Boris Tsang/Sun Photography Editor

Dozens of students assembled to discuss China's ongoing Uyghur situation.

November 12, 2019

Students and Professors Hold ‘Teach-In’ to Raise Awareness of Uyghur Plight in China

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As China has come under international scrutiny for sending Uyghurs — a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority — to detention camps, dozens of Cornellians packed a room in Rockefeller Hall on Monday for a “teach-in” intended to shed light on the situation.

Nick Kline grad, a third-year law student and lecturer at the event, told The Sun that it was important to stimulate a conversation about these human rights violations on campus.

“We wanted to bring attention to [the Uyghurs] because it’s important, but then we wanted to situate it in the larger context of Islamophobia and try and talk about it in the right way because it’s often talked about it in the wrong way,” said Kline, who has a master’s degree in Chinese politics, foreign policy and international relations from Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Since 2017, the Chinese government has imprisoned Uyghurs as well as other primarily Muslim ethnic groups like Uzbeks and Kazakhs in detention camps. The Chinese government has held approximately one to two million Uyghurs in detention camps in their native province of Xinjiang.

While the government claims that the camps are “vocational training centers” and that there are no human rights violations, The New York Times reports that many have been forced to renounce Islam in the camps and are living in squalid conditions under constant surveillance.

The event consisted of a presentation detailing China’s discrimination of the Uyghurs in what Kline described as “concentration camps” and a discussion among students and faculty on the issue.

At the end of the half-hour presentation, Kline offered advice for what Cornell could do to raise awareness on the issue. One of his suggestions was that the University be completely transparent about its relationship with China and Chinese companies.

“We don’t want to be in relationships with [Chinese companies] that are complicit in the development of technologies that can then be utilized by the security regime in Xinjiang,” Kline said.

In 2017, multinational technology firm Huawei Technologies paid Cornell roughly $5.3 million in research contracts, The Sun previously reported. Huawei signed a contract with Xinjiang’s police department in 2018 to help monitor and analyze data in the region.

Beyond Cornell, other U.S. universities, through research contracts, collaborated with Chinese companies that specialize in surveillance technology. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a research partnership with iFlytek — a Chinese company that has aided the Chinese government in enhancing surveillance in Xinjiang.

During the discussion, some students disagreed with the information presented, claiming that the Chinese government was not committing any human rights violations against the Uyghurs.

Jinchao Guo grad, a Chinese international student, questioned if the information on the Uyghurs’ plight was true, saying that he did not necessarily believe Uyghurs were targeted for their religion. Guo said there is a mosque in his town near Shanghai, which the local government has left untouched.

While this mosque remains, the Chinese government has destroyed mosques in northern China, The New York Times reported.

Huinie Pan grad, also a Chinese international student, said at the event that the Chinese government is only educating Uyghurs on Chinese law, claiming that they present a safety threat to other Chinese ethnic groups like the Hans — who comprise around 91.6 percent of China’s population.

“I just have an issue with the [oversimplification] of the camps because according to [my friends from Xinjiang], there are some … Han minorities and their concern is that there is some [Uyghur] campaign that would put their safety at risk,” Pan said.

Pan added that she believes the Chinese government has already enacted policies that benefit Uyghurs, such as large point increases on standardized tests like the Chinese-language Gaokao if the taker was a nonnative speaker, a policy which China’s Ministry of Education ended for the Xinjiang province in April 2017. The Diplomat reported these increases as 10 points; Pan claimed they were as high as 50.

In an impassioned response, postdoctoral associate Ablajan Mahmut grad — who is of Uyghur descent — refuted Pan’s claims, saying that none of them were true.

“In the 21st century, everyone has the right to keep their culture,” Mahmut said at the event. “I’m a medical doctor, I don’t know the politics, I only know the science, but this is lying.”

After the event, Mahmut told The Sun he had no resentment towards the students who disputed the severity of the human rights violations against the Uyghurs, saying that he felt their perspectives have been molded by the media.

Prof. Eli Friedman, international and comparative labor, told The Sun that he hoped the event ultimately gave Cornellians the opportunity to reflect on this crisis, despite the disagreements.

“When you have a country that has the second largest economy in the world, it’s a country that has all kinds of relationships with the United States and higher education,” Friedman said. “These sort of atrocities are happening on this large scale, you really need to think carefully [about] why that’s happening and sort out in a very thorough-going way whether we are implicated or not.”