As evidence mounts of China’s internment of almost one million Muslim Uighurs in the country’s far western region, Western nations have largely failed to respond to the reported abuses, a conspiracy of silence that speaks to China’s still-strong economic and political clout.

In what some critics have referred to as a campaign of “ethnic cleansing”, Chinese authorities have since late 2017 corralled hundreds of thousands of Turkic minority, Uighurs into locked down indoctrination camps in the purportedly autonomous Xinjiang region.

Human rights groups contend that torture and beatings are common in the camps – which form a new “gulag archipelago,” according to some activists – as the ruling Communist Party engages in a social-engineering drive to destroy the Uighur’s traditions, identity and religious beliefs.

But despite the widespread reports of systematized mistreatment, the international response has been at best been muted, and at worst appeasement, Uighur activists and human rights groups monitoring the situation say.

They argue that foreign governments, namely in the rights-promoting West, should impose economic sanctions and threaten to boycott Chinese companies in punitive response.

A Canadian parliamentary committee reported last month that the detention of the Uighurs, as well as other Muslim minority groups, is “unprecedented in its scale, technological sophistication and in the level of economic resources attributed by the state to the project.” Yet the Canadian government has not yet engaged is anything beyond rhetorical criticism.

The United States has sought to tackle China on everything from its military expansion in the South China Sea to reputed unfair trade practices, but indignation over the Uighur issue has been relatively absent in Washington’s broadsides against Beijing.

Uighur men walking into the Id Kah mosque for afternoon prayers in Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region in a 2015 photo. Photo: AFP/Greg Baker
Uighur men walking into the Id Kah mosque for afternoon prayers in Kashgar, in China’s western Xinjiang region in a 2015 photo. Photo: AFP/Greg Baker

In September, President Donald Trump’s administration said it was considering sanctions against senior Chinese officials and companies linked broadly to human rights abuses, though over four months later nothing has apparently come of the deliberations.

US lawmakers introduced legislation in November calling for the release of over one million Uighurs in China, with the bill’s co-sponsor, Republican congressman Chris Smith, referring to the internment centers as “concentration camps” and “crimes against humanity.”

The still pending bill recommends sanctioning individual Chinese officials found to be responsible for abuses and for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track and report China’s harassment of any Uighurs resident in the US.

There are credible reports that the Uighur detainees are being used as forced or low-cost labor, and that the goods they produce are now flooding international markets.

A US State Department official said last month before a Senate committee that Chinese authorities have “indefinitely detained at least 800,000 and possibly more than two million Uighurs, ethnic Khazaks and other members of Muslim minorities in internment camps.”

In October, the European Parliament adopted an emergency resolution on the internment camps and arbitrary detention. “The EU cannot continue with the business as usual approach with China,” said one Italian Member of the European Parliament (MEP) during talks on the resolution. Two other MEPs described what is happening in the Xinjiang region as “ethnic cleansing” and “cultural genocide.”

The final resolution called on Beijing to “immediately end the mass arbitrary detention of members of the Uighur and Kazakh minorities, to close all camps and detention centers and to release detained persons immediately and unconditionally,” among other demands.

But it failed to set a clear agenda for how the EU would respond if Beijing fails to improve the situation, nor did it lay down “red lines” that the European parliament would consider too egregious and prompt a punitive response, including possible sanctions.

Ethnic Uighurs take part in a protest march asking the European Union to call upon China to respect human rights in the Chinese Xinjiang region and the closure of "re-education centers" where some Uighurs are detained, during a march in Brussels, April 27, 2018. Photo:AFP/ Emmanuel Dunand
Ethnic Uighurs take part in a protest march asking the European Union to call upon China to close its re-education centers in Xinjiang, Brussels, April 27, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Emmanuel Dunand

Peter Irwin, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, international organization of exiled Uighur groups, says although there has been criticism at the EU level, “the response has been largely muted” and the actions of individual European states “have been tremendously disappointing.”

“It’s important for states to join together as coalitions to confront the Chinese government, and the EU seemingly presents itself as the perfect entity for this kind of response,” he adds. (Uyghur is an alternative spelling of Uighur).

Reports from survivors contend that inmates are tortured, face sleep deprivation and solitary confinement, and are regularly beaten. Others say that Chinese authorities forbid them from growing beards, and force them to consume pork and alcohol, both of which are strictly forbidden in Islam.

Beijing has denied the reports as “fake news” and “hearsay,” and says the camps are merely for “re-education” where the inmates, who “voluntarily” attend, study Mandarin and learn trades like baking. It also claims that the camps are designed to tackle religious extremism within Muslim Uighur communities.

Some Uighurs have traveled to fight with jihadist forces in the Middle East in recent years, while others agitate for their own independent state. But analysts say these represent a tiny fraction of China’s Uighur community, which has tried to assimilate with the Communist Party’s rules, even as Beijing has for years attempted to “Sinicize” the region.

The arrest of hundreds of highly educated and skilled Uighurs, moreover, has shown Beijing’s claims of merely providing skills to the inmates to be patently false, rights groups say.

“The fact that highly educated intellectuals and academics and scientists and software engineers are being held in these facilities is one of the best counterarguments to authorities’ claims that this is some kind of educational program meant to benefit Uighurs,” Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, was quoted saying in media reports.

The detention of intellectuals who analysts say had previously tried to chart a moderate path between Uighur independence supporters and the Chinese government, including those who publicly supported the Communist Party, indicates that Beijing now aims to purge all manifestations of Uighur identity.

Police watch as Uighur Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after morning prayers in the old town of Kashgar in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele
Police watch as Uighur Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after morning prayers in the old town of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele

The centers should “teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison”, Xinjiang’s party secretary Chen Quanguo was quoted in one recently leaked document cited in media reports.

Another Chinese government document argued that the centers should “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” It went on: “Completely shovel up the roots of ‘two-faced people,’ dig them out, and vow to fight these two-faced people until the end.”

Earlier this month, the Chinese government passed a new law to “Sinicize” Islam within the next five years. One state-run newspaper said that the government “agreed to guide Islam to be compatible with socialism.”

Tens of thousands of Uighurs have fled the Xinjiang region in recent years, with many attempting to get asylum in the West. Europe has tended to oscillate between hosting them and sending them back.

Gardner Bovingdon, a professor and expert on politics in contemporary Xinjiang, wrote in his book The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land that from 2001 onwards the Chinese government has “complained mightily to Brussels and sought in vain to pressure the European Union to refuse space” to the Uighurs on the continent. China warned that failure to heed Beijing’s demands would “damage Sino-European relations,” he added.

In the 2000s, however, most European states were rather supportive of Uighur migrants. Germany, for example, became a base for many of Uighur rights organizations.

Dolkun Isa, the general secretary of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress who was given German citizenship in 2006, was detained by the Italian police in 2017 while on his way to speak at the country’s parliament.

Although later released, it is thought the Italian authorities were following a “red notice” issued by Interpol, an international police organization, which at the time was run by former Chinese security minister Meng Hongwei, who, himself, was detained by Chinese authorities last year, purportedly for corruption.

The site of a suspected internment camp in Shufu County, Xinjiang, as seen in satellite imagery in May 2017. Photo: GoogleEarth

There are numerous examples, however, of ethic Uighur asylum seekers being sent back from Europe to China. Uighurs trying to gain asylum in Europe have contrasted their own situation with those of Syrians, Iraqis or Afghans, who have been welcomed in Europe by the millions in recent years.

(Last year, Germany and Sweden moved to suspend the return of all ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs or other Turkic Muslims to China.)

Political pressure from Beijing partly explains the response, but money likely matters more. During talks in the European Parliament before it issued a resolution in October, one Hungarian MEP asserted that “economic interests cannot be an obstacle to honest dialogue and the demand for legitimate human rights” of the Uighurs .

But this exactly what is happening, say activists and analysts.

Irwin, of World Uyghur Congress, compares Europe’s response over the Uighur issue to its vocal criticism of the Myanmar government, which now faces European sanctions over its maltreatment of its Muslim Rohingya population.

Some in the international community have described Myanmar’s brutal clearance operations that have driven over 700,000 Rohingya over the border into Bangladesh as a “genocide.” Now, some are starting to refer to what is happening in Xinjiang as the beginning of a genocide.

While “it’s easy to pile on criticism against a much weaker state,” says Irwin, referring to Myanmar, “it takes living up to real principles to criticize when you know there may be a threat of an economic cost.”

China is the EU’s second largest trading partner, after the US, and has been a major investor in many European states for many years. So vital is Chinese trade that Europe has struggled to decide whether it should support its historic political and security ally, the US, during the ongoing US-China trade war.

Paramilitary policemen stand in formation as they take part in an anti-terrorism oath-taking rally, in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, February 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters.
Chinese paramilitary policemen in an anti-terrorism oath-taking rally in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, February 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters.

There is also the belief – a false one according to some analysts – that Europe is powerless to affect what China’s government does within its own borders. This, some say, leads to apathy, but Irwin argues this is a wrong reading of geopolitics.

“China knows that there is a particular cost to perpetrating human rights abuses on such a massive scale. The problem is that the international community has not yet increased those costs to the extent that China will be forced to change its behavior,” he says.

It is not only Europe, however, that fears the economic cost of criticizing China’s persecution of Uighurs.

In July, an editorial in the Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party’s tabloid, said that Beijing would help to provide “economic stability” in Turkey, a Muslim majority nation, but only as long as Ankara refrains from making “irresponsible remarks on the ethnic policy in Xinjiang.”

The same goes for the other Muslim majority nations. It took until December for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to publicly express concerns about “the disturbing reports on the treatment of Muslims” by China, which is the main trading partner of 20 of the bloc’s 57 member nations.

But fear of economic retaliation from China doesn’t fully explain the mostly muted response.

After all, some European governments have risked Beijing’s ire and possible financial revenge on other issues, including recently by cancelling contracts with Chinese technology giant Huawei, which stands accused of spying on foreign governments for Beijing.

In that case, many European governments have gambled their economic links to Beijing on national security grounds. Yet they clearly do not think the security of more than a million Uighurs in China is worth the potential economic loss of Chinese trade and investment.