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.
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.
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.