Global Cafe art by Grace Orwen

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Global Integrative Studies is hosting its second Global Cafe event of 2021 to talk about the current detention centers for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, China, as well as the history of the region. 

The event will take place on Thursday, Feb. 18, from 3:30-4:30 p.m. via Zoom. The event is open to all UNL students, faculty and staff, but attendees must register online, according to Emira Ibrahimpasic, assistant professor of practice and assistant director of Global Studies.

“This is an important human rights issue occurring in real time,” Ibrahimpasic said. “With over a million people in these camps, this is a large-scale problem and one that needs to be addressed immediately before the situation gets any worse and the Uighurs are completely stripped of their dignity.” 

Ibrahimpasic invited Christopher Heselton, associate director of the Office of Global Strategies, to talk about the humanitarian crisis happening in China. Heselton is a historian of China who is fluent in Mandarin, and lived in Beijing for seven years. 

Uighur Muslims, an ethnic minority group in western China, have been under constant surveillance in the nation since 2017, according to PBS Newshour.  In the name of “re-education,” the Chinese Communist Party has instituted several measures to eradicate the Uighur Muslim cultural identity, one of which is being imprisoned in concentration camps in Xinjiang where there is a large Uighur population. An estimated 1.5 million Uighurs have been detained. 

Heselton said via email that concentration camps have been used as a tactic of controlling specific populations from 2011 to 2013, after Tibetan monks tried to protest through self-immolation, burning oneself alive, in public spaces. Chen Quanguo, now the Communist Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, used re-education camps at the time to silence the protesters when he served as secretary of Tibet. Heselton said he believes Chen reapplied the same idea to the Uighurs. 

“[Chen] seems to have taken what he learned in Tibet and ramped up the scale significantly,” Heselton said in an email. “But I would emphasize that the detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang is in many ways wholly unique in its scale and perceived objectives in Chinese history.” 

Heselton said these detention centers involve cultural de-extremification processes, such as banning hijabs and fasting during Ramadan. He said the Chinese government fears Uighur separatists and Islamic extremists, so the measures being taken aim at instilling a national cultural homogeneity through intense propaganda and coerced, unpaid labor. 

Ibrahimpasic added that brutal acts against the citizens in these camps take place, in addition to forced education programs. 

“More and more reports are emerging that serious human rights abuses occur in these camps and the international human rights community is fighting to bring attention to them,” Ibrahimpasic said. “This is an opportunity to learn from an expert offering us a chance to learn about a current pressing issue.”

Heselton said this genocide is a large and complex situation that requires a deep understanding of the historical context of Xinjiang itself, which is why he said he plans to focus on that aspect at the Global Cafe event. He said he hopes his presentation can prompt discussions among students to combat the issue, even if it’s a small-scale action. 

“I believe that continued engagement with China — on a political, economic, and even personal level — is essential to solve this crisis,” Heselton said. “If you cut off relations with China and isolate China, then they will not hear you. So, instead, talk to those you know, inform them of what is happening, keep it on their mind, but also – a word of caution – do not do so imperiously. You also have to listen.”