By Abel Harvie-Clark
Around the world, young people are standing up and calling for greater solidarity with the ethnic minorities facing genocide in East Turkestan, occupied by the Chinese state as “Xinjiang”. The issue has been twisted in some ways by right-wingers looking to stoke up anti-Chinese sentiment, whilst some on the left are shamefully quiet due to a lingering softness for Chinese Stalinism. Both groups thus fall into the Cold War narrative that does not account for the catastrophic oppression that Uyghurs and other groups in the region are facing. Beyond the modern imperialisms that Washington and Beijing are both promoting, young people are leading the way with activism focussed on the reality of Uyghur experiences, and the direct connections we have to the region in order to take action in support of them.
Awareness of the issue has been raised successfully in recent years on social media, and by the end of 2020 this had amounted to concrete protests taking place. Last September, over 100 young people joined a protest outside the Chinese embassy in London at only a few days’ notice, to demand freedom for Uyghurs. The Uyghur Solidarity Campaign has continued regular protests, targeting the high street brands that are complicit in profiting from Uyghur forced labour. These corporations epitomise the hypocrisy of right-wing liberals who attack the Chinese government whilst remaining committed to an international economic system that encourages such extreme labour exploitation to the point of genocide.
Independent and internationalist solidarity is now successfully taking root on university campuses, with exciting prospects for cross-border organising. Collaboration between students at SOAS in London and SoCal Students For Uyghur Justice, a group of students in Southern California has led to an upcoming series of webinars to raise awareness, educate, and champion Uyghur culture. Further, both university student bodies are presenting radical motions to their student unions, and encouraging other universities to do the same. These motions demand an end to institutional investments in the repressive apparatus in East Turkestan, a strong public stance against Chinese repression and Western Cold War narratives, and calling all students out into the streets in support of the Uyghur struggle.
This work is strengthened by its international organisation: a discord channel has been set up to unite young activists all over the world working on this. The international reality of the crisis through multinational supply chains requires such a response, and continued dialogue at this level will help to increase the power of our action. The student union motion resolutions seek to emphasise and deepen cross-border exchange in academic studies especially. Whilst Confucius Institutes have been shown to prop up CCP surveillance of international students, it is important that we don’t confuse this with cutting ties with China studies. Instead, academic exchanges with all parts of the world should be encouraged, and seen as important spaces within which to raise the profile of ‘frontier studies’, particularly narratives around Uyghur, Tibetan and Hong Kong struggles that counter the CCP’s denial of repression.
Remaining concentrated on human stories rather than superpower narratives reminds us how connected we in the West are to this seemingly distant crisis. It is practically impossible to guarantee avoiding wearing cotton that has been processed through the forced labour camps, whilst many young people rely on low-paid jobs in the retail companies connected to the work camps. The enormous profits of these companies rest on the denial of Uyghur rights, as well as poor wages and insecure contracts of other Chinese workers and retail workers in the West. Retail workers and Uyghur campaigners share a common enemy in the exploitation of multinational capitalism, backed up by authoritarian nationalist states. In this common struggle there is great opportunity for effective solidarity action: as forced labour camps rely on the unchallenged sale of cheap clothes, workplace organisation in the retail sector and a refusal to sell products of forced labour could fundamentally disrupt the supply chain.
The fact that many of the students talking about Uyghur rights work in retail should be seen as an opportunity to take this campaigning forward. For now, it is important to pass the motion through as many student unions as possible, build support in the rank-and-file of retail trade unions, get back out on the streets once it is safe to do so, and have these conversations with young exploited retail workers.