The Choice of an Oppressor

By Tang, Y. N. | Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, Annual 2019 | Go to article overview

The Choice of an Oppressor


Tang, Y. N., Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal


"But I am a member of the oppressors." As a Han Chinese person living outside the Great Firewall--therefore with access to information on the situation in Xinjiang--I kept on thinking to myself during the discussion of "How to Engage With the Oppressor" that I, in fact, have been complicit in what increasingly looks like a cultural genocide.

By the end of 2018, the Chinese government had detained an estimated 800,000 to possible two million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims in Xinjiang. (1) The party-state has used the terms "vocational training centers," (2) and, more recently, "boarding schools" (3) to describe internment camps with mass forced labor. There is little access for almost anyone who is not an employee of the state to these camps. But according to the few escapees or former employees, detainees are coerced to use Chinese only and repeatedly recite party-state propaganda; some of Muslim faith have been forced to drink alcohol or eat pork. (4)

Outside the camps, life exceeds the wildest darkest dystopian imagination. It is reported that some 2.5 million residents of Xinjiang are being closely surveilled. (5) In addition to the use of cutting-edge surveillance technology, Han government officials have been stationed in individual homes; neighbors are instructed to spy on one another; checkpoints abound, where Uyghur and other Muslim minorities are subject to regular, invasive strip searches.

If I want to be honest and coherent as an aspiring human rights advocate, I should not stay silent for any longer on what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been doing to the Uyghur people. As a Yale Law student, I have brainstormed novel legal theories to promote human rights along with my peers. But I never expected that, while in law school, I would see such a blatant large-scale instance of crimes against humanity being committed in real time, and happening in my country.

I do not even like to call the CCP "my government"; after all, I never had and likely never will have the right to vote in a free, open election as a Chinese national. But I also do not have another government. Besides, I am a Han person, a member of the ethnic majority (92%) of the most populated country on earth.

I have been thinking about the "dominance versus oppression" distinction ever since the roundtable discussion, when one of the discussants provocatively stated: "'oppression' is not the same as 'dominance.' Dominance is a sociological position; being an oppressor is a choice."

I am at least a member of the dominant group vis-a-vis the Uyghur and Kazakh people. Am I an oppressor?

How would you choose? How should I choose?

I am so scared, all the time.

But I am angrier than I am scared.

When a member of the dominant group chooses to not be an oppressor, she pays a price. This has been happening and will continue to happen to Han Chinese people, even to those not directly working on Uyghur advocacy.

Maybe someday in the future, when looking back at my time in law school, I might point to spring 2019 as when that fear and anger started to swallow me.

On March 20, 2017, police detained labor rights activist Wei Zhili for his advocacy on behalf of migrant workers, including silicosis victims. (6)

In late March, constitutional professor and scholar of jurisprudence Xu Zhangrun of Tsinghua was suspended from teaching and research for his criticism of Xi Jinping's authoritarianism. Professor Xu told the New York Times, "Thinking is in our blood.... Unless you liquidate me, how could you ever stop me doing my research?" (7)

Human rights attorney Wang Yu was detained and released outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing in the same week. She was previously arrested in 2015 among a large number of rights defenders, and ultimately released after filming a televised confession. (8)

On April 9, the nine democracy activists and leaders of Occupy Central were convicted by the Hong Kong Court on public nuisance charges. …

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