The gap is staggering.”
Shimizu’s follow-up manga — published in August 2019 and available in 10 languages — played a significant role in closing this gap. “What Has Happened to Me,” tells the story of Uighur woman Mihrigul Tursun, whom Shimzu learned about from the Ughurs she spoke to during the creation of her first manga.
Shimizu based the events depicted in “What Has Happened to Me” on videos of Tursun’s testimony about her time the Xinjiang camps. In the manga, Tursun is detained and separated from her 45-day-old triplets, then interrogated and tortured using electric shocks. Her oldest son dies in custody.
Chinese authorities detain Tursun a second time in the manga, during which she is interrogated for three days without sleep, beaten by police, and forcibly sterilised. The crowding in Tursun’s cell was so significant that the 50 people in the cell had to take turns to lie down and rest.
After being detained a third time, Tursun immigrated to the United States with her children, where she went on to share her story. Shimizu’s depiction of her experiences has over two and a half million views, and some signs in the Hong Kong protests have featured panels from the manga.
However, despite being free, Tursun and her children have experienced harassment while living in the United States and have had to move three times. Shimizu also told the Washington Post that she struggled to get her message shared in traditional news media, with “one scheduled television appearance cancelled at the last minute.”
Behind the Lens of an Activist
News media attention is only part of what it takes to create change on an issue. Independent filmmaker Anya Tunjung is an Australian activist who created the documentary “SOS Manus” with her friends for a school assignment.
The mini-documentary draws heavily on years of news coverage on the treatment of refugees — including Muslims escaping conflict in Syria — in the Manus Island detention centre. Despite the coverage of the issue, little changed on Manus in this time.
“I decided to make SOS Manus because I felt like I had a moral obligation to do so,” explains Tunjung, who felt this issue on a very personal level. “The experience of immigrants and refugees is very personal to me because both my parents are immigrants themselves.”
The conditions on Manus Island have been described as “hellish” by the people detained there. Many detainees suffer from psychological health issues as a result of the environment in the camp. In 2014, a whistleblower released video of “filthy” conditions inside the centre after a detainee died from an infection caught at the centre.
Hearing of the conditions on the island distressed Tunjung greatly.
“I became extremely emotional when interviewing Betelhem Tibebu,” the filmmaker turned activist says, as experiences of Tibebu were worse than what Tunjung had imagined. “[Tibebu] talked about how she felt like she had lost all of her hopes and dreams, and she had seen her friends die in front of her.”
The response to SOS Manus has mainly been supportive, but the documentary is not without detractors. One comment on a Facebook post shared by interviewee Larissa Waters argued for a greater focus on the “treatment of Australians” as opposed to refugees; another questioned the existence of the camps altogether.
Being Muslim in Australia
As a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, Tunjung can be subject to stereotypes in her daily life. “I have had people talk down to me as if I don’t speak English,” she recounts, adding that she feels significant pressure to “prove herself” in public and dispel these stereotypes.
“There was a man who came and kicked me and told me that I should stop squatting around in Australia.”
Sometimes the discrimination that Tunjung experiences can become much more severe. When Tunjung was 12, she was involved in an incident that significantly informs her activism today.
“There was a man who came and kicked me and told me that I should stop squatting around in Australia,” says Tunjung. “It felt even worse that nobody stood up for me. It was a full train, and nobody said anything to him or to me, except for one girl who asked me if I was okay.”
Tunjung is now passionate about using her voice to create social change. “I think apathy in times of injustice and oppression is just completely, morally wrong,” she says. “The most disappointing thing that anybody can do is see injustice and be silent, and think that what they do will not matter — that their voice will not make a difference.”
In Australia, discrimination against Muslims is a societal issue that has even reached parliament. After the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, Senator Fraser Anning released a statement that read “while today Muslims were the victims, usually they are the perpetrators.” In the country at large, attacks on Muslims requiring hospitalisation have risen 3 per cent in recent years.
Regardless of the country, whether it be Australia or China, religious discrimination takes place in these societies on a daily basis. As Australians mark the anniversary of a painful part of our history, and China rings in the year of the rat — famously a carrier of disease — it might be time to see what you can do to eradicate the virus of religious discrimination.
Originally written 26th January, 2020 for the Humanitarian Changemakers Network.