If you say, “Hey, that’s none of my business,” will that get you off the hook? Someone is watching you closely, you know—Someone not impressed with weak excuses. (Proverbs 24:11-12, the Message)
Due to strict media control and extreme oversight by the Chinese government, the reports of Uighurs being systematically interned and forcibly placed into “re-education camps” are sporadic yet alarming. Recent accounts from the BBC allege horrific crimes of systemic rape and torture. An estimated million or so Uighurs—many identify as predominantly from a Muslim Turkic ethnicity—are being held in Chinese prisons, drawing comparisons to concentration camps.
Forced sterilizations of women. Propaganda indoctrination. Survivors and witnesses have told of the disappearance of loved ones, isolation, family separations, sexual, physical, and mental abuse, and a variety of other dehumanizing techniques that have been used by China to oppress these people. Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon (Myanmar) has said that “in China, the Uighur Muslims are facing what amounts to some of the contemporary world’s worst mass atrocities.” But many faith leaders have remained passive in their condemnation of China, often due to the massive economic and political power that China wields.
As followers of Christ, it’s our responsibility to love and serve humanity, especially those facing enormous persecution. The Trump administration condemned the mistreatment of the Uighurs as genocide, one of the most serious allegations of crimes against humanity a government can ever declare. The Biden administration has signaled a similar tone with China, but it remains to be seen what—if anything—the world can do to stop these horrors from continuing.
Some sanctions, like the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act have been put into place, but it appears that a multi-pronged approach, including international advocacy, economic sanctions, and other strategies must be utilized if there’s any hope of ending this human tragedy. Investigations have discovered that many large corporations have used Uighur slave labor as part of their supply chain network that’s based in China. One major policy change that the U.S. could consider is to vastly expand the number of refugees it takes in. With tens of thousands of potential Uighur refugees, allowing them a safe haven within the United States would provide them with a life-saving avenue of hope.
If Christians have learned anything over the last few years, it’s that they’re capable of massive organizational feats within our world. They’re capable of mobilizing quickly and fundraising millions of millions of dollars. They can overtake social media, control governments, and influence foreign policy. The challenge is to utilize these efforts towards causes that are Christlike, and that benefit others. Christianity is very complex, but surely we can come together to denounce the dehumanization of others. To do this requires bipartisanship and cooperation, and a humble resolve.
The attention shown to the Uighurs and China will probably increase dramatically as China gets closer to hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The international Olympic stage always provides much politicking, and the plight of the Uighurs provides a tempting narrative to embrace U.S. exceptionalism. When comparing the relative wealth and status of countries, it can be easy to chastise China’s human rights abuses while ignoring our own country’s atrocities. China has often refuted U.S. accusations by pointing to America’s own incarceration system, and while it doesn’t justify their actions, we must admit our own failures. Before American’s point the finger elsewhere, we should be able to admit that our nation has a major incarceration injustice of its own.
Many officials estimate there may be up to a million Uighurs being interned by China, which would constitute about 0.08% of its entire population. In comparison, a recent Pew Research Study shows that within the United States, there were “465,200 black inmates in state or federal prison at the end of 2018.” Proportionally, the United States has a higher incarceration rate for black inmates compared to its entire population (0.14%) than incarcerated Uighur’s do in China. People of color in the U.S. also face substantially high rates of arrest compared to the general population. These are real people, and crimes against humanity should be addressed whether they’re committed against one person or many. Two massive injustices happening against two different groups of people in two different nations of the world should be equally addressed, simultaneously lamented, and simultaneously confronted. The conflict between two economic superpowers often results in self-righteously pointing out the faults of the other’s injustice at the expense of ignoring one’s own. Let’s not be so naive to assume that we’re a nation worthy of proffering policing and incarceration advice.
May we not co-opt the Uighur struggle as an opportunity to embrace escapism, to live in denial of our nation’s own systemic racism. In the U.S., countless people are held in jail because they can’t afford bail. Others are the victims of a system that unfairly prosecuted and incarcerated people unfairly based on punitive legislation, biased policing, and inequitable judicial practices. The critically acclaimed book The New Jim Crow documents just how horrible America’s justice system is, especially to people of color. Police brutality continues to plague our nation, forced labor still exists, and many prisons continue to practice abusive oppression and have inhumane living conditions. The images of China’s “re-education camps” are disturbing, but they’re also comparable to many of America’s own prisons.
The United States is one of a few nations that still enact the death penalty—even by firing squad. We’re a country that politicizes crime to gain political power, and outsources prisons to profiteering companies, steals prisoners’ rights to vote, exploits prisons for cheap labor, and has a penal system poisoned by violence, abuse, and oppression. Our policing system can be traced back to the era of slavery, and disproportionate rates of arrests, sentencing times, and other factors indicate that this system evolved and modernized to continually oppress people of color. The term ‘inhumane’ can be incorporated against both China and the United States to describe its targeted policies of “policing.”
So as the news continues to rightfully condemn China for its wrongs committed against the Uighurs, let it serve as a reminder to reflect upon our nation’s own oppressive incarceration systems. The struggle of the Uighurs invites us to confront the disturbing parallels between them and our own citizenry. Historically, America has done—and is still doing—the same crimes against people of color as China is now doing to the Uighurs. To condemn one and not the other is to embrace hypocrisy. America’s incarceration history and modern penal network reflect a form of targeted oppression larger in scale than even China’s, longer in duration and broader in scope than even the brutality being faced by the Uighurs. Expressing outrage at China while being apathetic towards the United States is a form of cognitive dissonance.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Let us not be blinded by nationalism, or pretend that our nation holds the moral high ground when in fact it’s also guilty of treating others inhumanely.
As Christians, we’re commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. This means confronting injustices that occur both within our country and outside of it. We also must remind ourselves that we worship Jesus, a man who was also persecuted by a world power: Rome. He was an ethnic minority who was arrested by those in power, incarcerated by the state, tortured, and executed. The Psalms state that “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. (Psalm 9:9)” May we actively join God in helping all those who face these massive injustices.