Generally when we worry about secularism, it’s because our government is uncomfortably friendly with a religion, putting non-religious types (or those following a different religion) in a compromised position. In China, however, we have a situation that looks flipped. In China, a non-religious government is violating the human rights of a minority ethnicity called the Uyghurs, who are largely Muslim.
The Chinese government has recently come under pressure for instituting what looks to many like a policy of rounding up and “re-educating” citizens in Western China’s Xinjiang province. The policy is nothing spectacularly new. For decades, China has attempted to restrict the practice of Islam in favor of views more supportive of (or acceptable to) the Chinese Communist Party.
Part of this crackdown involves police surveillance, in some cases to the terrifyingly 1984-esque point of “cameras installed in the homes of private citizens, the creation of mass detention camps, children forcibly separated from their families and placed in preschools with electric fences, the systematic destruction of Uyghur cemeteries, and a systematic campaign to suppress Uyghur births through forced abortion, sterilization, and birth control.”
It has been estimated that somewhere between 120,000 and one million Uyghurs have been detained in what seem to be re-education camps. Activities in these camps involve forced praise of the Chinese Communist Party and “self-criticism” essays. Some reports also suggest emotional and physical abuse by guards, as well as unhygienic living conditions. It has even been suggested that one tactic in particular — keeping Uyghur males and females separate — is in fact a grotesque attempt at population control.
The human rights violations don’t end at the border. Facebook recently reported that Chinese hackers have used the social media platform to trick Uyghurs into clicking links leading to dangerous websites that install malware on their devices that would allow them to be monitored. The victims of this scheme resided in various countries, including the U.S., Australia, and Canada.
Attempts by the Chinese government to deny the situation have been met with pressure from activists, media groups, and journalists. The government has since admitted that such facilities exist, and that their goal is not brainwashing but rather quelling potential terrorist activities and providing vocational training. U.S. President Biden recently committed to addressing the issue at the upcoming G7 meeting. He’s expected to urge other G7 nations to increase economic pressure on China over its human rights violations.
Despite the role reversal of having religion the victim of what’s considered a non-religious entity, we can clearly see what happens when a government violates the tenets of secularism and cares too much about a religion — whether its own or that of a minority whose human rights are as precious as any.
An earlier version of this article ran in our February 2019 issue.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/90987386@N05/ CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23318763