In China, you can be sure Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang region won’t be threatening to turn China into sharia-compliant Islamic state, as is happening all over Europe. That’s because, in China, the “entire so-called culture” of Uyghur Muslims is being effectively criminalized. Arbitrary detentions in “transformation through education” camps now exceed one million Muslims in the region. Yet, there is little to no pushback from the United Nations.
SupChina (h/t Marvin W)
Who are the Uyghur Muslims and what is happening in Xinjiang?
Uyghurs are a Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic minority in China. Uyghurs (also spelled Uighur — either way, pronounced WEE-gur) — about 10 million people — live mostly in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the farthest west and most heavily Muslim jurisdiction under Beijing’s control. The total population of Xinjiang is around 22 million.
After ethnic riots by Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, in 2009 that left nearly 200 people dead — and following Uyghur-connected terrorist attacks in Beijing in 2013 and Kunming and Urumqi in 2014 — extreme measures have been taken to lock down Xinjiang and restrict the mobility and speech of the Uyghur population.
Xinjiang is now a totalitarian police state of historic proportions — it is widely cited as one of the most heavily policed places in the world today. Public security budgets have skyrocketed and futuristic surveillance systems have been pioneered in the region. As a result, over 20 percent of all criminal arrests in China happens in Xinjiang, despite the fact that the region contains only 1.5 percent of the country’s population.
The official justification for such extreme measures is “counterterrorism” and “social stability.” But human rights groups have long argued that the level of repression is excessive, counterproductive, and a human rights violation, as it effectively censures all expressions of Uyghur culture, even normal religious and linguistic traditions.
Alarming reports of a mass internment system have come out in the past year. Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Germany, revealed the scope of the internment campaign and documented that construction of the camps began in earnest in March 2017.
In the camps, officials seek to brainwash prisoners to disavow Islam and pledge loyalty to the Communist Party, and torture those who refuse, eyewitnesses have said.
Arbitrary detentions without charge or trial are the norm for prisoners in these camps, and ethnically Kazakh Muslims have been “disappeared” in large numbers along with Uyghurs. Common “crimes” are “viewing foreign websites, taking phone calls from relatives abroad, praying regularly or growing a beard.” The widespread use of arbitrary detention is also being used as a tool to force Uyghurs abroad into silence.
Up to a million Muslims have been put in the camps in Xinjiang, according to “many numerous and credible reports,” a United Nations panel said in early August 2018.
China has specifically denied that “re-education” camps exist, but this is semantics: Evidence continues to build of a network of centers for “transformation through education” (教育转化 jiàoyù zhuǎnhuà) or “counter-extremism education” (去极端化教育 qù jíduān huà jiàoyù) holding many hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang.
“An entire culture is being criminalized,” scholars like Rian Thum are saying. Another scholar, James Millward, comments: “In Xinjiang, the definition of extremism has expanded so far as to incorporate virtually anything you do as a Muslim.”
From day-to-day discrimination to systematic, mass detentions:
For years, Uyghurs have complained of day-to-day discrimination, both in Xinjiang and around the country. Islamophobia is widespread in China, and policies that repress Uyghur culture and religion — such as bans on long beards and religious veils, and multiple campaigns to force Uyghurs to change “overly religious” names — have been justified in the name of “counterterrorism.” Human rights activists like Amnesty International’s Nicholas Bequelin draw a “direct line” from the American “war on terror” to the Chinese campaign that took the name “People’s war” against terrorism in 2014, and targeted Uyghurs.
But everything is much worse now:
Emily Feng at the Financial Times reports that “Thousands have been sent to unmarked detention centres over the past year, usually for two to three months at a time. Nearly every Uighur resident interviewed by the Financial Times had a friend or relative who had been detained. In the centres they are taught Communist party doctrine and persuaded to forgo their ethnic and religious identities.”
Human Rights Watch says that an unprecedented DNA collection program has been launched in Xinjiang, compiling the “fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types of all residents in the region between the age of 12 and 65.”
Gerry Shih at the Associated Press publishes a series of four articles (he discussed this reporting on the Sinica Podcast) on how in Xinjiang, the “thought police instill fear,” how the “crackdown on Uighurs spreads to even mild critics,” and how Uyghurs abroad are fighting for and against jihadist forces.
Human Rights Watch reports that hundreds of thousands of Communist Party members have been dispatched for “home stays” in mostly Muslim households in Xinjiang, part of a larger project of political indoctrination and human surveillance.
“New evidence for China’s political re-education campaign in Xinjiang” in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief. Zenz estimates that “between several hundred thousand and just over one million” people can be held in the facilities that have been built in Xinjiang since March 2017.
China is blackmailing Uyghurs abroad to spy for China with the threat of sending their relatives back home to re-education camps.
“Criminal arrests in Xinjiang accounted for an alarming 21% of all arrests in China in 2017, though the population in the XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] is only about 1.5% of China’s total.” In early 2017, Xinjiang began building dozens” of orphanages for the children of families that had been taken away to re-education.
Detention for political education of this kind is not considered a form of criminal punishment in China, so no formal charges or sentences are given.”
“Crimes” often have little or nothing to do with actual Islamic extremism, which is what China is supposedly trying to stamp out: BuzzFeed reported that “having a relative who has been convicted of a crime, having the wrong content on your cell phone…appearing too religious…having traveled abroad to a Muslim country, or having a relative who has traveled abroad” is enough to land Xinjiang residents in camps, but “viewing a foreign website, taking phone calls from relatives abroad, praying regularly” or even just “growing a beard” is enough to do it, according to the Associated Press.
Punishments include torture, such as being chained up by wrists and ankles for hours or days, or being waterboarded, and conditions at the camps can be extremely unsanitary and crowded, witnesses have told the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.
Detainees are told to denounce Islam, and are forced to repeat Communist Party slogans and sing Red songs for hours every day.
There is an actual educational component — inmates learn Mandarin Chinese, for example — but subjugating the Muslim population in Xinjiang and Uyghur dissidents abroad seems to be the primary purpose of the camps. “Glowing state media reports have bragged about reeducation camps as free facilities that enable Uighurs to self-improve and see the error of ‘backward’ religious practices like excessive prayer or wearing religious garb. But the fact that state security operatives use the prospect of these camps as a threat to Uighurs contradicts this notion, suggesting they know that it is, in fact, a punishment,” Megha Rajagopalan wrote in her second report on Xinjiang.
There is no clear legal basis for the camps, Jeremy Daum writes at China Law Translate: “The Xinjiang Regulation on De-extremification similarly uses ‘education’ as the lowest form of punishment, for situations not even meriting administrative punishments, but it would defy logic to read this as authorizing longer detention than the 15 days maximum authorized for the more serious violations.”
Some detainees have died in the camps, “mainly, but not all, older people,” Uyghurs outside of China told the Wall Street Journal.
Why is this happening in Xinjiang, and why now?
The government has continually sought to identify and crush individuals and groups supporting “separatism” as Muslims try to do wherever they are a minority.
Xinjiang is China’s most heavily Muslim region and Islamophobia is a complex, deeply rooted problem in the country. Rachel Harris of SOAS London writes that “strike hard” campaigns against Uyghur separatism were common throughout the 1990s, but that this morphed into a “People’s War on Terror” — and “counterterrorism” became a primary justification for harsh policies clamping down on Uyghurs — “soon after the September 11 attacks on the United States.”
“Counterterrorism” was increasingly relied on to justify the continued “strike hard” campaigns and “war on terror” in Xinjiang, following Uyghur-connected terrorist attacks in Beijing in 2013 and Kunming and Urumqi in 2014.
The “surveillance state overwhelms daily life” — even entering and leaving a grocery store requires passing through a checkpoint, and many Uyghurs with black marks on their records are unable to pass checkpoints. Criminal arrests in Xinjiang — which do not even account for the hundreds of thousands of re-education camp detentions, which occur outside the legal system — have skyrocketed 731 percent from 2016 to 2017.
Although “China has used such tactics since at least the 1990s to put pressure on those it believes are seeking to undermine the state,” the campaign against Uyghurs “has gotten far more aggressive over the past two years and has been bolstered by digital surveillance tactics.”
China is testing the world’s response to its human rights abuses, and so far, the response is underwhelming. To sum up, with every step toward more repression and more restriction on information, we are less likely to know the full extent of China’s human rights abuses. It’s remarkable we know as much as we do about Xinjiang, how fast the situation has deteriorated, and how little the world is doing about it. (When it comes to Muslims, the world doesn’t care)