Foreign Affairs

The Uyghur Crisis: Social Media Speaks up When Foreign Powers Falter

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In September 2017, the news of “re-education centres” in the Xinjiang province of China was first reported. In due course, it became clear that the Chinese government was working to brainwash the Uyghur people of Xinjiang.

China maintains that the “students” at these camps reside there at their own will. They are portrayed as having been prone to extremism and uneducated before the re-education centres “transformed” their minds. Xinjiang province or East Turkestan is located on China’s eastern border with Central Asia. Its indigenous people are known as Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic group separate from the country’s majority Han Chinese.

Due to this, an independence movement grew in the province, peaking in the early 2000s. China henceforth began to view the Uyghur population as a threat to national security and began to promote invasive security measures. These include the collecting of DNA data of all Xinjiang residents, and randomly checking smartphones for “dangerous” material.

This battle for national security has been escalated into a flat out war on Uyghur culture and Islam. Propaganda encourages men to not keep beards, and women to not wear a veil in a bid to impose China’s state atheism. The Uyghur language, a Turkic language written in an Arabic-based script, is now a rare sight in public spaces.

A Weak International Response

Despite their clear existence and the sheer number of these camps, all potential international responses have been muted. Some countries have condemned the existence of the camps, although none have gone so far as to threaten China with sanctions.

Perhaps what is most disturbing is the reaction of Muslim countries to the camps. The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, which has 57 member states, released a statement “[commending] the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens”. One estimate shows that 1 in 6 Uyghurs have undergone detention at some point.

Social Media Frustration

The lukewarm reaction of foreign governments has prompted an outcry over social media. Figures such as Khaled Beydoun, a law professor with a large Twitter and Instagram following, have been spreading awareness of the persecution which Uyghurs face. Professor Beydoun vocally criticises the actions of Beijing against Uyghurs on his platform. He also points out the failure of many Muslim and Western nations to take any action over the Uyghur persecution. 

Meanwhile, various petitions on platforms such as Change.org are garnering millions of signatures, demanding that foreign governments take action over China’s blatant contradiction of basic human rights.

Furthermore, reports of forced-labour at Xinjiang’s internment camps have prompted boycotts of companies such as Nike, H&M, Uniqlo. All have resulted in investigations into their supply chains and workers. H&M went as far as to stop using cotton sourced from Xinjiang within the next 12 months. Currently, Disney’s recent Mulan film is facing boycotts after reports that filming took place in the province.

However, social media reaction to the crisis hasn’t been entirely perfect. Among the numerous infographics giving useful and accurate information, false statistics suggesting that the death toll of Xinjiang’s internment camps has surpassed that of the Holocaust have been spread. Although this does not detract from the fact that 8 million Uyghurs were interned between 2014 and 2019.

Beijing claims to have closed these camps in 2019, but recent data suggests that there are 360 camps in the region. As more stories and images of the camps and their detainees spread, the demands for action grow louder on social media.

#MuslimLivesMatter is currently trending on Twitter. On TikTok and Instagram, users are changing their profile pictures to an image of an Uyghur woman being silenced by the Chinese flag. Social media users are making it clear that they will not allow the Uyghur crisis to go unheard.

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