Protests in Hong Kong have been raging for months. Each weekend thousands of people take to the streets to protest the government’s policies. They began in late March when Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam introduced a law that would allow authorities to extradite people in Hong Kong to mainland China. Since then, authorities have injured hundreds as protests have turned violent and the police have turned to utilizing excessive force. While these protests have received international attention, their motive perhaps has been lost on most Americans.
Being deported to mainland China is a petrifying thought. The communist party still rules the nation, and their response to criticism typically has dire consequences. Activists and dissidents like Ai Wei Wei and Liu Xiaobo have been imprisoned for speaking out against the government. (Xiaobo spent his last eight years in prison before dying of liver cancer in 2017.) Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are not permitted, much of the Internet is censored, and free speech just isn’t allowed in China. And you can forget about free and fair elections — they don’t even have those in Hong Kong (yet another reason they’re protesting).
So it comes as no surprise that the government has been quietly getting away with placing hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority Muslims in internment camps since 2016.
In the western providence of Xinjiang, authorities have been rounding up countless people belonging to the Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim ethnic groups for “re-education.” These “vocational learning centers” are what nightmares and dystopian novels are made of. Detainees are required to renounce Islam, show remorse for their criminal and dangerous past behaviors, and pledge their allegiance to the Communist party. Criminal and dangerous acts include wearing a long beard, praying in public, learning Arabic, and giving up drinking. Every action inside the camps are regimented: how “students” march in the hallways, when they shower, even how long their facial hair may grow.
One’s length of stay at a facility is based on a numerical rating system out of 1,000. Detainees are judged by several factors and segregated into groups depending on how serious of a threat they are assumed to be. In Xinjiang’s southwest region, it is estimated that one in six adults are imprisoned and that nearly 60% of households have at least one person in the camps. Family members are intimidated by government officials not to speak out about their missing loved ones for fear that it will cause their delayed release. Effectively, it’s a campaign of enforced silent family separation.
All of this comes at the hands of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who has been in control since 2012. In 2014 he visited the region, and on his last day two suicide bombers of the Uighur community blew themselves up in a train station injuring 80 people. A few weeks earlier there had been another incident involving knives which left 31 people dead and nearly 140 wounded. These incidents came after yet another attack which left 39 people dead and wounding 94. It was these attacks that sparked this now Orwellian wildfire.
The only reason any of us know about this is because an anonymous high ranking official leaked over 400 pages of Chinese government documents explaining procedures and methods in which to round up people and detain them without trials or any form of due process. A regional official was quoted saying: “Round up everyone who should be rounded up.” This open-ended directive is vague on purpose. Jinping was recorded in a secret speech saying that the Communist Party should “show no mercy” and that he considers religious extremism as a “virus.” However, scores of officials refused to or failed to detain as many citizens as the Communist party required, and consequently secret police opened as many as 12,000 cases regarding party officials’ willingness to adhere to the detention standards (or, for shielding other officials).
Instead of prosecuting the violent few, China has rather decided to detain the public in attempts to brainwash or browbeat them into denouncing their faiths.
This is not what democracy should look like. Yet several American corporations have kowtowed to the Chinese government after an NBA coach tweeted that he supported the protesters in Hong Kong who are fighting to save themselves from the horrors of detention centers like those in Xinjiang. The Houston Rockets were spanked by the Chinese government when they cut all business ties with the team until they “clarified and corrected all mistakes.” This required the coach and several members of the NBA to apologize to a government that is imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people because of their religion.
The NBA has a viewership in China of 500 million (more than America’s total population). The market is so big companies can’t say no… and that’s a huge problem. Nike pulled all Houston Rockets apparel from their Chinese stores after the incident. This, after they supported Colin Kaepernick while kneeling in protest of police brutality in America. Don’t be fooled by their “wokeconomics” campaign — everything is done for the sake of the bottom line. Adidas also fell in line with James Harden, who plays for the Rockets, who ended up succumbing to the pressure, saying, “We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there.”
So what does it mean when a country that rounds up just about anyone who is Muslim into “re-education camps” and forces some of the largest brands in America to apologize for supporting people fighting for their freedom?
It’s a dangerous precedent and a dangerous amount of power that the Chinese government is wielding. But you know who else has that kind of power? American consumers.
Remember when people boycotted the NFL because of Colin Kaepernick? I don’t see anyone boycotting the NBA or Nike over this. We might not be as big of a market as China, but we’re big enough to make a significant dent in any company’s bottom line if we boycott those who are putting profit over people’s autonomy. Money is power. While individually we may not have a lot of power or money, collectively we have it in spades — and we should use it.
Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues.