China: Uyghur’s Invoke Global Moral Laryngitis

Jul 9, 2020 by

Tom Watkins has been a regular contributor to EdNews since its inception  and many other statewide, national and international print and electronic news outlets going back decades. He has a lifelong interest in all things China and has traveled extensively throughout the country and has worked and written about buildings educational, economic and cultural ties between our two nations going into four decades. He was recognized as EdNews 2010 Upton Sinclair Award winner.

Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins

As the 21 century unfolds and as this presidential election is demonstrating, the U.S./China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. All major global issues will intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, DC. As Tom has demonstrated, how our respective leaders address these global issues will impact tbe people of China, the U.S. and all of humanity. 

Tom, is quick to point out he is no “expert” on China and doubts there are few that can wear that badge given China’s 5,000 year continuous civilization and its depth and continuous evolution.  He is one of most vocal Americans about educating people about China and its importance to the USA, home to 1/5 of all humanity. 

Tom is known for his thoughtful analysis and providing a balanced picture of the good, the bad and the ugly that has taken place as China has shaken off its convulsive history and has soared as Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world 40 years ago. He challenges China on areas that need to be challenged and acknowledges areas such as poverty eradication where they deserve praise.

China’s poverty reduction effort unprecedented in world history

China’s and America’s collective future are inextricably linked. The relationship between our two great nations will continue to shape the world. Sadly, far too many in the West are painfully uninformed about what is happening in the world and especially in China. 

I asked Tom if he would shed some light on a subject few in the West are paying attention to – but should, the treatment of one of the 55 ethnic minorities in China, the Uyghurs. 

Tom Watkins, has a rich and eclectic professional background has served the citizens of Michigan by leading two major departments in state government:  Mental Health and Education as well as serving as deputy chief of staff to the governor.  He has held academic and administrative leadership position in higher education and has a business background serving as a consult with a major CPA firm, president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL and living and working in China. He has written for over three decades about the importance of building a strong relationship with China. Read some of Tom’s China thoughts here: CHINA US Focus-Tom Watkins

Take a moment to learn about one aspect of the US China relationship and how it will shape the world.

Uyghur’s Invoke Global Moral Laryngitis

China is now and has been extremely sensitive about other nations’ interference in what the government considers its internal affairs.

While all nations share a sensitivity to perceived interference from other nations in their internal affairs to some degree or another, considering China’s forced capitulation to foreign powers from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries (their century of humiliation) it is easy to understand their current hyper-sensitivity. 

Yet, when does morality and human decency trump a nation’s right to totally control what happens within its borders? When do nations stop denying reality, look the other way? How do they overcome moral laryngitis and do more than pass resolutions, make speeches, and write Opinion editorials in opposition to what is taking place, taking more decisive action? When does silence and lack of action equal complicity or appeasement? 

Has China used its powerful financial global strings as an “economic silencer” that keeps nations wanting to do business with them quiet about perceived  inhumane acts against a Chinese minority?

These are question world leaders need to ask themselves as the alleged atrocities in Xinjiang are being carried out and documented against 11 million Uyghur (pronounced “we-gar”) Muslims in this faraway region of Northwest China. What happens in one country impacts others – and often, all humanity.

I wrote about the rising tensions between the Chinese Communist Party in a Detroit News article in 2013 pointing out that China’s Uyghur problem as a global issue, predicting that the world would soon be hearing about this small Chinese minority as time marched on— and it has.

Uighur’s, descendants of Turkish people, once constituted a major empire, converting to Islam several centuries ago. Their population – disputed – ranges from 8 to 15 million. They live throughout China but are concentrated in the Xinjiang (meaning “New Territory” or “New Frontier”) Autonomous Region in Northwest China. Xinjiang is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Mongolia to the northeast, and Kirghizstan and Tajikistan to the northwest and west. To the west and southwest lie Afghanistan and Pakistan; to the south Tibet and India. To the east—1,500 miles away—lies Beijing. Xinjiang is so remote that it is obscure to most in the West. The Uighurs refer to this area by its historical name, East Turkistan or Uyghuristan. Many Uyghur communities also live in countries neighboring China, such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

The region’s name, Xinjiang (meaning “New Territory” or “New Frontier”) Autonomous Region suggests the Uyghurs’ autonomy and self-governance. But to the contrary, similar to Tibet and increasingly in Hong Kong, Xinjiang is tightly controlled by China.

I first visited Xinjiang in 2008 returning again in 2018. The change was like night and day. In 2008, the region was open, its people relatively joyous. In 2018 it had the feel of an occupied zone with Chinese police in constant sight, often three armed police/security officials standing back to back every 20 yards or so. Checkpoints were routine, passports were demanded, and questions came at you in machine-gun fashion. To enter your hotel, tourist areas, or a shopping mall or bazar requires airport security precautions. I saw old and very young people along with women, yet there appeared to be a scarcity of men between 16-50.

In recent years, the Chinese government has turned the region into a policed surveillance statewith sophisticated surveillance technology and a surge in security personnel. China’s Xinjiang region is home to 1.5% of the country’s population but accounted for one in five arrests in 2017.

Uyghur’s are watched constantly by security authorities both in their homes and on the streets with drones, voice printing, and facial recognition cameras. They are also forbidden from entering certain places of business and must present their ID cards first, which describes them as “safe,” “normal,” or “unsafe.” It has the feel that their every movement is monitored and recorded. 

Some argue the region has become a dystopian state.

When I last landed in the capital, Ürümqi, I bartered for a taxi and upon entering noticed and was later informed that all taxis are equipped with video and audio recording devices in the front and back seats. Wave ‘Hello’ to Big Brother!

The treatment of the Uyghur’s have been well documented: 

• In May 2014, China launched its “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” (严厉打击暴力恐怖活动专项行动) in Xinjiang. Arrests have increase threefold since then.

• The Chinese government has reportedly detained more than a million Muslims in “re-education camps,” or what Chinese officials call ‘vocational training centers’. Yet, human rights organizations call these camps, political reeducation communist party prisons.

• According to experts, eight hundred thousand to two million Uighurs and other Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained since April 2017. Most people in the camps have never been charged with crimes and have no legal avenues to challenge their detentions.

• China has been accused of forcing Uyghur Muslims to work at factories that produce goods for well-known global companies including Apple, Nike, BMW, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen. 

• What is taking place in Western China has resulted in one of the greatest mass atrocities the world has seen in decades. It is arguably this young century’s most egregious crime against humanity. 

• Claims of cultural genocide and concentration camps intended to eradicate Uyghurs language, traditions, and ways of life has been seen as bad enough. Yet new evidence has surfaced that the Chinese Communist Party has also imposed on the Uighurs a form of demographic genocide with forced sterilizations for women and other measures aimed at reducing the population. The information demonstrates that China is systematically using pregnancy checks, forced intrauterine devices, sterilization and even abortion to reduce the population of Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang. 

China’s leaders first denied the camps existed, then later claimed they were schools for vocational education. The world knows they exist, and it is not right — now what?

Confront, Accept or Ignore?

In his new memoir, John Bolton, staunch conservative and former National Security Advisor to President Trump, wrote that Trump said, “Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.” 

Trump denies he said this. 


I know some of my China friends will argue that the reports about the assault on Uighur people are exaggerated or justify the acts as necessary to control a terrorist group within China. They will offer the age old argument “whataboutism” pointing out U.S history of its treatment of minorities that is less than stellar: from genocide to stealing the lands from Native Americans, enslaving people from Africa, abusing Chinese laborers, forced relocation of Japanese Americans to concentration camps during WWII – our list of atrocities is long.

My Chinese friends discuss the sensitive subject of treatment of Uighurs in China when they are through throwing our ugly U.S. history in my face as well as our current politics, pointing out that inequities still exist in America today – from poverty to lack of equitable health care as signs of America’s own “human rights abuses”.

While it can be argued that what is transpiring in China today and America’s history about slavery and American Indians has some parallels, there is no moral equivalency today relative to America’s problems and what China is doing to the Uighur people.  

As I write this article, America is far from perfect. We continue to struggle to reach the ideals that our founding fathers – some seriously flawed – spelled out for us in the Declaration of Independence. We struggle daily to be a more perfect union. 

Yes, China, we still have problems that require focus and work in the USA.

Crackdown Justification 

Chinese leaders will take examples of gruesome attacks by Uighurs in the past as justification for the wholesale rounding up and “re-educating” of what they perceive as “bad apples”.

Chinese officials rationalizes its clampdown on Uighurs and Muslim minorities under the guise of combating terrorism and extremism with a stated goal is to eradicate extremism and separatist groups. Yet, there’s scant documentation of any cohesive, organized radical separatist movement that is a possible threat to the Chinese government.

It might be argued this is a chicken-and-egg issue over why some Uighur people have become radicalized and violent.  Many analysts believe this development has been a reaction to the strict controls, limitations, and repression in all walks of life that are imposed by the Communist authorities who have restricted religious freedoms and denied economic opportunities. 

Chinese Communist Party Perspective

Not surprisingly, the Chinese Communist Party tells inquisitive Western powers to keep their snout out of China’s internal affairs. They contend that their actions are being carried out in the name of counterterrorism, an attempt to snuff out real threats within their borders. They see their policies and actions as “counter-terrorism, deradicalization and vocational training policies.” 

The Brookings Institute argues while what is transpiring in Xinjiang is deeply troubling and abhorrent, attempting to modify it, verges on the impossible. They argue, one has to be in the mindset of Chinese leaders to understand the historical threat has often emerged within China’s borders. 

The World Looks Away and Sends Mixed Signals

With the problem being magnified for the world to see— why the moral laryngitis? 

The Guardian’s Nick Cohen, recently wrote an opinion piece questioning why the people who should be shouting the loudest – wealthy Muslim Nations – are instead bowing their heads in adoring  silence to the evil taking place.  

President Trump, in a desire to appear tough on China as his re-election grows closer, recently signed into law a bill authorizing sanctions against Chinese officials over the treatment of Uyghurs. His actions are juxtaposed to heated allegations by former National Security Advisor Bolton that Trump privately expressed his approval to Chinese President Xi Jinping of the alleged terrorist internment camps last year.

Few expect much to change in Xinjiang for the Uyghur people.

It is vitally important that on this issue and most others around China the U.S. would be better served building coalitions with our allies in responding to China. The ‘go it alone’ approach simply allows China to play one nation’s interest against the other. Together, we are truly better.

“Never Again”

Is what is transpiring in China today genocide? Clearly, history has taught us that the dehumanization of a people sets the stage for more inhumanity and evil to come.

“Never again” became the battle cry of the post-Holocaust Jewish community – never again will the world be allowed to stand by in silence while genocide is taking place. 

The world should not act as an ostrich, sticking its collective head in the sand. Nor as sheep silently ignoring what the blind can see as Uighur people are being persecuted.

The world has a morale responsibility to speak out and attempt to address this tragedy no matter how much China protests and claims nations are interfering in their internal affairs. Silence is unacceptable. 

Inside the dystopian state of surveillance and repression in Xinjiang | ABC News

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