Surveillance and policing – China

‘COVID diplomacy’ fuelled by Uyghur oppression

Michael Caster

Throughout 2020, while much of the world was asked to stay home and socially distance, upwards of 1 million Uyghurs continued to suffer mass forced internment in north-western China’s Xinjiang region, also known as East Turkestan. After the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan and a period of obstructing access to information about its spread, China imposed draconian disease control restrictions on tens of millions of its citizens. But in Xinjiang, the region’s Uyghur and Kazakh populations had already been living in a state of totalitarian control for years.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2018 had called Xinjiang a ‘no rights zone’, amid the mass detention of hundreds of thousands of civilians from ethnic and religious minorities. China claims they are merely ‘vocational training centres’, but satellite imagery and first-person accounts tell a horror story of barbed wire, surveillance cameras and armed guards. Many are forced labour camps.

Overcrowding and malnutrition leave inmates highly vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases: even before the pandemic, former detainees highlighted the prevalence of illness in the camps and the difficulty in accessing adequate medical care. Responding to such concerns in the wake of COVID-19, especially in the early months of the outbreak, social media campaigns gained traction in raising awareness of the suffering of the Uyghurs with hashtags such as #VirusThreatInTheCamps and #WHO2Urumqi, the latter calling for the World Health Organization to send a delegation to the regional capital Urumqi.

Meanwhile, outside the camps, Uyghurs faced another plight. The sudden imposition and harsh enforcement of a COVID-related lockdown in mid-February 2020 made it nearly impossible for Uyghur residents to procure food, medicine and other supplies. As Rights Project (UHRP) at the time, Uyghur-language media, including on Douyin, the Chinese parent version of TikTok, had lit up with disturbing videos and images of residents in danger of starving.

Between 2017 and 2019, more than 80,000 Uyghurs were forcibly transferred from Xinjiang to factories around China, remaining trapped in highly surveilled facilities.

Calls for an independent fact-finding mission to inspect mass forced internment and other widespread human rights abuses over the years, as well as more recently to assess the spread of COVID-19 cases and food insecurity among the Uyghur population, have gone unheeded by authorities who have for years refused all pleas for effective independent investigations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Nor have these abuses been confined to Xinjiang alone. Conservative estimates suggest that between 2017 and 2019, more than 80,000 Uyghurs were forcibly transferred from Xinjiang to factories around China. Even far from Xinjiang, they remained trapped in segregated and highly surveilled facilities, in many cases forming part of the supply chains of major global brands.

However, even after COVID-related restrictions emptied factories across China of their Han workers, Uyghurs remained, putting them at heightened risk of infection. Despite the risks, from February 2020, as China’s coronavirus figures were peaking, hundreds more Uyghurs were forcibly transferred from Xinjiang to factories in Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Zhejiang provinces. Official reports were given a human face by the many videos posted to Douyin showing Uyghurs being forced onto buses bound for factories across China. At the height of the pandemic, when across the country civilians were quarantined at home for their own protection and many companies had suspended production to prevent transmission of the virus, tens of thousands of Uyghurs were forced to continue working.

At the same time, from early March 2020 onwards, China launched a PR campaign of what has been dubbed ‘mask diplomacy’, shipping medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) around the world as a humanitarian gesture while other nations were struggling with rising coronavirus infection rates. These efforts, no doubt intended to counteract the negativity around the origins of the virus in China, were enthusiastically promoted by Chinese state media and diplomats on social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter (both blocked in China itself). 

According to data compiled by Stanford University, between January and May 2020, 11 English-language Chinese social media accounts issued 3,144 tweets promoting Beijing’s ‘mask diplomacy’.

This online campaign appeared to be focused largely on Europe: according to data compiled by Stanford University, between January and May 2020, 11 English-language Chinese social media accounts issued some 3,144 tweets promoting Beijing’s ‘mask diplomacy’. For all its propaganda, China’s efforts were met with mounting criticism, particularly around the low quality of some of the materials being exported to other countries. However, one of the problems with its ‘mask diplomacy’ that got less attention than it deserved was how some of these masks were being produced. Given just how entrenched Uyghur forced labour is in the entire Chinese supply chain, it is not surprising to learn that some of the companies producing the PPE shipped abroad were tainted.

This was illustrated by a New York Times investigation which revealed that while China’s National Medical Products Administration only listed four companies in Xinjiang producing medical-grade PPE before the pandemic, the number had increased to 51 by the end of June 2020, with at least 17 of them known conclusively to rely on forced labour. These companies claimed they were primarily producing for domestic use. But others that had relied on the Uyghur forced labour transfer programme mentioned earlier, such as one in Hubei Province, were supplying PPE directly to the United States. Further supply-chain analysis revealed that major European distributors OneMed, a Swedish medical supplier, and the European subsidiary of the American pharmaceutical firm McKesson have sourced PPE for European distribution from Chinese producers known for exploiting Uyghur forced labour.

China has also pursued ‘vaccine diplomacy’ through its homegrown Sinovac Biotech vaccine, which has raised other concerns. In Turkey, the first batches of Sinovac were delayed in December 2020, notably as Beijing unexpectedly announced that it had ratified an extradition agreement signed between the two countries in 2017. This led to some speculation about whether China was trying to barter access to its vaccine in exchange for control over Turkey’s Uyghur population. Many have expressed horror at the idea of a formal extradition agreement between China and Turkey, where large communities of Uyghurs reside in exile, fearful that they could be forcibly repatriated to China where they would be at risk of gross human rights violations.

China has overseen a further extension of the repression of its Uyghur population during the pandemic, tightening its hold not only on the millions of civilians within its borders but also those who have managed to seek sanctuary abroad from the state’s persecution.

Photo: Police officers patrol the square in front of Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. 3 May 2021. Credit: Reuters/Thomas Peter.