Trigger warning: descriptions of torture, forced sterilisation, and rape.
‘Xinjiang’ is a word with explicit colonial overtones. The Mandarin characters directly translate to ‘new territory’, which denotes a far-western Chinese region bordering Central Asia. Xinjiang is the site of large-scale, state-sanctioned human rights abuses against the local Muslim ethnic minority groups–predominantly the Uyghurs. Since 2016, it is estimated that the Chinese government has interned over one million Muslims in “re-education centres” in Xinjiang, and women are particularly vulnerable in this expansive web of detention.
Journalists and scholars have used satellite imagery and leaked internal communications documents from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to trace this coordinated campaign of mass detention. Foreign reporters were offered a glimpse inside one of these facilities in 2019, and the footage shows dancing prisoners with mysterious bruises and sombre gazes, in imitations of gratitude towards the CCP.
In contrast, former detainees who have managed to flee China offer testimony that is far more gruesome. Sayragul Sauytbay was forced to work as a teacher in one of the camps, and she paints a harrowing picture of the conditions within these facilities. The prisoners are subject to poor hygiene, cramped cells, and a gruelling daily re-education curriculum that includes reciting Communist propaganda songs and slogans, and dedicating hours each day to confessing their “sins”. These sins, according to Xinjiang police, could include anything from buying a compass to refusing to play volleyball.
While all detainees are subject to treatment that contravene international human rights standards, Uyghur women are especially vulnerable to human rights abuses, and discussions about the Uyghur human rights crisis must begin to take a feminist intersectional approach.
“Intersectionality” refers to layered social categorisations such as race, gender, and sexuality, that create overlapping systems of discrimination. A feminist intersectional lens is crucial in Xinjiang, because the marginalisation of Uyghur women by the state due to their ethnicity is exacerbated by their gendered vulnerability as women in patriarchy.
Testimonies reveal the violation of Uyghur women’s rights through sexual violence within these facilities. Sayragul recounts the gang-rape of an Uyghur woman by policemen in front of a crowd of inmates–violating her physically while humiliating her before her community. Moreover, Qelbinur Sedik, another former teacher, reveals that four or five girls were raped on a daily basis at the “re-education centre” where she worked: “sometimes with electric batons inserted into the vagina and anus”.
There is a familiar historical pattern of dominant political actors exercising biopower over women of subordinate ethnic groups. An estimated 20,000 Chinese women were raped by Imperial Japanese soldiers during the Nanking Massacre of 1937, which is starkly reminiscent of the mass rape of Albanian women in Kosovo by Serbian nationalists during the Yugoslav Wars. Through these rapes, perpetrators aim to challenge the targeted ethnic group’s masculine pride, using women’s bodies to establish jurisdiction and conquest.
Adopting a feminist lens, the rape of Uyghur women by Chinese police and officials epitomises the longstanding symbolism of women’s bodies in contexts of ethnic nationalist tensions: they become emblematic of the disputed territory itself. As such, just as policies of mass internment strengthen the CCP’s control over Xinjiang, rape fortifies Chinese men’s control over the ‘new territory’ that is Uyghur women’s bodies.
Furthermore, an Associated Press investigation unveiled the CCP’s coordinated campaign of forced sterilisation of Uyghur women. Within detention facilities, women are force-fed birth control pills and injected with pregnancy prevention shots against their will. According to Foreign Policy, in 2018, 80 per cent of China-wide Intra-Uterine Device (IUD) insertions took place in Xinjiang; yet Xinjiang only makes up 1.8 per cent of China’s population. In her interview with The Diplomat, Qelbinur Sedik details the processes through which she was forcibly fitted with an IUD: “It was terribly violent. I was crying, I felt humiliated, sexually and mentally assaulted.”
The CCP’s infringement upon Uyghur women’s reproductive rights not only robs them of agency over their own bodies, but also reveals the state’s attempt to contain the Uyghur nation by curtailing women’s reproductive capacity. In fact, British Human Rights lawyer Geoffrey Nice, who led the prosecution of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague’s International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, is spearheading an independent tribunal to investigate whether China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghurs fulfil the international legal requirements of genocide.
China ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) in 1983. Article II of the treaty specifies the definition of genocide, which includes ‘(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group’. The forced sterilisation of Uyghur women fulfils this particular criterion.
This expert tribunal is estimated to reach a verdict on whether or not the Uyghurs are victims of genocide by the end of 2021. If the Chinese government continues its forced sterilisation campaign at the present rate, over 60,000 Uyghur women may be forcibly fitted with IUDs or even undergo permanent sterilisation by the time we have a verdict.
Genocide is concerned with the extinction of a particular ethnic, religious, racial or national group. Women’s bodies are historically targeted by dominant political actors with genocidal tendencies, and this gendered marginalisation compounds the ethnic oppression of minority women in the context of genocidal claims. Therefore, a feminist intersectional approach to the potential genocide of Uyghur people is absolutely crucial; because what is happening in Xinjiang is not ‘new territory’, it follows a historical pattern with which we are all too familiar.
Nuria Yu is a Politics and Asian Studies student and an undergraduate research assistant at the University of Melbourne. Nuria has a particular interest in diplomatic mechanisms which can be used to address human rights issues in East Asia.