Australians detained in China’s Uighur

Seventeen Australian residents are believed to be detained in China’s secretive “re-education” centres as a part of its crackdown on Uighur Muslims.

Background

The Uyghurs are predominantly Muslims and have regarded themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations. They practice Islam in a largely atheist country and have inhabited the area since the time of Genghis Khan. The Uyghur’s briefly declared independence in the early 20th century. However, the region was brought under the complete control of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Beijing has detained close to a million Uighurs. China has been accused of intensifying the crackdown on the Uighurs after a street protest in the 1990s as well as in the run-up for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The government calls these internment camps as “political re-education camps”. There exist credible reports of torture and death among prisoners in the camps. The Chinese government says it is it is fighting “terrorism” and “religious extremism.” However, Uighurs say they are resisting a campaign to crush religious and cultural freedom in China.

Analysis

Seventeen Australians have been detained in China as the country continues to crackdown on its Muslim ethnic minority, the Uighurs. The Australians were detained while visiting relatives in China, and are now believed to be under house arrest, in prison or detained in China’s secretive re-education centres in Xinjiang.

Based on information from Uighur advocates in Australia, the report claims 15 of the Australians involved are permanent residents, while the two others are on spousal visas.

Beijing is accused of interning up to a million Uighurs in prison-like detention camps, forcing them to renounce their religion and native language, and even pushing them into forced labour with little to no pay.  Beijing claims that these are not concentration camps and are, in fact, "legal" and "humane job-training centres." 

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was made aware of a number of similar cases last year, but only one Australian has returned as a result. Nurgul Sawut, an advocate for Uighurs in Australia said, “Our community members feel let down”. “The language using is very dire. The Australian government is basically saying we can’t do anything right now.”

Chinese embassy in Canberra released a statement speaking of the Xinjiang province and its stability, but did not mention anything about the Australians and their detention.

Assessment

Our assessment is that Chinese detain the Uighurs with the intent to deter any form of religious or cultural expression that could be inimical to the state. It can be noted that Han government and the Uyghurs are in strife over Xinjiang region, claiming greater historic rights. We feel that Australia is in the midst of an intense debate about Chinese influence on its geo political interests and values. It will defend its citizens but is unlikely to get concessions from the Chinese government.