IT WAS a particularly cold and quiet evening and autumnal leaves were blowing across the wide tree-lined street, and a scattering of what I’m told are all familiar faces began to congeal in the waning light, before the enormous building.
The building was the People’s Republic of China’s embassy in Marylebone, London, and the day was October 5.
The fifth is a significant day in Xinjiang, officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in North-West China, the country’s largest province.
It marks the beginning of the Ürümqi riots of 2009 where a series of violent clashes broke out in the province’s capital between Xinjiang’s native Uyghur population, Han Chinese, and China’s paramilitary force People’s Armed Police.
By the time the bloody confrontations had been stamped out, nearly 200 people had died and a further 1,700 injured. The Uyghur people however have a different name for the riots: The Ürümqi Massacre.
Today, over twelve years on from the events of Ürümqi, a United Nations human rights committee estimates that there are approximately one million Uyghur people being held in detention camps.
The names and exact purpose of these camps vary depending on who you ask.
The Chinese government would tell you that they are “re-education” camps built for the purposes of rooting out Islamic extremism and to ensure cultural uniformity throughout the country.
The United Nations, and 39 countries including the United States however, agree that the level of atrocities that Uyghur people are subject to within these camps are tantamount to genocide and ethnic cleansing.
Accounts of death and torture, rape and sexual abuse, forced labour, mass sterilisation of women, compulsory activities antithetical to religious identity such as drinking alcohol and being fed pork have all and more been reported.
The UK parliament declared in April of this year that China was committing a genocide in the Xinjiang region, with Dominic Raab, then Foreign Secretary, saying: “We will not look the other way. The suffering of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang cannot be ignored. Human rights violations on this scale cannot be ignored.”
The government also designated four senior Chinese officials as responsible for the violations, barring those individuals from entry into the UK and freezing any assets of theirs found within the country.
“1,2,3,4 mass interment no more. 5,6,7,8 we condemn the Chinese state.” began the megaphone wielding crowd of about 30 that descended upon the Chinese embassy on Tuesday, and not for the first time.
Joe Boothe, 24, told me that the organisers had been demonstrating outside the embassy on the fifth of every month since September 2019, stopping only for lockdown.
So soon into our conversation were we interrupted by a small group of suit-wearing, laughing careerists striding through and around the demonstration, headed towards Soho.
Boothe said: “I can’t believe some people just walk past this demonstration without looking up from their phones. People don’t even stop to think what it’s about.
“People are literally being killed. They are having their organs sold as merchandise.”
Joe admitted that the movement was not getting the traction in London that he hopes for.
“Sometimes the turnout is less than half of this, sometimes more. I can’t believe more people don’t care.” he said.
Ben Ball, 48, one of the organisers of the demonstration, and chief chant-leader said: “We have also demonstrated outside Zara, Nike, Apple, and Samsung over their complicity in forced labour in China.
“We believe the Uyghur people deserve democracy and the right to self-determination and we want an immediate lifting of the extreme levels of oppression and persecution carried out by the CCP.”
Mr Ball admitted that their demands are unlikely to be met soon and that they would likely be demonstrating for a long time to come.
“We all have to face the harsh reality that China is incredibly powerful in the world, militarily and economically, and they are able to buy the support of foreign governments that are all too easily corrupted.”
When asked what more the UK government can do to assist the Uyghur people, Mr Ball was dismissive of Dominic Raab’s speech in parliament earlier this year.
“The UK government can be much clearer in denouncing what China is doing.
“They can force companies that have supply chains in China to investigate those supply chains thoroughly and to basically say if you want to trade in this country you’ve got to have total transparency and cut ties with forced labour.
“And the government can, at the very least, not make it harder for refugees to come here.”
“Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here.” The megaphones continued, but the many closed curtains inside the embassy were unmoved.
Mr Ball’s disillusionment with the government’s response to the crisis was echoed by others.
Ben Tausz, 36, who also helped to organise the demonstration, said: “We want the British government first and foremost to welcome refugees fleeing this persecution and all persecutions.
“We have seen a lot of willingness from this government to make symbolic sanctions on individual officials in the Chinese government, to little effect.
“We want concrete action against the corporations and global capitalist giants that are profiting from the forced labour of Uyghur people. What motivates the Chinese government is power and profit, and if we can cut ties to those profits then we remove the incentive.”
The time was now seven in the evening and the group had been there for an hour. The light of day had all but retreated into the western sky leaving the huge, east-facing embassy looking menacing and dark, as though it itself had engulfed the light.
A teary Mei, not her real name, told me as they were packing up: “We will not sit quietly watching an atrocity unfold, and we will not go quietly into the night.”
Featured Images: Daniel Ben-David
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