The Université Libre de Bruxelles’s (ULB) EASt, the school’s East Asian Research Centre, hosted an event at the Press Club in Brussels on 14th May 2019, which drew attention to the dire plight of the Uyghur people in China. This event, titled “The Uyghur Camps in China”, gave a platform to academics and activists alike. It brought together speakers from Brussels, Copenhagen, and Finland to try to find ways to stop the Communist Party of China’s suppression and abuse of the Uyghur and other ethnic minorities.
Rune Steenberg, from the University of Copenhagen, provided those present with a history lesson of the Xinjiang region. Steenberg was a regular researcher on education and training in China until he began asking questions regarding the rapid rise and expansion of “camps” in Xinjiang. Steenberg helped the audience contextualise what has been happening to the people, both Uyghurs and Han Chinese, living in that region. He also highlighted the challenges of talking about the camps and distinguishing fact from rumour, an issue that is raised by conflicting Chinese propaganda and Uyghur testimonies.
In Steenberg’s concluding remarks he emphasised that China’s original intention in creating these policies and ’camps’ was to prevent radicalisation. However, it is now the actions of Chinese authorities, who are often left unsupervised and uncontrolled, that is pushing the Uyghurs and minority ethic/religious communities into extremism to protect their heritage, culture and most of all their families.
Joining Steenberg was Vanessa Frangville, from the ULB’s EASt research centre. Frangville has been collecting information and collaborating with concerned academics and researchers around the world to coordinate an information centre that reflects the realities of life in the camps, and for those living under repression in China. Frangville explained how a consolidated approach and increased awareness through numerous different actions around the world was having the desired effect of displaying solidarity with the Uyghur people while also attracting the attention of politicians and human rights organisations. Frangville pleaded that it was time for Europe, and the broader international community, to act.
The academics were joined by Uyghur activist Halmurat Harri Uyghur. Harri is now living in Finland, but most of his family still believed to be living in the region. Harri shared harrowing stories of relatives, including the separate disappearance of his own mother and father in early and late 2017, respectively. He described how he and many like him feared the brutality of the Chinese state and it is this fear that stops the family members of those detained from speaking out.
Halmurat’s mission since his parents were taken two years ago has been to start a movement of family members posting public videos to the internet demanding the immediate release of their relatives. In his case, his campaign lead him receiving a photo sent to his phone in 2018, that showed his mother and father clean and well dressed. This eventually led to a phone call. But as Halmurat sadly reported, the conversation they had was strained. His parents had to make all calls from within a supervised room.
His parents are back at home now, living under a form of house arrest. Their time is not their own, nor can they freely speak with their son. But for Halmurat, even though his family has been ‘freed’, the battle is not over. After the presumed death of “Abdurehim Heyit”, followed by the CCPs release of a video proving that Mr Heyit was alive Harri launched a further campaign titled #MeTooUyghur by posting a video that challenged Uyghurs to post a video demanding proof of the wellbeing of their parents.
Harri highlighted “The ethnic cleansing of the Uyghur people has taken many forms. The government forces marriage of women, and takes children from their parents, to be raised in what are essentially orphanages, where the children are taught everything and anything besides Uyghur-culture, language, lifestyle and ideology. This method of disconnecting children from their culture and heritage through re-education is a common technique in cultural genocide.”
All three speaker agreed that for now, the best and most realistic thing we can hope for the closure of these camps. Ending this oppression and freeing the Uyghurs from these abhorrent conditions. Madi Sharma Member of the European institution for civil society, the European Economic and Social Committee, moderating the discussion, closed the proceedings by calling on the audience to not turn a blind eye, to take responsibility and continue the path of speaking out and awareness raising “While these atrocities continue to be committed by one of the largest powers in the world. It is essential that events like this be held. The responsibility to try to stop the CCP seems to have once again fallen on Europe’s shoulders. If China is not taught that this behaviour will not be tolerated by the international community, then it will continue and very few people in China will be safe.”