By Poppy Askham
Durham University’s ambassadors for the Students for Uyghurs campaign hosted a debut panel event addressing the ways in which students can aid the fight to end human rights abuses currently being carried out by the Chinese government in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The online meeting featured four human rights activists who highlighted links between UK higher education providers, including Durham University, and the ongoing atrocity.
The event included a personal testimony from London-based Uyghur activist and singer, Rahima Mahmut, who heads the UK Stop the Genocide campaign. Mahmut, who last had contact with her relatives in the Xinjiang region in January 2017, detailed the systematic mass detentions, executions, forced sterilisations, forced labour and gang rapes of Uyghur Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities in Western China that have been taking place with little international intervention for at least four years.
Jaya Pathak, a representative of the student branch of the Stop Uyghur Genocide campaign and Masters Pharmacy student at Brighton, drew attention to the research links between UK universities and the Chinese companies implicated in the atrocities described by Mahmut.
A recent investigation carried out by Palatinate revealed Durham University’s connections with 12 state-controlled Chinese universities linked to the People’s Liberation Army, nuclear weapons research and industrial espionage. Pathak indicated that Durham’s ties to the Chinese government are part of a more widespread issue.
“We believe that many higher education institutions in the UK likely have links with the Chinese Communist Party or what’s going on in the Uyghur region,” she explained. Students for Uyghurs now awaits the results of freedom of information requests made at every Russell Group university to investigate the issue.
Last month Manchester University terminated a research project with a state-owned technology company alleged to be complicit in Uyghur genocide. Oxford University has renamed a prestigious chair of physics, the Tencent-Wykeham Professorship, in return for a £700,000 donation from Tencent, a Chinese software firm closely tied to the main Chinese intelligence agency which is carrying out mass surveillance in Xinjiang.
“As British students we cannot allow our universities to have any involvement in what’s going on to the Uyghur people”, Pathak stated, highlighting the group’s aim to encourage universities to disaffiliate with organisations linked to the genocide.
Pathak also took the chance to draw attention to the widespread use of Uyghur slave labour in clothing manufacture, noting students’ responsibilities as fashion consumers with significant purchasing power.
The event was held against the backdrop of an ongoing parliamentary battle over the proposed ‘genocide amendment’ to the UK Trade Bill that would attempt to limit UK trade with countries found to have committed genocide and have serious implications for UK-China economic relations.
Human rights campaigners, Luke de Pulford and Joe Collins elucidated the political, legal and economic complexities surrounding the bill and the UK’s problematic stance towards genocide determination and prevention. As they explained, the UK government’s deferment of genocide recognition decisions to international courts eliminates all possibility for prompt intervention.
All four speakers urged students to write to their MPs to encourage them to back the amendment and changes to the genocide determination system.
Reflecting on the group’s first online event, Durham student and co-organiser Rahim Hussain said: “I thought the event was a great success as we had a sizeable audience, which we hope will convert to a wider level of awareness of the Uyghur Genocide among students.”
Fellow organiser, first-year law student Astrid Parrett added: “It made me feel hopeful when I saw the turnout of the students. One of the key messages in our event was that we have a duty as a young generation to change our world for the better.”
Students for Uyghurs is primarily focussed on raising awareness of the links between UK higher education and the genocide. “Our first steps to tackling the genocide in China is to start at home: Durham University”, Parrett stated.
The newly formed Durham group look forward to hosting more events in the future.
Image: Marina Mestres-Segarra