The Uighurs — Turkic Muslims of China’s Xinjiang province, also known as East Turkestan — suffer from a covert but aggressive colonisation that demands the attention of decolonising academics, artists and activists.

China’s neighbour, Pakistan, has been lambasted by human rights groups for not speaking out on Uighur persecution. Pakistan’s quietude may stem from reliance on Chinese military allyship and hopes for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

However, some Pakistanis have called for greater scrutiny of China’s actions in Xinjiang and for Pakistan to take a more vocal stance against the mistreatment of the Uighurs. In Dawn in 2020, Rafia Zakaria drew welcome attention to Uighur resistance poetry. Today, I scrutinise non-fiction about the Uighurs. In my next column, I’ll examine the small but growing body of fiction by the regions’ novelists.

Nury Turkel’s book No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs won the Moore Prize for Human Rights Writing in 2022. Turkel interweaves stories of various Turkic Muslims — a young woman who wins a scholarship to Egypt, a middle-aged teacher of the Chinese language, an elderly journal editor who disappears into the camps — with his own autobiography as a student and then an attorney exiled in the United States.

The Chinese government uses multi-pronged tactics to silence such dissenters’ narratives. For Turkel, this included threats to his elderly parents stuck in China’s northwest, whom he claims not to have seen for 20 years.

China’s government is also alleged to be erasing Uighur culture. ‘Re-education centres’ established in the region are — notwithstanding the comforting euphemism — said to be concentration camps, into which people disappear without trace.

The aftermath of 9/11 provided justification for actions taken against Muslims around the world, including in Gujarat (the 2002 Indian violence), Kashmir and Palestine. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has also used the so-called ‘global war on terror’ to persecute the Uighurs. Yet, according to multiple sources, there’s no cohesive terror threat. In an investigation for his monograph The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign Against a Muslim Minority, American anthropologist Sean R. Roberts concludes that the region’s ‘terrorism’ consists of isolated acts committed by lone actors.

The Uighurs’ plight escalated from 2017, with a ramping up of internment and disappearances that amounts to cultural genocide. The CPC buys other countries’ silence through economic imperialism and control of ports.

While in power, US president Donald Trump was impressed by China’s strongman president, Xi Jinping, and was unsympathetic to the Uighurs. Far-right Trump also has a history of anti-Muslim politics.

Turkel shows how Chinese authorities subject the Uighurs to various atrocities. In 2020, many Americans were shocked to discover that the hair used in their extensions or weaves came from Xinjiang’s Uighur women. This discovery was especially disturbing for African-Americans. Descendants of enslaved people, they had inadvertently helped another minority group be exploited and abused.

Beyond being used for their hair, Uighurs are also subjected to forced labour. Most starkly, the picking of cotton under harsh conditions again recalls slavery. Some fashion companies, such as H&M, have taken a stand against Uighur slave labour.

Reports speak of forced sterilisation and mysterious pills with damaging consequences being distributed to Uighur women. Such actions not only grossly violate human rights, but aim to erase an entire civilisation, and raise alarms about the Chinese government’s genocidal practices.

In relation to the way of life, too, China’s government is implementing a digital dictatorship, using surveillance technology to monitor and control the Uighur population. Spyware apps installed on phones means Xinjiang’s denizens can’t go anywhere without these handsets monitoring their every move. Highly disturbing is Uighurs having to host members of the Orwellian-named “Pair Up and Become Family” programme, compelled to pose for photographs with houseguests thought to be Chinese government spies.

Uighurs are coerced into disavowing Islam while displaying a performative, almost worshipful reverence for President Xi Jinping. In this way, to quote the title of one of Turkel’s chapters, the CPC is trying to “delete a culture.”

Against the backdrop of this violence, Gulchehra Hoja’s A Stone is Most Precious Where it Belongs: A Memoir of Uyghur Exile, Hope and Survival reminds us of the human cost of the Chinese government’s campaign of elimination. As an actor, musician and a journalist for Radio Free Asia, Hoja’s voice has been vital to raising awareness of the Chinese government’s repressive tactics.

The memoir is a profoundly personal account of Hoja’s experiences as a prominent Uighur journalist, describing her detention by Chinese authorities, a failed and a successful marriage, and the births of her children. Above all, it’s an effort to report the stories of other Uighurs subjected to the regime’s persecution. Through her writing, Hoja attests to the Uighur people’s courage.

Turkel asserts that Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong were testing grounds for the CPC’s repressive measures against the Uighurs. However, the Chinese public are kept ignorant of these realities.

China used Covid-19 as a smokescreen to conceal the violence. Experts such as Turkel and Roberts highlight the virological language regularly deployed by Chinese government officials amid their negative depictions of the Uighurs. This Muslim minority population is portrayed as a biological threat to the civilised world that must be either eradicated, or indefinitely quarantined before their ideology spreads to others like a disease.

In The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World, British historian Peter Frankopan quotes a communist leader who speaks of Uighurs as suffering from an “ideological illness” that needs to be purged to “cleanse the virus from their brain and restore their normal mind.”

According to Canada-based professor Anjuli Raza Kolb’s Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion and Terror, 1817-2020, Muslims from many parts of the world, not just China, have long been “wrapped in both Islamophobia and the figural vocabulary of contagious disease.” Now that Covid is less of a threat, it is crucial that the international community wake up to Islamophobic atrocities in Xinjiang.

The columnist is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York and author of three books. She tweets @clarachambara

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 23rd, 2023

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