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Minorities in ChinaThe situation of the Uighurs

The Muslim Uyghur minority in China feels oppressed by the ruling Han Chinese. After they came to power in Beijing in 1949, the communists incorporated what was formerly East Turkestan, home of the Uyghurs, into China.

Beijing accuses Uighur groups of terrorism. The US government estimated the number of members of Muslim minorities imprisoned in re-education camps at more than one million at times. With the publication of the so-called "China Cables" at the end of November 2019, the global public became aware of these hitherto secret warehouses. To this day, China speaks of vocational training institutions that are attended voluntarily.

Who are the Uighurs and where do they live?

The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic group in Central Asia. Chinese sources mention it around the year 300. Ethnic connections to today's Turks go back to this time. The Uighurs have been predominantly Muslim since the 15th century.

Around 90 percent of all Uyghurs worldwide live in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, which is formally called the "Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region". The Uyghurs themselves refer to their ancestral territory as East Turkestan. In 1949, with Soviet consent, the Chinese communists annexed the briefly independent East Turkestan.

Blue hatches the Chinese province of Xingjiang, the main settlement area of ​​the Uyghurs. Urumxi (Urumtschi) is the capital of Xingjiang (Deutschlandradio)

The province of Xinjiang is located in the northwest of the People's Republic. While a large part of the population in Xinjiang lives in poverty, the province on the historic Silk Road is actually rich in mineral resources such as oil and natural gas. In addition to Tibetans and Mongols, the Uyghurs are among the largest minorities in China and represent the second largest Muslim population group.

It is estimated that there are up to 20 million Uyghurs around the world. Around 300,000 settle in neighboring Kazakhstan. There is also a Uighur minority in other former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan and Russia.

Uyghurs protest in Munich against the oppression of the minority in China (dpa / picture alliance / Alexander Pohl)

There are now numerous Uyghurs in exile in Europe. The number of Uyghur asylum applications in Germany has increased since the beginning of 2020. Munich has developed into one of its centers in this country.

What reprisals are the Uyghurs exposed to?

Beijing has been settling Han Chinese in Xinjiang since the 1990s - similar to Tibet. This creates considerable tension between the Uyghurs and the immigrant Han Chinese. The Uyghurs thus became a minority in their homeland.

In 2009 there were almost 200 deaths in the capital Urumqi during the fasting month of Ramadan. Uyghurs have repeatedly attacked police stations and demonstrated against the overwhelming power of the police and surveillance measures. In 2014, 90 people died when Uyghurs protested their oppression.

Also four years ago, Uyghur terrorists carried out an attack in Kunming train station in southern China, killing 31. The rulers in Beijing reacted with brutal severity.

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, Beijing has placed the conflict with the Uyghurs in the context of the international fight against terrorism.

Under Mao's eyes: A delegation of Uyghurs from Xinjiang Province before the People's Congress in Beijing (archive) (AFP / Mark Ralston)

Today, Xinjiang Province is like a surveillance state. Every step of the Uighurs is observed with the help of the most modern surveillance technologies. The security authorities of the province are also building a comprehensive biometric and DNA database of all citizens between the ages of twelve and 65. This database stores blood type, photos of the face, an iris scan, fingerprints and DNA samples.

(AFP / Johannes Eisele) Uyghurs in China - surveillance right into the bedroom
Cameras in front of the mosque, re-education camps, state overnight guests in families - there is no trace of cultural autonomy in the "Autonomous Uighur Region of Xinjiang". The reason: concerns about Islamist terror.

There is also a system of compulsory sponsors who enter the Uighur families. More than 100,000 forced sponsors, mostly Chinese government officials or officials from state-owned companies, are integrated into the system. In rural areas in particular, they are supposed to ensure that the Uyghurs cultivate the language and culture of the Chinese majority society. The family godparents are called "relatives", and the program is officially run with the help of local governments.

The government has also continued to restrict the religious freedom of Muslims. The Communist Party forbids the Uyghurs to possess a Koran, as is the use of Muslim symbols such as a star or a crescent moon. Parents are also no longer allowed to give their children Muslim names.

Is the charge of terrorism justified?

The Chinese government accuses the Uyghurs of terrorism and separatism. She demonstrates unyielding toughness towards them while at the same time obviously fearful of loss of control, especially since the land route of the economically extremely ambitious Silk Road project has passed through Xinjiang.

According to assessments by journalist and Islam expert Loay Mudhoon, China sees independence movements, including those of the Uyghurs, as a threat. Uyghurs and other Muslims would be treated as potential enemies of the state per se.

Islam expert: "The Islamic community - a myth"
In India, China and Myanmar Muslims are marginalized and disenfranchised, says Loay Mudhoon, Islam expert at Deutsche Welle. They could not hope for solidarity among fellow believers.

The assessment of Asia expert Ulrich Delius, director of the non-governmental organization Society for Threatened Peoples, goes in a similar direction. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, he said that the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz also interned were "never even remotely charged with terrorism charges. Therefore, there is no reference to terrorism allegations." He sees the Uyghur conflict as a homemade problem that has nothing to do with international terrorism. Delius described the repression of China as an "extermination campaign against Muslim nationalities".

What happens in the internment camps?

At the end of 2019, leaked documents from the Chinese Communist Party power apparatus revealed the existence of re-education camps in which a total of one million people, including Uyghurs, but also members of other Muslim Turkic peoples such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz people, were interned. Experts speak of a gulag system that can withstand historical comparisons.

(ARD-Studio Beijing) Documents about Uyghur persecution - China is systematically suppressing
Human rights organizations have long suspected that up to a million Uighurs are living in re-education camps in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Documents from a journalist consortium now prove this.

The documents, some of which were classified as "secret", were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Media partners all over the world have checked and evaluated the documents together. In Germany, NDR, WDR and Süddeutsche Zeitung were involved in the research. They were published under the catchphrase "China Cables".

Camp near the city of Hotan, in the Xinjiang region of northwest China (Greg Baker / AFP)

According to the sinologist Adrian Zenz in the ARD international magazine Weltspiegel, the documents show "in detail that the Chinese government has been carrying out a mass re-education campaign in this region since 2017 under the name of vocational training". At the same time, according to the expert, "the documents also give a shocking certainty that the whole thing is a systematic and, above all, a secret campaign". Zenz, who is also a member of the "Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation", spoke of a "cultural genocide" in an interview with tagesschau.de.

(AFP / Emmanuel Dunand) Escape from China - The Fate of the Uyghurs
According to witness reports, Uyghurs are sent to Chinese camps, where they are mistreated and re-educated. Some of them flee to Turkey. Their government is now allowed to investigate the situation of the Uyghurs in China.

Beijing had initially denied the existence of the camps. It was later said that the camps were vocational training centers for deradicalization. Its actions in Xinjiang Province justified the country in the Chinese and English editions of the Global Times, a state-run newspaper, with reference to the successful fight against poverty and the containment of terrorism in the region. The Chinese Embassy in London informed the British Guardian that the documents were "pure forgery".

At the beginning of July 2020, Uyghurs in exile requested the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate China over the treatment of their ethnic group. The court in The Hague is not required to examine the complaint. The decision is made by a competent public prosecutor.

How is the West reacting to the human rights violations?

In Germany, the revelation about the re-education camps caused outrage because German companies apparently also used the camps as production facilities. For example, the DAX groups Volkswagen, BASF and Siemens are based in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Volkswagen still wants to hold on to its plant in Xinjiang. The car company declared that "based on the assumption of further economic growth in western China in the next few years, it will continue to rely on the plant in Urumchi," said the state government of Lower Saxony in response to a request from the Greens. According to the information, there are no indications of human rights violations in the plant that VW operates with the Chinese joint venture partner SAIC.

(dpa-Zentralbild / Stefan Sauer) Bütikofer (Greens): - "Unacceptable if European companies make profits out of misery"
The systematic suppression of the Uyghurs by the Chinese leadership, perfectly organized with artificial intelligence, is a new quality, said the Green MEP Bütikofer in the Dlf.

According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Aspi), the Chinese authorities also transferred more than 80,000 members of the Muslim minority who were interned in labor camps in Xinjiang Province to other parts of China between 2017 and 2019. There they would have to work in factories under strict surveillance. These factories are part of the supply chains of at least 83 well-known international brands in the technology, textile and automotive industries, Aspi said.

The Times of London noted in a July 8, 2020 comment that the belief that the attraction of international capital could drive China to openness and democratic reforms had been refuted by the events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The tragedy of Xinjiang will continue because of a complicity of the West.

(Imago) German companies in China - moral obligation to withdraw?
German companies do good business in China - also in regions where Muslim Uyghurs are systematically oppressed by the Chinese government. Your engagement is controversial.

The US government has implemented sanctions against the country because of China's handling of the Uyghurs. The federal government has not yet issued any sanctions. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert also declined to give advice to German companies. Instead, he demanded:

"We now have to concentrate on ensuring that these reports can be checked independently by representatives of the United Nations, by the human rights commissioner, so that it is possible for the world community to get an idea."

France's foreign minister calls for independent observers in the Chinese settlement areas of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities:

"All actions in the area are unacceptable because they violate all global human rights conventions, and we strongly condemn them," said Jean-Yves Le Drian. He called for China to allow international observers and the High Commissioner for Human Rights access to the region.

What is the Karakax List?

In February 2020, leaked material was published again: the so-called Karakax list, named after the Karakax district southwest of Xinjiang's capital, Urumchi. The lists of personal information about people under surveillance also indicate the reasons for arrest and interception, for example:

  • grow your beard
  • Trip to Dubai
  • Pilgrimage to Mecca
  • Closure of a restaurant in the fasting month of Ramadan
  • repeated visits to mosques or donations to mosques

Security forces patrol in front of a closed mosque in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi (Picture Alliance / dpa - Report / Diego Azubel)

The most common reason listed for Uyghur internment is violations of family planning laws. In the meantime, research by the AP agency and an expert report have raised serious allegations against the Chinese government that it is using targeted measures to limit population growth in the Muslim settlement areas, including forced sterilization and abortions. According to this, the birth rates in the predominantly Uyghur regions around Kararkax and Kashgar fell by more than 60 percent between 2015 and 2018.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry denies the allegations, just as it condemned the publications from the Karakax list as forgery and "fake news".