The politics of masks making and sporting: From Uighur Muslims’ compelled labour, to the ‘freedom’ of anti-maskers

A piece of cloth that is stitched under forced labour, that has witnessed the extremes of human freedom being trampled upon, travels to a country where an anti-mask movement rages on

Human history is rife with tales of slavery and freedom, with different clans claiming ownership over each other either through ideological sanctions or sheer brute force. It took centuries of struggle and countless revolutionary movements for the human race to come up with the ideas of individual liberty and freedom — ideas that are sometimes taken for granted by those who are served freedom on a platter, or those who have not sacrificed anything to earn it themselves.

A 21st-century scholar of history studying invasions, genocides, ethnic cleansing, slavery, and bonded labour may falsely conclude that the civilised world has moved past these social evils by entering the era of peace treaties, diplomatic ties, and economic warfare. While tremendous progress has been made, the reality is far from perfect.

It is harrowing to study a dark chapter of not-so-distant history where an ideology convinced its population to not only believe in racial supremacy, but also actively engage in systemic cleansing of their fellow countrymen. It is unfathomable to the 21st-century scholar that a nation engaged in active genocide against its citizens and the world stood by and watched, the defenders of human rights kept mum, the champions of individual liberty were silenced. “Never again, never forget…”, the historian will conclude, “…if that were to happen today, the world would be up in arms against that injustice, we have learned our lesson.” But alas.

Those wondering what they would have done to stop this injustice if it occurred in their lifetime have their answers now: They would have done exactly what they are doing today, because it happened again, it is happening again. Case in point, the Communist Party of China and Uighur concentration camps.

After 1949, the “autonomous” region of Xinjiang — that most Uighur Muslims of Turkic ethnicity call home — saw absolute control by Communist China. Since they have their own language and a cultural affinity towards Central Asian countries, the friction between minority Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese population began to increase. It wasn’t long before this friction turned into oppression, and soon the religious and cultural freedom of the Uighurs was clamped down upon, which has increased exponentially ever since Premier Xi Jinping assumed power.

Rayhan Asat, the president of the American Turkic International Lawyers Association, observes, “Over a million Turkic Uighurs are detained in concentration camps, prisons, and forced labour factories in China. Detainees are subject to military-style discipline, thought transformation, and forced confessions. They are abused, tortured, raped, and even killed. Survivors report being subjected to electrocution, waterboarding, repeated beatings, stress positions, and injections of unknown substances.” He adds that these detention camps are meant to mentally and physically break the Uighur people, as well as their roots and origins. Uighur births have been systematically prevented too, demonstrating a clear motive to eradicate the population.

Chinese State officials have dubbed these camps, where human dignity is being trampled upon in all thinkable and unthinkable ways, ‘Vocational and Re-Education Camps’. The coronavirus pandemic is an added misery to the interns of concentration camps in China. As health experts warned that the virus is airborne and highly contagious, the demand for face masks skyrocketed almost overnight, and China took it upon itself to fulfill these demands. The Uighur population is reportedly being forced into labour for the mass production of masks and PPE kits which are making their way into the international market.

Amy K Lehr, the human rights director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, states, “The rural poor that are being put into factory work are not going by choice. These are coercive quotas that cause people to be put into factory work when they don’t want to be — and that could be considered forced labor under international law.”

The masks produced in Uighur camps are reportedly being shipped, among other countries, to the United States as well. A piece of cloth that is stitched under forced labour, that has witnessed the extremes of human freedom being trampled upon, travels to a country where an anti-mask movement rages on.

It is almost poetic that a piece of cloth woven by hands in chains makes its way into the hands of someone who refuses to wear it, because it “curbs their freedom” — even if it means saving lives.

That cloth becomes witness to another extreme of individual liberty.

Wearing a mask is no more a precautionary step to slow down the transmission of a deadly disease, it has now become a political statement in the United States. What started as anger against government-imposed lockdowns later spiraled into an anti-mask sentiment, with people burning their masks on video to supposedly snatch back lost freedom. Public health officials have repeatedly asked people to wear masks and practice social distancing in order to slow down the spread of the virus, but one woman was heard saying at a meeting of local leaders in Palm Beach, Florida that, “you’re removing our freedoms and stomping on our constitutional rights by these communist dictatorship orders or laws you want to mandate.”

Ohio’s governor Mike DeWine had to rescind an order requiring residents to wear masks in public, because “people were not going to accept the government telling them what to do,” he told ABC News.

If a piece of cloth that traveled from the concentration camps of China and ended up in the hands of an anti-mask activist in the United States had sentience and the power of comprehension, it would surely be baffled by the extremes of statism and individual anarchism it had experienced in its arguably short lifetime. It would undoubtedly imagine a Utopia where forced labour does not exist, and people wear masks to save their own lives and that of others.

American political philosopher Robert Nozick argues in his 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia that the proposition of a minimal night-watchman State is not only legitimate but also just and inspiring. He defines Utopia as an ultraminimal State that has a monopoly over enforcement of rights, turning into a minimal State to ensure both protection of all its individuals as well as peaceful co-existence. His Utopia neither has a paternalistic complex, nor does it comprise a central authority, but he is a proponent of reasonable precautions to avoid altercations between individuals crossing each other’s boundaries without consent.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many inherent flaws in the systems humans have built to govern themselves. It is essential to not only wear a mask, but to also take lessons from its journey across the globe.

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