On 10th September, 2018, the family of retired Uighur doctor Gulshan Abbas lost contact with her after she disappeared from her residence in Urumqi in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). For years their desperate search for answers was met with silence, with last week marking the third anniversary of her disappearance.

In December, 2020, her family learned that she had been sentenced to 20 years in prison on unfounded charges of terrorist activities. In a telling indicator of the challenges faced in getting information out of the region, the trial had actually taken place in secret in March, 2019, a full 21 months before Dr Abbas’ family learned of its outcome.

Gulshan Abbas

An artist's image of Dr Gulshan Abbas.

 

"[Dr Abbas] is by no means alone in her detention either. Estimates of those detained in the region are currently placed at between one and three million, with the majority of detainees belonging to the Uighur, Kazakh and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups. Non-religious Uighurs, Uighur Christians and Han Chinese Christians have all also been arbitrarily detained in the region."

The doctor is by no means alone in her detention either. Estimates of those detained in the region are currently placed at between one and three million, with the majority of detainees belonging to the Uighur, Kazakh and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups. Non-religious Uighurs, Uighur Christians and Han Chinese Christians have all also been arbitrarily detained in the region.

Speaking at the 46th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this year, Dr Abbas’ daughter, Ziba Murat, explained: “I am not the only person in this horrible situation. Many other Uighur sons and daughters are left without information, searching for innocent loved ones who have been disappeared by the authorities.”

There is a wealth of evidence to support these allegations - a growing body which includes testimonies from witnesses and victim family members, academic research, satellite images, and hundreds of pages of leaked government documents detailing the Chinese authorities’ methods and rationale for the crackdown.

Outside the camps, everyday life in the Uighur region is subject to severe restrictions and near-constant surveillance and monitoring. One expert on Uighur culture told CSW: “Days are spent wondering whether one of the multitudinous police checks every 500 metres could flag you up as “dangerous", “suspicious” or simply someone to watch, and a five-minute trip to buy a packet of milk could see you hauled off to re-education with no chance to say goodbye".

Governments and parliamentarians around the world have responded with condemnation to the crisis in the Uighur region, with several, including in the USAUK and Canada, suggesting that the violations may amount to the crime of genocide. Parliamentarians have also called for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in response to the crisis, and there is growing pressure on global apparel brands and retailers to ensure that their products are not tainted by forced labour from the region.



Despite these condemnations, concerted international action to hold the Chinese Communist Party to account has been frustratingly slow to manifest. There is an urgent need for a UN-mandated independent international fact-finding mission to the region to ascertain the true extent of the crisis, but this has yet to materialise. Even if a mission were to be permitted, there are well-founded fears that any visit to the region would be tightly controlled and unlikely to give an accurate picture of the situation. NGOs have also stressed that, whether or not a fact-finding mission goes ahead, the UN High Commissioner urgently needs to strengthen monitoring and initiative public reporting on the human rights crisis. 

The outlook is bleak then, but Dr Abbas’ family and thousands of others like them are not giving up in their calls for action and answers. And neither should we. China may be a powerful geopolitical and economic influence in the world today, but it is not immune to international pressure. Even as citizens there is much we can do, from calling on brands to ensure they are not complicit in Uighur forced labour, to pressuring our own governments to stand up and speak out on behalf of those detained at every opportunity.

As Christians, we can also call on the God who “changes times and seasons” and “deposes kings and raises up others” (Daniel 2:21) to move powerfully in the nation of China, establishing leaders who respect justice and human rights, and removing those who foster division, discrimination and cruelty.

Ellis Heasley is public affairs officer at UK-based religious freedom advocacy organisation CSW.