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What the diplomatic boycott on the Beijing 2022 Olympics means to Uyghur Muslims

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are weeks away and the diplomatic boycott of the games is continuing to ramp up hostilities amongst nations. Although athletes from these countries will be attending the games in China, political figures will be displaying their absence as a symbolic gesture for human rights — citing issues like the oppression of the Uyghur minorities in the Xinjiang province. More specifically, these measures are being taken as a slap-on-the-wrist towards the Chinese government in reaction to alleged genocidal activities and crimes against humanity, as reported by Human Rights Watch

While there is substantial evidence that these issues exist, there has always been speculation as to why the international community — particularly the Global North — is so selective when it comes to upholding international law.

There are questions about why Canada upholds itself as a beacon of human rights if it has contracted $15 billion worth of monetary aid and weapons to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its conflict with Yemen — now projected to be the worst humanitarian crisis in history by the United Nations.

Along the same vein, critics point to the international community turning a blind eye to the annexation of Palestinian land and question why the world is choosing to enforce human rights now, alleging that this must be some orientalist plot against a rising global superpower from the far East. 

Unfortunately, there has been many a time where these critics have even gone as far as to indulge in genocide denial by asserting that the Uyghur genocide lacks the necessary evidence to be categorized as such. While there may indeed be political and economic motivations backing this boycott against China, these biases do not take away from the very real horrors and experiences of those who have been brave enough to speak their truths.

Political and economic games aside, these are human lives that are being impacted. In an interview with the Gauntlet, Ilziba Yusup — an Uyghur-Canadian woman studying at McMaster University — shares the experiences of her community and provides a very human face to matter. 

“When I was back home [in China] in 2014, you kind of felt the shift of things becoming more tense,” said Yusup. “On the streets, you would see Uyghur people being dragged — there was a pregnant woman who was running a stall and because she didn’t have a stall certificate, the police grabbed her, dragged her out […] they just took her away and at that point no one expected these tensions to turn into human rights violations.”

However, one of the hardest aspects surrounding genocide is understanding whether or not a genocide is taking place. That is often because of how incremental and censored the tactics of genocide often are.

There is a popular saying that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water it will instantly leap out — but if you put it in a pot filled with comfortably lukewarm water and gradually turn up the heat, the frog will fail to notice the creeping change in its life circumstances until it is eventually too late. 

The same argument can be made about the politics of genocide, which is why outright genocide denial is often an enabling tool used to gaslight victims while simultaneously prolonging their suffering. Along the same vein, Yusup, who was born in Xinjiang and immigrated to Canada with her family when she was nine-years-old.

“When I was growing up it was just small things and you didn’t really see the oppression outright — but now children are being separated from their families and people are disappearing,” she said. 

“People back home might not realize what’s going on. If their relative is missing, they are not going to tell you that they’re in a camp but instead just ‘away,’” she adds. “Through the grapevine, you start hearing that people are being taken and wonder where they’re going — and then your own family and friends start going missing.”  

Analysts at a non-profit global policy think tank, Research and Development (RAND) Corporation, reported in April 2021 that over 1 million Uyghurs alongside other ethnic minorities have vanished or been sent to camps — which are numbered to be around 380 that are scattered across the region.

While the Chinese government initially denied the existence of these camps, they later referred to them as re-education camps for potentially radical Islamic extremists within the Uyghur community. 

“My mother’s cousin is missing — my close friend’s grandfather was a prominent [Uyghur] cultural writer and was detained and later sent to the camps,” said Yusup. “He had diabetes and wasn’t taken care of or provided the medically necessary treatments so he ended up passing away in the camp a few years ago.”   

For a government administration to begin sending its minority populations to detention facilities due to their ethnicities and religion is a clear indication of group persecution — one of the most common stages of state-led genocide.

According to Genocide Watch, members of a victim group undergoing this stage are “segregated into ghettoes, deported into concentration camps, or confined to a famine-struck region and starved […] their property is often expropriated and programs are implemented to prevent procreation through forced sterilization or abortions.” 

All of the aforementioned atrocities have already unfolded in Xinjiang, China. Not only have individual Uyghur women come forward about forced sterilization but their experiences concur with data coming out of Xinjiang that confirms the rise in intrauterine divide (IUD) placements in the Uyghur-dominated region were 80 per cent of China’s total in 2018.

Timestamped satellite footage from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) also indicates that over 30 per cent of Uyghur Muslim mosques, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes have been completely demolished in the province — an additional 28 per cent being damaged or altered into other facilities.   

Even Uyghur Muslims who have left China continue to live in fear. Within this interview, Yusup expressed her fear about talking about the genocide and even using her own name and identity. 

“There have been instances where people living here [Canada and the US] have been threatened and — should they have family back home — have been told ‘if you continue to do this, we’ll send your family to a camp’ or other forms of online harassment.”

Yusup herself can attest to the level of reach of the Chinese government on Canadian soil. 

“When I went to a Uyghur genocide protest, I saw people taking photos of me,” she said. “Later when my dad went back to China to visit family he was interrogated at the border and the Chinese police had photos and files on our entire family.” 

Politics and genocide-related semantics aside, there is something to be said about the human condition if a minority group continues to live in fear of their oppressors despite living outside a region of violence. It is undeniable that what is happening to the Uyghur Muslims not only within Xinjiang — but also internationally — is a genocide that is poorly disguised as a state-led anti-extremist effort.

This is a critical point in time during which one of two things can occur —  world powers will continue to behave as bystanders due to their own interests not to enter the conflict, thus enabling such genocidal actions to repeat themselves, or the international community can intervene and enforce laws against genocide for the purpose of holding China accountable. 

The diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics is far from a solution, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. While such political gestures have no level of leverage behind them that would impact China’s actions in any way, Yusup concludes that “it’s important that world powers are at least doing these symbolic things to show it’s not okay and that they [Chinese officials] need to be held accountable.”

In the recent past, the Gauntlet released an article that implied that the Uyghur genocide did not exist or was blown out of proportion. The writer of this article chose to cite Chinese state propaganda alongside other conspiracy-based sources that lacked the foundational validity to be considered a factually correct opinion. This was in part due to a serious lack of oversight on the part of the Gauntlet’s Editorial Board and such missteps will not be made again in the indefinite future. The Gauntlet will ensure that all writers, assistants, editors and staff are committed to factually correct and reliably-sourced information. Our staff will never tolerate the denial of genocide or the trivialization of human rights atrocities. 

Gauntlet Editorial Board

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