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Past, present and future: Australia’s political response to the Xinjiang internment camps

Alyssa Collyvas

Image Credit: Malcolm Brown
Image Credit: Malcolm Brown

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is no stranger to criticism from the international community for various policies and laws, such as the one-child policy and the anti-sedition law in Hong Kong. But the CCP draws heavy criticism for the creation of over 380 internment camps in the north-western province of Xinjiang, which the CCP has labelled ‘Vocational Education and Training Centres’. The catalyst of which can be traced back to the 2009 Urumqi riots, a violent conflict between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

The purpose of the internment camps, as expressed by the CCP Government, is to address Uyghur terrorism. The camps utilise methods of torture, such as waterboarding, to control and humiliate detainees. Additionally, the camps involve significant ideological repression. The Uyghur population are overwhelmingly Muslim, and their religious freedoms are reportedly being compromised and replaced by communist teachings. In the internment camps, it is reported that Muslim Uyghurs are forced to perform actions that are against their Islamic faith, such as eating pork and drinking alcohol.

Australia’s response to what the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) labelled “China’s biggest human rights abuse since the 1989 post-Tiananmen purge” has developed over the past four years, with the federal government’s early calls for the CCP to put an end to these camps being echoed into the present.

In 2018, the United Nations (UN) Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that the Committee Co-Rapporteur for China was disturbed by numerous credible reports that internment camps detaining Uyghurs were indeed being utilised by the CCP. 2018 saw Australia’s first significant step into action over these reports. Actions of the Australian Government in that year include expressing to the UN Human Rights Council their concerns surrounding the targeting of Uyghurs, as well as Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne, raising these concerns with Wang Yi, the CCP’s Foreign Minister at the time.

The Australian Government’s journey into discussions surrounding the Xinjiang internment camps bled into 2019, amongst growing calls for action from the Australian Uyghur community. Minister Payne and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, consistently spoke out in the media against the internment camps and the methods utilised to harm detainees. Australian embassy officials involved themselves in formal requests to reunite Uyghur families, with Australia also being a co-signatory to a letter encouraging China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

With the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world in 2020, issues such as the internment camps took a backseat to other urgent matters such as healthcare, immigration and lockdowns. While Australia was heavily engaged in addressing these pandemic related matters, action surrounding the CCP’s treatment of Uyghurs did not entirely cease. Australia’s condemnation of human rights abuses impacting Uyghurs continued at the UN. 2020 also saw the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, question presidents of two respective Uyghur associations, who informed the committee on the issues facing the Uyghur community, including the internment camps.

It is important to consider where Australia takes the matter presently. 2021 has already seen some action, with the Australian Government encouraging the CCP Government to permit the UN to investigate the human rights abuses in the internment camps, by allowing the organisation to enter Xinjiang. The Australian Government has also used the first months of 2021 to express concerns surrounding reports of the sexual abuse of female detainees in the camps.

Curiosity lends itself to Australia’s future response to the detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang internment camps, particularly regarding how this response compares to that of other countries across the globe. American President Joe Biden has stated that “there will be repercussions for China”, other international governments sanctioning various Chinese officials over the targeted treatment of Uyghurs and asserting that China’s treatment of the Uyghur population is a genocide, it is worth asking what Australia’s role in this matter will be in the context of 2021 and beyond. Recently a motion was blocked in the Senate that would have recognised the CCP’s Xinjiang policies as genocide.

Although the Australian Government blocked this motion, ASPI has suggested there may be other effective methods of responding to the Xinjiang internment camps, particularly relating to forced labour practices inflicted upon detainees. The suggestions that ASPI have made to the Australian Government include that they ratify the International Labour Organisation’s 2014 Forced Labour Protocol, amend and strengthen the Modern Slavery Act 2018 and ban the imports of goods produced or manufactured in Xinjiang that are likely to have been the products of forced labour.

The Australian Government currently faces a significant conundrum with regards to this matter, particularly due to the fact that the next courses of action they take concerning Xinjiang internment camps may further fuel the fire that is the tense relationship between Australia and China in present times. It is now up to the Australian Government to decide whether vocal condemnation and community consultation are enough, or whether they should follow the lead of other Western countries in taking tougher approaches to policy, penalisation and labelling in attempts to combat the CCP’s continuous use of Xinjiang internment camps.

Alyssa Collyvas is completing her final unit of a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Politics and Policy Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her interests include policy, particularly in regards to drugs, immigration and the environment, as well as social justice. Alyssa intends to continue to translate her passion for these interests into her career.


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