Uighur activist calls for closure of Confucius Institute at UCD

Rushan Abbas says her sister (61) disappeared in China six days after she criticised the Chinese government at an event in the US

One of the world’s most prominent campaigners against the oppression of the Uighur population in China has called for the closure of UCD’s Confucius Institute while making an address at the Dublin university.

Rushan Abbas said the government in Beijing was spending huge sums on a global misinformation campaign in an attempt to hide the atrocities being inflicted on the Uighur and other mostly Muslim Turkic people in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, and that the international network of Confucius Institutes was part of that operation.

The UCD Confucius Institute is a joint venture between the Dublin university and Renmin University of China and is designed to “develop strong educational, cultural and commercial links between Ireland and China”, its website states. Some academics at UCD have criticised the institute because of its links with the regime in Beijing.

At the event in UCD on Tuesday, Ben Tonra, professor of international relations at the university, said: “We don’t have to look very, very far to see examples of Chinese power suppressing conversation and dissent. We have the Chinese Confucius Institute here across the road and that is something that UCD could and does not do anything about.”


Ms Abbas said that in her travels around the world she had witnessed examples of “transnational oppression” with pressure being put on Chinese students in Confucius Institutes to attack her work and call it “anti-Chinese propaganda”.

“You cannot have [one arm of the] Chinese government, as a soft power, operating here in Dublin, in your university,” she said. “That should be one tangible action [for Irish people], that people would speak out and put it on the agenda, to shut it down.”

In a report last year on the detention of more than a million people in Xinjiang in camps, the United Nations said the Chinese regime may be involved in “crimes against humanity”. The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has said China is committing “genocide and crimes against humanity” in the region.

Ms Abbas, who was born in Xinjiang but now lives in the US, began campaigning in the US against the oppression of the Uighur people in September 2018. Six days after her first public appearance her older sister, retired doctor Gulshan Abbas (61), was taken from her home in China and has not been heard from since.

“So basically my freedom of speech in the US, as an American citizen, cost my own sister’s freedom,” she told the meeting, organised by the UCD Centre for Asia-Pacific Research.

She said the campaign of repression against the Uighur people included forced labour in the production of cotton goods from China, as well as the taking of children from their families.

“Uighur women are being targeted the most and being the biggest victims of this genocide. Their bodies are a battleground. They are facing forced sterilisations, forced abortions, being forcibly married to Han Chinese men.”

The Chinese government is offering housing, money and a job to Han Chinese men to marry young Uighur women. Women who refuse to marry these men are being sent to the camps along with their families and called “radicalised Muslims”, she said.

“That is government sponsored mass rape of these women in the name of sham marriages.”

Asked for a response to Ms Abbas’ criticisms, the Chinese embassy in Dublin said issues concerning Xinjiang were an internal Chinese matter.

“We firmly reject attacks and smears against China by anyone or any force using human rights as a pretext and groundless accusations about the human rights conditions in Xinjiang.”

It said Ms Abbas “has been running around to collude with Western politicians and MPs. She denigrates China’s policies on Xinjiang, and hypes up topics such as ‘genocide’ and ‘human rights infringement’.

“Her sister, Gulshan Abbas, was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in accordance with law in March 2019 by the People’s Court due to ‘participating in terrorists organisations, helping terrorists activities and gathering crowds to disturb the public order’. She is serving a sentence with all legitimate rights guaranteed.”

Ms Abbas said her sister was never involved in politics. She also said her issue was not with the Chinese people but the Chinese Communist Party.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent