Defending China’s Uyghur Population

Not everyone is an advocate, but everyone can be involved in advocacy. When a group of international scholars came together to speak as one voice against China’s mass internment of Uyghur Muslims and other minorities, they turned to 21Wilberforce to help frame and deliver their message.

Over the last two years, the Chinese government has engaged in the mass detention of Uyghur Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities in Northwest China. Thus far, researchers estimate one million people have been detained without trial in mass internment camps, where they are subject to deeply invasive forms of surveillance and psychological stress as they are forced to abandon their native language, religious beliefs and cultural practices. Outside the camps, an additional 10 million Uyghur and minority groups are subjected to a dense network of surveillance systems and checkpoints that severely limit all forms of personal freedom.

For its part, the Chinese government has portrayed the camps as benign, vocational training centers meant to deter the growth of extremism. The regime describes participation as voluntary.

A group of scholars from around the world, who have been following the development and growth of these camps, believes otherwise.  The academics have taken the uncommon step of issuing a joint statement condemning China’s mass internment of citizens. In November 2018,  a coalition of 278 scholars from 26 countries and multiple academic disciplines called on states, multi-lateral institutions, businesses, and academic institutions to apply pressure on the Chinese regime to cease this act of unprecedented repression.

“In general, scholars are less comfortable making policy recommendations, but on this we agreed. It is important to take a stance on things that are objectively true, that we have evidence of,” said Dr. Sean Roberts, Associate Professor and Director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and one of the scholars leading the campaign.

Roberts added, “There is a clear understanding that what is happening in China is a process we have seen before where states essentially seek to completely change the culture of a group, or quarantine a group, or in the most extreme cases, eradicate it. In the 20th century, we saw a lot of that. We thought we had gotten beyond it, but it looks like it is happening again, so there is a sense that we cannot be complacent when we see the signs. It is a moral imperative.”

21Wilberforce helped Roberts and the other scholars develop a communications strategy that would garner international attention for the Uyghur cause among policymakers and the general public. The 21Wilberforce team helped identify the essential message points for crafting the statement of condemnation, then used its advocacy network and expertise to package press materials and plan a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The conference featured remarks by signatories and an Uyghur woman, herself a former detainee in one of the mass internment camps. The news conference was followed by a daylong symposium. The result was coverage by key international media, including AP, Reuters and Aljazeera. Since the statement’s release, the number of signatories has doubled.

Roberts says the group’s aims moving forward are modest. They hope to add to the mounting evidence of the true nature of the camps, and thereby refute the strong messaging that is coming out of China. “We are going to continue to collect signatures, talk with journalists, and reach out to students. For scholars, this is the way we can lend the most support.”

In turn, 21Wilberforce lends its support by being a force multiplier.

Mihrigul Tursun speaks at an event at the National Press Club in Washington, Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. Tursun, a member of China’s Uighur minority is detailing the torture and abuse she suffered at the hands Chinese authorities as part of an escalating clampdown on hundreds of thousands of members of the country’s Muslim minorities. Through a translator she said she spent several months in detention in China where she was beaten, tortured with electric shock and given unknown drugs. (AP Photo/Maria Danilova)