Education Without Accusation: Navigating the Student Silence Behind the Uyghur Crisis

Cw: brief mentions of sexual assault, death, and other violence 

Authors’ Note: The authors of this piece have chosen to remain anonymous due to the Chinese Government’s actions towards citizens who are critical of the events in Xinjiang. The names of those interviewed have been changed as well.

“The market places were so empty for the time of day. But I was more invested in the idea of the multi-ethnic nature of the community of people to spend too much time thinking about how strange it was that a main bazaar was filled with only a few female shop owners.”

Elaf, a second-year Tufts student who identifies as Muslim Asian-American, retraces her memory of a trip to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 2016, less than a year before the implementation of re-education camps for the Uyghurs. At that point, these government-built camps run in order to sinicize the Uyghur people were beginning to fill up, though newspapers and stations had yet to report the increased security and detentions.

Xinjiang is home to about 8 million Uyghurs, the largest Turkic ethnic group in the region, who have long struggled for their independence after the region was taken over by China in 1949 and established as an autonomous region in 1955. Between 2009 and 2014, violent riots broke out in the region as a result of conflict between the government and Uyghur separatist groups. Tensions continued to rise, eventually leading to an increase in surveillance, prohibitions, and regulations, along with the building of the re-education facilities. A Reuters report estimated that at least 1 million Uyghurs and Muslims from other minority ethnic groups are being detained in these concentration camps, though the number could be as high as 3 million people. 

Within the camps, the detained Uyghurs experience indoctrination with forced denounciations of Islam and swearing loyalty to the Chinese government, along with torture, unsanitary and inhumane living conditions, rape, forced abortions, and even death, as reported by The Epoch Times. For reporters and locals alike, the isolation and heavy surveillance of these camps make them difficult to access. Generally, it has been western media publications that have detailed the personal testimonies from the few Uyghurs who have escaped from these internment camps. Their accounts of their experience have brought to light that the “re-education” has come at the cost of human rights. 

According to Al Jazeera, Uyghurs could be detained without good cause or trial for having a connection to Islam, such as choosing to wear a beard, studying Arabic, refusing to drink, or praying outside of the mosques. Furthermore, any pro-Uyghur sentiment expressed or doubt about loyalty to the government could lead to arrests. Save Uighur, a non-profit working to bring justice to the Uyghur people, has found that the policies have since then intensified. Arrest and detention are now possible for, among other things, publicly mourning the death of one’s parents, wearing a hijab in front of the Chinese flag, praying, fasting, having WhatsApp, not letting officials take your DNA, leaving the country, or knowing anyone who participated in any of the above. 

The Chinese government claims that the purpose of these facilities is to counter the perceived extremism and terrorism of the Uyghurs that has become ingrained in the public Chinese narrative of Xinjiang. Party leaders attributed the regional tensions to the lack of economic development. The fight for independence stemming from separatist groups’ influence was unthinkable for the government due to Xinjiang’s rich natural resources, including cotton, coal, oil, and tomatoes. However, the New York Times’ report on The Xinjiang Papers revealed that leaders of the 2017 crackdown cited religious radicalism as the major reason for the development of the re-education centers. 

Despite the scale of oppression in Xinjiang, many students at Tufts are unaware of the details of the event. However, the silence on campus surrounding the Uyghur concentration camps, especially from those with a connection to the region, is not unfounded. Julie, a second-year international student at Tufts, speaks to her experience growing up in China and the culture of silence facilitated by the Chinese government’s actions: “[T]he Chinese government is always monitoring everything. Growing up, being told that you are not allowed to talk about a lot of things… really carries on with you even in college and in the future.” 

Elaf shares personal reasons for her silence on this issue: “I have family who, as punishment for speaking out against the policies in the past, have already suffered imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Chinese government… I don’t know if I could bring myself to publicly speak about the issue with the knowledge of the potential harm that I am putting them through.”

In addition to the personal obstacles of discussing China’s treatment of the Uyghurs publicly, comments about the lack of space on campus for open and safe discussion continues to illustrate the complexity of the silence surrounding the situation. Harry, a third-year student, questions the responsibility of cultural clubs on campus, such as the Chinese Student Association, in providing a platform for conversation and education on the Uyghur concentration camps: “CSA should change their policy of being apolitical… I think it’s an intentional choice to say, I will not participate in politics and discussions of it when there are very clear dynamics in the world.” He also highlights the demographic of CSA, consisting of mostly Han Chinese students (80 percent of the Chinese population is Han) which can be “a very homogeneous space of people who are effectively on the oppressor’s side.” He suggests for Han students, having ties with the largest ethnic population in China, to consider “the impacts of the ways they live their lives” in relation to ethnic minorities in China, such as the Uyghurs.

Elaf takes a different look into the responsibility of identity groups in addressing the Uyghur concentration camps: “[The] role [of] an identity club is to support the needs of the Tufts student population by providing a community of people with a shared background… That doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to be educating the general public on the matter, nor does it mean that their members need to be experts on every global issue affecting their identity groups.” 

As a second-year student who identifies as American and has lived in China before, Lily acknowledges the lack of conversations on the wider campus. “People always talk about it more when some news about it breaks, but other than that, it’s not really talked about like it should be… I haven’t seen any organized discussion around this issue originating from people who don’t identify as Chinese-American or Muslim.”

Despite the outward silence on this issue, there is a consensus amongst students about the importance of learning about the Uyghur population and their conditions in China. Students recognize that public discourse about this event can affect many people’s lives, both in positive and negative ways. However, they continue to emphasize the need for students to educate themselves, if not outright raising awareness amongst their close circles, about the atrocity against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.