On the 2nd of July 2020, it was reported that US Federal Authorities had seized a shipment of products made from human hair, originating from Muslims in Chinese internment camps (or concentration camps to put them by their more recognisable name). Customs and Border Protection officials said that 13 tons (11.8 metric tonnes) of weaves and other hair products worth an estimated $800,000 were in the shipment. As someone who has visited Auschwitz, this headline was horrifying, not just from the natural shock of 13 tons of human hair possibly being ripped from dead or enslaved people, but because I had seen this before. In Auschwitz, as it stands today, a memorial and museum to the lives lost during the Holocaust, one of the rooms you enter, behind a massive glass display, is a gigantic pile of hair, which was harvested by the Nazis from their victims, alongside their teeth. Not to mention, footage coming out showing blindfolded Uighurs waiting to be put into a train car, a resonant image to the many Jews forced into cramped carriages being sent to the Nazi concentration camps. To see history repeat itself, to feel only the echo of atrocities I witnessed in Auschwitz come back to me, was a terrifying experience. But let us take a step back for a moment, and understand what is going on in China?
How did we get here?
The Xinjiang Province is a North Western region in China, bordering Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and India. Historically, Xinjiang has been populated by the Uighur people — a Turkic people who are typically Muslim. In 1953, Uighurs accounted for 75% of the population of the region, in 2010, they accounted for just 46%. Xinjiang is one of five ‘autonomous regions’, a semi-devolved area created to accommodate ethnic minorities. Xinjiang was granted the title of ‘autonomous region’ in 1955 because it had a history of independent movements.
In 1933, the local Uighur population took over the city of Kashgar in the West of Xinjiang, and in 1934, declared it the ‘Republic of East Turkestan’. The Chinese Government did not take kindly to this, and some Chinese warlords (backed by Soviet…