The UK must not remain silent over “grave” violations committed during Beijing’s crackdown on the minority in western Xinjiang province, the foreign affairs committee heard.
Up to three million Uighurs have been arbitrarily detained in centres which Amnesty International has compared to “wartime concentration camps”. Released internees have alleged they were tortured into denouncing Islam and swearing loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.
Steve Tsang, director of the London School of Oriental Studies said: “When you have an identifiable group of citizens in a country where something like one tenth of that identifiable group live in camps, you have an enormous human rights problem.
“Ever since the end of Chairman Mao’s era in 1976, and probably including the period of hard military crackdown in 1989, we have not seen the scale of human rights abuse that we are seeing today in Xinjiang.”
An estimated 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death under rule of Mao Zedong, who founded the People's Republic of China.
Speaking to MPs on the committee, Prof Tsang urged politicians to speak out over abuses against Uighur Muslims
He said: “I think if we believe in our values, in our system – even though there’s probably not much we can actually do to change the situation in China – it would be wrong for us to remain silent on the subject.”
China denied the existence of the camps until October last year, and since claimed it is detaining people guilty of minor crimes in what it describes as “vocational education centres”.
Eva Pils, a China human rights expert and professor of law at King’s College London, said Beijing had been careful to present the crackdown as a response to the threat of Islamist terrorism.
She said there was “credible evidence” human rights abuses were happening on “vast scale”.
Prof Pils told MPs: “The grave human rights violations that Professor Tsang was alluding to in my view almost certainly … include not only arbitrary detention of people in these camps but also the use of torture to ‘transform’ them, to ‘de-extremify’ them.
“That, in my view, especially as we have credible evidence that it happens at this very vast scale, is extremely concerning.”
Beijing faces mounting international criticism over its treatment of the Uighur minority, an estimated 15 million of whom live in China.
UN human rights official Michelle Bachelet, said in December her office was seeking access to Xinjiang to verify “worrying reports”. The UK government has also raised concerns and pledged to “press China to change its approach”.
“I think it’s extremely important to continue raising the issue,” said Prof Pils. “The ability of any western country, including the UK, to influence China is limited, but I think that at least we need to ask for investigation. It would be appropriate, I think, to seek the appointment of international observers.”
Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, warned China’s Muslim crackdown could put Britain at greater risk of Islamist terror attacks.
He said: “On jihadi websites today, you are starting to see very clear condemnation of the Chinese government’s actions on the Uighar population. You seeing very, very clearly the imprisonment and torture of Muslims in western China being cited as reasons for jihad.
“Indeed, there is a real issue here for countries like our own that the mass torture, imprisonment and in some cases possibly even execution of Muslims in western China is leading to a rise in jihadism that could easily have repercussions for us, not just in China.”
Prof Tsang replied: “The basic point you make is a very, very true one. China did have a very, very small terrorist problem before.
“If this policy is continued you will have a very large number of Muslim people – Uighurs or sometimes other nationalities who will turn to jihadism because they have got nothing else.”
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