Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. World
  2. Asia
26 July 2019updated 04 Sep 2021 4:11pm

MPs can no longer hide from the mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in China

Over the last three years, the Chinese government has subjected 13 million ethnic Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims to repressive surveillance and mass arbitrary detention.

By Yasmin Qureshi and Alistair Carmichael

This week saw a change of Prime Minister and all the inevitable media fanfare that comes with it. Yet while Westminster remains caught in a fractious and acrimonious deadlock, there are pressing issues abroad which need attention. Perhaps the greatest of these is one that is still only at the periphery of the public consciousness: the mass-incarceration of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang Province of China.

Although tensions in Xinjiang are decades old, there has been a dramatic shift in policy since 2016. Over the last three years, the Chinese government has subjected the 13 million ethnic Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims, alongside the smaller minority faiths in the province, to repressive surveillance and mass arbitrary detention. Satellite images show enormous facilities rapidly emerging across the region, surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire. Those within the camps are reportedly subject to forced political indoctrination and religious oppression.

Estimates of the exact number of prisoners vary but most commentators put the figure at somewhere between 1 and 2 million. Even the lower of those figures would make it the largest mass-incarceration since the second world war. At the same time as these camps being built, mosques and shrines are being torn down. All expressions of religious feeling are viewed with suspicion, from wearing veils to refusing to eat pork.

A number of apps are also used to track Uighurs’ movements and activities in order to assess their ‘threat-levels’. This is just one facet of a wider surveillance system which invades every aspect of their private lives and monitors their every movement. Thousands of police stations have sprung up across the region and correspondence with family members outside of China is either banned or closely monitored.

This is clearly a deeply complicated issue and there are no easy solutions when it comes to addressing it. Whatever happens with Brexit, the UK needs to develop strong international trading links. We already have an important relationship with China; in 2017, it accounted for 3.6 per cent of UK exports and 7.0 per cent of all UK imports. However, it is equally essential that our desire for political cooperation and mutually beneficial trade does not come at the expense of our values.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

There is clear evidence that those values are being violated systemically and fundamentally in Xinjiang and it is wrong to accept silence any longer. Two weeks ago, the UK joined 21 other nations in voicing their concerns about the “political re-education” camps established in the western-most province of China. Disappointingly, 37 other nations signed a joint letter in support of China’s actions.

We urgently need to build a consensus both in the UK and internationally that repression of the type and scale seen in Xinjaing is simply not acceptable. This issue has come up several times in Parliamentary debates and we are aware of concern from across the House. That is why we are setting up a Cross Party group looking into Religious Freedom in Xinjiang.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

Our aim will be to initiate a short inquiry after Parliament returns from recess. Through written evidence, expert witnesses and personal testimonials, we will look to explore exactly what is happening and discuss what useful steps can be taken. Much more needs to be done but this must be a first step in providing a space where politicians can work across the political divide to highlight and propose solutions to an issue which we can’t afford to hide from any longer.

Yasmin Qureshi and Alistair Carmichael arethe Labour MP for Bolton South East and Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland respectively. Together they co-chair the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Freedom in Xinjiang.