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In 2017, satellite images captured strange looking buildings in Xingjian, China, quite unlike any other typical infrastructure in the region. At first glance, they resemble schools or hospitals, but once we zoom in these images, high walls and watch towers are visible as well, exposing a much darker truth. Deemed by the Chinese government “re-education camps”, – after multiple attempts of trying to deny their existence – these more than 380 detention camps in Xingjian are estimated to be holding prisoner more than 1 million people.

Satellite image of one of the re-education camps

Who are the 1 million people detained?     

The Xingjian region has been under China´s control since 1949, after being independent twice for a short time. For centuries, it was known for its strong agricultural activities and trade, having been part of the silk road. Today, this region is responsible for the largest natural gas production in the country. 

In Xingjian live more than 11 million Uyghurs, a minority ethnic group of Muslims that have their own language and tradition and that culturally identify themselves with the surrounding countries of central Asia. 

Uyghurs in mosque

China views the religious beliefs of Uyghurs as extremist and separatist, using as an argument the terrorist attacks that occurred in 2013 and 2014, planed by extremist Uyghurs. For this reason, and rooted on a fear of losing the Xingjian territory to separatist Uyghurs, the Chinese authorities defend that the camps are a necessary tool to stop the terrorism and the separatist movements in the area. These assumptions are considered by the rest of the world as an unfair generalization that revolves on the denomination of all the Uyghur people as extremists. 

NYTimes reveled, in 2019, documents that exposed military orders coming from the Chinese government that incentivize Xingjian´s troops to act without mercy: “We must be as harsh as them”, “and show absolutely no mercy”, “Freedom is only possible when this “virus” in their thinking is eradicated, and they are in good health”. 

What is happening to the Uyghur community?

From Xingjian come all sort of accounts from the community, disclosing religious-motivated detentions, assaults, interrogations, and torture. Those who are sent to the camps are admitted and not just re-educated as claimed.

In social media, requests to find missing family members are multiplying and sometimes, when clamors become too loud to be silenced, the answer arrives in the form of a phone call from said missing family members, nervously asking to never being contacted again, fearing the repercussions.

Even outside the camps, the Uyghurs that are still free are yet being constantly monitored by security cameras in the streets with facial recognition and with QR codes in the entry of buildings and police stops being put in place applying to just this minority. 

In 2017, men were forbidden from using long beards and women from using the hijab, being also prohibited to teach their religion to children or give them names of Islamic origin. 

Uyghurs using the hijab and the police controlling them

In 2021, Uyghur women revealed that they are forced to use birth control as an attempt to decrease the numbers of the Uyghur population. Indeed, according to Association Press, the government subjects hundreds of thousands of Uyghur women to pregnancy tests, sterilizations and abortions. 

Restrictions on this minority´s freedom also include trips inside and out of Xingjian. Moreover, reports from civil servants and university students claim that they are forbidden from conducting many religious practices, such as fasting during Ramadan or going to mosques – which are being gradually destroyed in the region.

Having come across reports of ex-detainees, western social media channels have been exposing the practices used in the re-education camps, especially BBC. This in turn has gathered the attention of the Chinese government, which promptly accused the news channel of spreading fake news, blocking their broadcasts in the country, with the justification that they need to stop with their occidental propaganda.

Images of these camps that are shared inside the country are strictly controlled by the government. In the official government records the Uyghur minority appear happy, followed by the statement that the Uyghurs come to the camps by free choice, because they want to learn and work to achieve better economic status – a very different story from the one that reaches us from international media of the likes of BBC…

What is really happening inside these camps?

Firstly, Uyghurs are forced to learn mandarin – which is the least of their concerns. Among some witnesses that BBC gathered, one of them said: “After almost five months in the Karamay police cells, between interrogations and random acts of cruelty – at one stage I was chained to my bed for 20 days as punishment, though I never knew what for – I was told I would be going to “school””. 

Between these statements of ex-detainees, some of them reported having been victims or having witnessed systematic episodes of rape, sexual abuse, and torture. According to BBC, “An ex-detainee, Tursunay Ziyawudun, said she received injections until she stopped menstruating and was repeatedly beaten on her lower stomach during interrogations”. 

Protest in favor of Uyghurs

            Furthermore, an investigation of NYtimes revealed the existence of Uyghur workers being exposed to forced labor practices in some factories, such as in solar companies and in the production of face masks (“Chinese solar companies tied to use of forced labor”, “China is using Uyghur labor to produce face masks”).  

            All in all, the majority of ex-detainees is unanimous in their assessment and retelling of China´s approach to the Uyghur minority: “their goal is to destroy everyone”. 

Ripples in the rest of the world

According to a coalition of organizations for Uyghurs rights, one in each 5 items of clothing that we wear has its origin in forced Uyghur work. Besides, 20% of the cotton produced in the world comes from Xingjian, and 17 brands – amongst which we have Nike, Apple, Adidas, Coca Cola and Amazon – were accused of using this cotton on their products. 

 On the other hand, H&M showed some displeasure about the treatment that the Uyghurs are receiving, and the possibility of forced work being used in the cotton fields did not please the brand. China reacted to H&M immediately: a lot of Chinese websites have stopped showing the brand´s products, resulting in a loss of around 135 million euros for the company, just in the first semester of 2021.

China is not without allies, however, as 37 other countries postulated in a written letter their support in favor of China, vouching for the important role China plays in the international cause of human rights. On the other hand, a different position in regards to China´s treatment of human rights is expressed by the UK and Europe, that together with other 27 ONU member states, including the US and Canada, have taken a stand accusing China of genocide and promising not to stop fighting for this minority´s freedom. 

This conflict has resulted in sanctions from both sides. From China´s side, five European MPs were forbidden from entering Chinese territory. In response, Canada, the US and the UK have joined forces with the EU to apply sanctions against China and its allies.

The story of the youngest person arrested

Rahile Omer, detained in a re-education

Rahile Omer was only 15 years old when she was arrested by the Chinese authorities. The accusation process began when she was just 14, in Xingjian. Having been identified and classified by the security cameras in the streets as a “type 12 person” – someone connected to an existing police case – a target was set on the girl. According to police records, they found out that Rahile´s mother was serving six years in prison for disturbing the “social order”, after being accused of following extremist religion practices. By attachment, her father was deemed a “type 12 person” too, leading to his detention and subsequent admittance in one of the re-education camps in 2017. Assuming Rahile to be a dangerous person due to her connection to her parents, she was sent to a detention camp as well, at the mere age of 15. 


Last century, during World War II, the world watched as numerous atrocities were committed against a community because of their religious beliefs, different customs and appearance, and how they were imprisoned in camps where the majority would meet their end. Now, albeit in a different context, a similar pattern of discrimination against a minority is happening again in concealment, with mistakes from history being repeated. 

Unfortunately, this is far from the only case of discrimination of minorities and violation of human rights that is happening right now all over the world. In a way, globalization has brought about new challenges and setbacks, where global powerful brands and consumers are willing to close their eyes to various violations of human rights if it benefits them.

Can we call this evolution if there are still people being harmed because of their religious beliefs, way of living and exaggerated generalizations of the actions of a few to a whole community?

Sources: Observador, BBC, New York Times

Inês Pedroso

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