HKFP Voices Politics & Protest

As China celebrates 70 years, its rhetoric on ‘dignity and rights’ drifts even further from reality

By Dolkun Isa

The People’s Republic of China is celebrating 70 years since its founding this week amid triumphant cries of its development miracle, unity, dignity and even rights. While it’s important to recognise the achievements of any country, the rhetoric is disingenuous and deeply offensive to millions living within China’s borders who have seen nothing of the sort their entire lives.

I’ve worked for three decades to support these very ideals that we hear so often emanating from Beijing, but scrutinizing the Chinese rhetoric itself around the anniversary, in particular, is instructive. Who could argue against “dignity and rights”, “all-round prosperity”, “world peace and development” or a “global community of shared future”?

One needn’t look far to discover where the gaps exist.

Dignity and rights are respected only to the extent to which the government allows. The mass arbitrary detention of up to three million in camps, a security and surveillance apparatus tracking nearly all Uyghurs in the country, and a campaign to eradicate the Uyghur identity itself are laughably out of step with what any sane person would define as “dignity” or “rights”.

The Uyghur region has seen tremendous growth in recent years, but it has been far from equitable. Economic discrimination remains a significant barrier for entry into the job market and more lucrative fields of employment are effectively off limits to Uyghurs.

The distinct language suggesting that development will be shared is old and tired. It has never been shared because it wasn’t designed this way. The question that we have to ask ourselves is ‘With whom is this future supposed to be shared?’

Satellite Imagery of Xinjiang

Satellite Imagery of Xinjiang “Re-education Camp” No.36 in Turpan, where Murat’s parents may be held. Photo: Google Earth.

Deconstructing where the inconsistencies exist is actually the easy part, but it’s here where civil society and the international community have the most leverage. If China wants to boast about shared development, the onus is on them to prove to us how Uyghurs, Tibetan and Mongols will share in this prosperity.

We have to ask how a “community of shared future” with respect for dignity and rights on the one hand fits with hundreds of internment camps holding ten percent of the population on the other. We have to ask how all-round prosperity fits with a Uyghur population significantly underemployed, taking in a fraction of what their Chinese neighbours do.

I’ve struggled my entire adult life to do just this—to shine a light on how China has utterly failed to respect or protect the rights of Uyghurs—and their response has been telling. They have tried desperately (and in vain) to block, accuse, resist, deride, smear and disparage everything I do.

This has been, in some ways, a clear validation of my life’s work so far—explicit approval from the very top that the questions I ask, the arguments I raise, and even my mere existence has become a source of deep indignation. But it is also instructive for civil society in general.

We should take the arguments that we are hearing around this anniversary (and that we will continue to hear for years to come) and turn them around and ask how they square with the demonstrable reality on the ground. We must use their empty words against them at every chance we get.

On this 70th anniversary and beyond, the celebrations will be significantly undermined because we know for a fact that the prosperity has not been shared. More than that, committing what many (myself included) call crimes against humanity against my own people renders any level of development meaningless. Likewise, a life sentence without due process for peaceful expression makes GDP growth utterly irrelevant.

You can’t boast about progress for decades while at the same time fail to demonstrate how this progress has made any difference for the population as a whole.

If this is what 70 years has brought Uyghurs, what can we expect from the next 70?

Dolkun Isa is the president of the World Uyghur Congress.

As China celebrates 70 years, its rhetoric on 'dignity and rights' drifts even further from reality