Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority from Central Asia. Most of them live in the autonomous province of Xinjiang, in China, while smaller communities can be found in neighbouring countries. Recently leaked Chinese government documents shed light on serious human rights violations performed on the province’s Uighur population, and on the high-scale brutal repression of minorities in China, notably regarding its “re-education” internment camps.

Historic overview

In 1933, Uighurs acquired their own nation, the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan, which would then be later taken over by Chinese forces. The province came under Chinese rule in 1949, following the country’s civil war and instauration of the communist regime. Even though it is officially “autonomous”, there is in fact no self-rule by its inhabitants, firmly controlled by Beijing as any regular province. Many see this as a form of “colonization” of the province and its population. Since its annexation, Xinjiang’s history has been marked by recurrent discrimination against its largest ethnic group, the Uighurs. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” singled out both ethnicity and religion as obstacles to communist society. The regime prioritized Xinjiang’s economic development and incentivized  large-scale immigration of Han Chinese, China’s largest ethnic group, to the province. In 1949, the Han represented only 6% of Xinjiang’s population, whereas now it constitutes no less than 40%, according to Chinese official statistics. During the same period, the percentage of Uighurs in the province decreased from 72% to 46%.

The latter have been protesting since the beginning of Chinese rule, becoming more vocal from the 90s onwards. Economic discrimination favouring the Han Chinese as well as religious discrimination measures against Islam were at the root of the protest movements which escalated into violence. The recent wave of unrest begun in July 2009 with the Urumqi riots, the capital of Xinjiang, after the Shao guan incident, where at least two Uighurs were murdered by Han Chinese after the alleged rape of a Han Chinese woman by a Uighur. The riots resulted in 200 deaths reported by the Chinese, although independent sources claim higher numbers. In 2014, various terrorist attacks were blamed on Uighur separatists by the government, serving as a catalyst for the current phase of persecution.

Never-ending repression

Through excessive repressive policies, the government stripped the Uighur population of basic freedoms and human rights. Between 2012 and 2017, the security budget doubled in China, while it tripled in Xinjiang. The province became a “police-state”, monitored by one of the most restrictive and intrusive high-tech surveillance systems ever deployed by a state against its own people. The Uighur population lives in fear, constantly tracked through their phones or by facial and voice recognition cameras. More than being controlled, it is seeing its religion being crushed. The attack on Islam materializes itself in the ban of religious associated clothing and grooming, such as  headscarves and long beards,  halal food, and even  giving “Islamic-sounding” names to new-borns. Mosques have been closed or demolished. Religious instruction or speaking any language other than Mandarin at school is strictly prohibited. Uighurs are also victims of tight travel restrictions; their passports were taken away for “safe-keeping”. As their most brutal measure, Chinese government officials resorted to the unthinkable in the 21st century:  reallocating at least one million Uighurs into internment camps.

Area of new security facilities built in Xinjiang province, 2011-2018. Source: BBC

Area of new security facilities built in Xinjiang province, 2011-2018. Source: BBC

Inside the camps

China first denied their existence, but new information has come to light, making the truth irrefutable. Labelled by the Chinese government as “re-education centres” to “eliminate extremist thoughts”, these compounds could easily be prisons. Characterized by high-security features such as watchtowers, barbed wire, and guardrooms, they seem far from being simple schools. Masses of Muslims, including children, disappeared into these facilities which started being set up in 2017.

Why are so many being arrested? Most have been convicted of no crime or faced no trial. In fact, the mildest behaviour can lead to landing in a camp – a woman reported being arrested for as little as having WhatsApp on her phone – and performing any type of religious associated conduct, such as praying, risks getting you interned. Once inside, Muslims are forced to sing songs about the Communist Party, recite laws, and spend long hours studying Mandarin. They are reformatted to lose sight of their cultural identity. Living in precarious conditions, they wear uniforms and up to ten people sleep in the same room, not knowing when they will return home. The length of the “re-education courses” is getting longer and being released becoming rarer. Eye-witness reports from former detainees who managed to flee abroad, detail a non-stop routine of exercise, brainwashing, physical and mental abuse, and even torture.

Facilities also hold thousands of children, separating families. They are forced to speak Mandarin and wear the country’s traditional outfits. Although officials deny it, they are in fact aware of how family separation affects the children’s mental stability, as psychological training is offered in the facilities. Two of the things most central to Uighur culture – faith and family – are being systematically crushed. Accounts of family members disappearing without warning are widespread. Leaked documents reveal how the police should handle questions from students returning home. Policemen are advised to tell them they are in a “training school” from which they cannot leave. Students are also to be told their behaviour could either shorten or extend their relatives’ detention.

What is China’s goal?

The Chinese Communist Party regards any sign of discontent as a threat to both territorial integrity and the regime, claiming the “schools” are a response to decades of sporadic separatist violence from the Uighur population. Moreover, it claims the camps are a “preventive measure” – government officials claim they can predict who is likely to commit a crime, thus making the camps a tool to return the citizens as “law-abiding people”.

However, China’s strong grip on Xinjiang is also largely economically rooted. Home to most Uighurs, the province is not only rich in energy resources such as coal and natural gas, but it also at the centre of one of China’s most ambitious projects to date, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A trillion-dollar spending plan, the BRI aims to strengthen trade, infrastructure, and investment links between China and an estimated 65 countries. Xinjiang sits on one of the main economic corridors of the BRI, so control of this region is crucial to its success, leading China to turn it into a high-tech police state and paint the Uighurs as a separatist and extremist threat.

Xinjiang map. Source: Bloomberg.

Xinjiang map. Source: Bloomberg.

International Response

Denying wrong-doing and urging foreign countries to stop interfering in its internal affairs, China has given limited access and insight to journalists and foreign diplomats as to what is happening in Xinjiang. However, international coverage, such as by the New York Times, or more recently by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), has exposed hundreds of Chinese government documents, increasing public awareness around China’s human rights abuse towards minorities. This resulted in an international outcry from the western world.  This past July, 22 countries including the UK, Germany, France, Japan and Australia, condemned the Chinese government’s actions and urged it to stop the repression against Uighurs and other minorities. In that same month, 37 primarily authoritarian countries wrote a letter to the President of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressing their support for China’s treatment of Uighurs, even defending Beijing’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights”. Amongst these countries were many predominantly Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Jordan. This perhaps surprising behaviour may be linked to fears of being left out of the massive infrastructure investments China has been financing across the world as part of its BRI initiative. Even Kazakhstan, the second-highest Uighur populated country, has supported Beijing, all in dread of economic repercussions from China.

The US House of Representatives has overwhelmingly passed a Uighur Human Rights Policy Act bill to counter the minority’s repression in China, calling on President Trump to impose sanctions on China over the human rights violations in Xinjiang. Furthermore, the release of the leaked documents led Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to call on China to “immediately release all those who are arbitrarily detained and to end its draconian policies that have terrorized its own citizens in Xinjiang.

China’s internment camps remain in many ways a mystery to the rest of the world, as a lot of their activities are still unknown. Uncertainty surrounds the future of the Uighur population, and the country’s large economic and political influence limits the efficiency of international action. Now aware of a cultural genocide happening right before our eyes, the western world stands powerless. For now.

Sources: BBC, The Economist, Vox, CNN, Wikipedia, Washington Institute, France 24, CSIS, The Guardian, The New York Times

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