We have learned over the years to manage our expectations when it comes to human rights and the Chinese Government.
Freedom of speech and press are rarely respected. Freedom of association is heavily clamped down on. Brutal and degrading treatment and arbitrary detention is rife. The use of capital punishment is massive and undocumented.
The close monitoring of religious observance is also nothing new. The tools for that monitoring and oppression may have changed from secret police and informants, to surveillance cameras and internet tracking, but the fundamental oppression remains as strong and widespread as it ever was.
But, even in that context, the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang still has the capacity to shock.
In August 2018, BBC journalist John Sweeney produced a remarkable 10-minute report on the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Before I watched it, I had never heard of Xinjiang province. Afterwards I could hardly get it out of my mind.
Sweeney’s report revealed that since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Chinese state has increasingly clamped down on Uyghur culture under the guise of counter-terror legislation.
Religious practices can only occur in Government-approved mosques as a method of monitoring and controlling the communities. Headscarves and veils for women and beards on men are banned. Muslims are forced to eat pork, despite it being forbidden by their religion.
Since 2012, the situation has deteriorated even further. It is estimated that between one million and three million people have been arrested and placed in detention camps – styled as “re-education camps by the Chinese Government – across Xinjiang.
“Re-education” has an already Orwellian tone to it. The reality is ten times worse. Imagine George Orwell writing in the style of Franz Kafka and you start to get the idea.
Eyewitness accounts describe the prisoners as being “like robots”. It is said that they appear “as if they had lost their souls, and their memories”.
To get food, they must sing pro-Chinese songs. They must disavow their Islamic beliefs and praise the State. Failure to do so results in severe reprisals. The State will not let prisoners sleep. They hang people up for hours and beat them. There is no freedom except the freedom to love the Chinese Communist party.
“Power”, Orwell wrote, “is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” Those who built and run the re-education camps saw his novel 1984 not as work of fiction but as an instruction manual.
What can we do? So far, much of the research and investigations have been driven forward by John Sweeney and others in the BBC and campaign groups like Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch, and the World Uyghur Congress.
Across the Western world, the response from governments, keen not to offend the Chinese Government, has been muted at best, more often totally absent. This prompted Turkey’s Foreign Minister to call Western governments out on this. When you are relying on Turkey’s Government to give a lead on human rights then you know something has gone badly wrong somewhere.
Last year the UK Parliament passed the Criminal Finances Act. In that, so-called Magnitsky laws allow us to freeze the bank accounts of human rights abusers. Get them by the bank balance and their hearts and minds will follow.
The UK, as a permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council, should be demanding a UN-led investigation into what is happening in the re-education camps and across the Xinjiang region.
So far, very few who have gone into the camps have come out again.
The process of their detention is without trial, and without end. Many disappear, never to be seen or heard of again.
Organ harvesting has long been rumoured in China, and strenuously denied by the Chinese State. It started with practitioners of Falun Gong. With demand continuously rising, in its voracious need provide new healthy organs, the allegations are now swirling that the practice is now affecting Uyghurs, Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and any other prisoners of conscience who will not be brainwashed.
The idea of forced harvesting sounds simply unbelievable. What human could kill another human for their organs? It is easy to dismiss as ridiculous hyperbole, but it is not ridiculous.
The UN special rapporteur on torture has already reported its concern that between 60,000 and 100,000 transplants have taken place, while the number of Chinese on the national donation register is far lower.
The rumours now reported go even further, that not only are these organs harvested to satisfy China’s growing demand, but that they are being sold to Iran and Saudi Arabia. The exact reason the Chinese oppress this religious minority, is the exact reason they are so valuable for export – their Islamic beliefs.
The soft-power about which our Government continuously boasts only works if we are willing to use it.
There is no clearer case where we should seek to bring that influence to bear, and to lead the international condemnation of this ethnic cleansing.
The message from the Government to China has got to be clear. We know what is going on in Xinjiang. We are not willing to sit back and be bystanders.