Uyghur Tribunal Day Two: Academia and 'Identity Castration'

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

"What we’re seeing is an identity castration. An absolutely emptying out of a linguistic, cultural, religious identity. Uyghurs are deprived of the ability to transmit their cultural livelihood from one generation to the next”

After an emotional first day of survivor testimony and evidence from expert witnesses, the Uyghur Tribunal reconvened for its second session of the initial set of hearings, opening with evidence from a panel of leading academics in the field.

The first of the academic witnesses, Dr David Tobin, Hallsworth research fellow in the political economy of China at the University of Manchester and author of Securing China's Northwest Frontier: Identity and Insecurity in Xinjiang, began by discussing the history of Xinjiang as a region and where this fits into the narrative of Uyghur persecution. Considering the concept of the ‘Three Evils’ (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) as a slogan and justification for the persecution and cultural castration of the Uyghur people, Dr Tobin explained how Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region have been viewed as an ‘ethnic problem’ by the CCP since 1949, using a constructed narrative of counterterrorism, particularly perpetuated by Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CCP. Dr Tobin’s evidence related back to Dr Sean Roberts’ (Associate Professor in the Practice of International Affairs and author The War on the Uyghurs) evidence on the first day regarding the geographical significance of Xinjiang. This included how the CCP employ persecution to destroy the landscape of the Uyghur people.

The tribunal then heard from Dr Laura T. Murphey, Professor of Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery at Sheffield Hallam University, who focused her evidence on the importance of forced labour in the Uyghur region. The methods and practices of genocide were used to explore the structure of the labour camps, and the evidence we have of them. An important facet of this evidence relates to Chinese export markets, with analysis of US export records providing key data, including the assertion that certain Chinese companies share addresses with labour camps. Satellite images also play an important role here, as they show that even if companies have separate addresses to the labour camps, many have links to them like having cash centres in the vicinity. Analysis of these satellite images demonstrates a clear link between internment camps and Chinese factories. Dr Rian Thum later reinforced the significance of the labour camps, also emphasising the purpose of forced labour in the camps: predicated on the CCP’s notion that the Uyghur people are ‘lazy’, their labour is designed to be of use to the state, as something intended to break the bonds of Uyghur culture.

Uyghur detainees in a camp in 2017

Dr Murphy spoke poignantly about the nature of these forced labour camps:

“If a person is in an ‘internment camp’, they have no choice but to do what they are told. These camps fit almost every definition of forced labour and slavery”

Dr Thum, following evidence from Dr Murphy, continued her testimony; focusing on children and education in the Xinjiang region. She began by relaying that birth rates in Xinjiang began to decline sharply in 2013, and within the space of two years (between 2017 and 2019), birth rates in China decreased from 11.5% to 0%. China has also seen a huge increase in the number of children in boarding schools, places Dr Thum described as intended both to break cultural narratives and homogenise Uyghur children in Xinjiang. In 2019, it was estimated that the total number of children in boarding schools had doubled to around 900,000.

An important point that Dr Thum raised to highlight the persecution of the Uyghurs involved the differences in attitude and approach of the PRC towards Han and Uyghur children. In Han schools, children are taught Mandarain, their native language, whereas Uyghurs are taught Mandarin as the dominant language of the state, their own language suppressed. Han children are educated to emphasise their economic potential as productive members of society, whereas Uyghur children are taught in terms of conformity and submission to the CCP’s ethos and policies. Regarding childbirth, Han children are actively encouraged to reproduce and bear children when of age, but Uyghurs face discouragement. Even when looking at punishment for crimes, the disparity is clear: Uyghurs would face internment for non-compliance, and Han would simply receive a fine.

Rachel Harris, Professor at SOAS and specialist in Uyghur expressive culture, politics of religion and heritage in China and Central Asia, gave evidence on the role and treatment of Uyghur women in the internment camps in Xinjiang, including sexual violence, rape, and instances where women were stripped and left alone with guards. Dr Harris shared particularly disturbing details about the commodification of Uyghur women, with prison guards often known to ‘buy’ access to particular inmates. Outside of the camps, security officials and Han Chinese men were able to enter into coercive marriages with Uyghur women, who were unable to refuse: not only was this illegal, but it would automatically make them suspect. The evidence that Dr Harris shared about the ordeal of so many Uyghur women imprisoned in the camps was heartbreaking to witness.

Source - Uyghur Tribunal Live Stream YouTube
Rachel Harris (left) and Dr. Jo Smith Finley (right) give testimony to the tribunal

The final academic to speak on the panel was Dr Jo Smith-Finley, Reader in Chinese Studies at Newcastle University, who gave an account focusing on religion. She explained that Islam is dubbed a ‘virus’ by the CCP, who insist on ‘correcting’ it. Referencing the erosion of Uyghur muslim identity across much of China, Dr Smith-Finley shared that Uyghur religion and culture has become increasingly ‘invisibilised’ in school textbooks, and the securitisation and fortification of mosques is used to isolate Uyghurs from their culture and community. There have been 435 known Uyghur celebrity figures to have disappeared or been detained: everyone in the Uyghur community knows this is the case, but none of it is reported in the Chinese press. In Dr Smith-Finley’s words, “the Uyghur identity is being hollowed out, so it will not exist in the way that we know it in China”.

Dr Smith-Finley left us with sobering words about the erosion of Uyghur culture, that encompass ideas behind much of the testimony we have heard over the past two days:

"What we’re seeing is an identity castration. An absolutely emptying out of a linguistic, cultural, religious identity. Uyghurs are deprived of the ability to transmit their cultural livelihood from one generation to the next”


Evie is an English Literature undergraduate at UCL, and an avid reader and bookworm. Alongside her work in Holocaust Education, she loves to write about books as a way into better understanding current affairs and contemporary issues. She is currently serving as Publications Manager at Yet Again, and President of Pi Media, UCL's student publication.

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