This week, host Muna Gasim and producer Sam Baron are joined by Zumretay Arkin, the Program and Advocacy Manager at the World Uyghur Congress, an umbrella organization based Berlin, Germany that advocates for the rights of Uyghur people, an ethnic group from the province of Xinjiang in Northwest China. Despite the severe human rights abuses taking place against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China, Beijing remains the host of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, which has vast political and humanitarian implications. Muna, Sam, and Zumretay discuss the atrocities being committed against the Uyghur people, the political power of the Olympics, and how governments, corporations, athletes, journalists, and citizens can take action.
Overview of the situation in Xinjiang
“I’m just going to say it bluntly. Currently, there’s a genocide.”Zumretay Arkin
The Uyghur people are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China. It is currently estimated that more than 1.8 million Uyghur people are being held in concentration camps in China as a result of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s efforts to assimilate and eradicate minority groups. Since the beginning of CCP Chairman Xi Jinping’s tenure, perceived differences from the Han Chinese majority have been considered a threat to the national interests and thus attacked and criminalized. As a result, ethnic and religious minorities such as the Uyghurs have been subject to language severe religious persecution including the criminalization of religious practices such as wearing a veil or having an ‘abnormal’ beard, and the destruction of sacred cultural and religious sites such as mosques and gravesites.
The Uyghurs have been targeted with mass arbitrary detention in concentration camps and subjected to abhorrent abuses including unsanitary and unsafe living conditions, constant surveillance, sexual abuse, rape, forced sterilization and abortion, family separation and placement of children in state-run orphanages, and forced labor. Recent satellite imagery suggests that the network of camps is expanding, raising major concerns about the future of the Uyghur people.
These abuses constitute crimes against humanity and, as Arkin emphasizes, amount to genocide under Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
The 2022 Winter Olympic Games
“[The IOC] told us that they could not save the world, basically, through the Olympics, which is pretty condescending to human rights activists and groups. We’re not asking them to change the world. We’re just asking them to respect their own set of values which is clearly indicated in their own charter.”Zumretay Arkin
While Arkin acknowledges that general awareness of the plight facing the Uyghurs has greatly improved over the past few years, she notes that concrete actions by the international community have been slow, and there remains much to be done. The selection of Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics has been widely criticized by human rights advocates, who view the selection as a tacit endorsement or excusal of China’s human rights abuses, not only against the Uyghur but also against persecuted peoples of Tibet, Hong Kong, and Mongolia.
Arkin recounts her experience during a meeting between human rights groups and the IOC – a meeting eighteen years in the making – which ultimately led to little more than empty promises and a dispersal of responsibility. Despite the soft power wielded by China both economically and diplomatically, Arkin and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) have called on national governments across the globe to orchestrate a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Games.
Acknowledging the lifetime of work that goes into competing in the Olympics, Arkin is careful to note that the WUC is not calling on athletes to boycott the Olympics – instead, they celebrate the power that athletes can wield to call attention to the human rights abuses taking place in China. Similarly, broadcast networks and journalists can use their platforms to elevate stories about the Uyghur genocide and persecution, giving essential context to any coverage of the 2022 Games.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, we’re not involved in these crimes,’ but many of these sponsors or brands, they might not even know their own supply chains.”Zumretay Arkin
Muna, Sam, and Zumretay also discuss the implications for corporations, sponsors, and consumers before and during the Olympics, and beyond. Uyghurs detained in the concentration camps are also subjected to forced labor, particularly as part of the massive cotton farming industry located in Uyghur territory.
More than 20% of the world’s cotton supply originates in this region, and many large clothing companies, including Adidas, Puma, Nike, and Zara source materials from this region. While several nations, including the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have either implemented or proposed bans on cotton goods from this region due to the high likelihood of slave labor, it is still incumbent upon corporations to interrogate their supply chains and ensure forced labor has not assisted in the creation of their product. Consumers can also become informed and avoid shopping from companies which source materials from regions known to force slave labor.
The #NoRightsNoGames Movement
Arkin notes that social media has played a very important role in raising awareness and building solidarity around the Uyghur persecution. The #NoRightsNoGames hashtag has gained momentum and helped to spread information about the atrocities taking place in China. Social media helps connect people with actionable steps they can take to make a difference, from simple one-click actions like sharing a post, to signing petitions, to writing and sending letters to elected officials calling for action. While Arkin celebrates the power that social media has to democratize information sharing, she also notes that the strict restrictions imposed by the Chinese government make this tool much less effective within the country.
“Just last week I was speaking at the UN and China… replied to my statement saying that we should not be speaking at the UN… they basically tried to intimidate me at the UN… that means that our words, our work has some kind of influence and power, because they’re feeling threatened. For me that also counts as a victory.”Zumretay Arkin
Reflecting on the advances that the WUC has made, Arkin first notes that it is difficult to connect with small victories when confronted on a daily basis with the realities of genocide, persecution, and the disappearance of members of her family. Still, she views the heightening public awareness of the Uyghur genocide as a sign that their campaign is moving in the right direction.
When brands support calls to stop sourcing materials from regions with forced labor, as M&S did just recently, these are important steps towards ending the persecution of the Uyghur people. By persistently and fearlessly advocating for the Uyghur people, Arkin and the WUC have drawn criticism and intimidation from the Chinese government – but Arkin says these repercussions only serve to reinforce the power and importance of their work fighting for the human rights of the Uyghur people.
“Behind all of these statistics and numbers, there are real people on the line … and they have human stories to share.”Zumretay Arkin
When asked how listeners can get involved, Arkin encourages getting informed and using the power available to you to effect real change. Everyone has the capacity to become informed about this critical issue and to thoroughly engage with the Uyghur stories, not just at a surface level. Recently, the app Clubhouse has become home to multiple discussion boards addressing the persecution of Uyghurs.
As consumers, we have the power to affect change by boycotting brands whose supply chains exploit forced labor. Arkin encourages us to use our political voices to call our elected officials’ attention to the Uyghur genocide. Before we are athletes or spectators, we are human beings, and as much as the controversy surrounding the 2022 Olympic Games is a political issue, it is important to remember that it is a humanitarian crisis with real human lives at stake.
Zumretay’s Op-Ed in the Hong Kong Free Press: https://hongkongfp.com/2021/02/06/in-a-year-china-will-host-the-first-genocide-olympics/
For an overview of the general context of the crisis in Xinjiang, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has a catalogue of theme-specific case studies/research called “Xinjiang Data Project.”