By Andrew Hyman, Class of 2019
The UN estimates that 2 million Uighurs and Muslims have been forced into internment camps and required to submit to an intense re-education program in the Xinjiang province of China. “Commonplace religious practices” are either no longer allowed, or highly restricted. According to Chinese democracy activists, “abuse and torture” are common practice in these centers, and “deaths in custody due to torture” are happening with increasing regularity. How did this happen, and what is the world doing in response?
Xinjiang province, where the majority of Chinese Uighurs live, has been under the control of the Chinese Communist Party since 1949. Uighurs long practiced a fairly moderate form of Islam, but in recent years, some Uighurs displayed more outward signs of religiosity. “Men grew long beards” and women dressed in traditional Islamic hijabs. After ethnic violence and protests broke out in the capital of Xinjiang in 2009, the Chinese government cracked down with a ‘strike hard and punish’ campaign aimed at rooting out dissidents.
In the eight years since this unrest first broke out, surveillance has become more intense. “Fortified police outposts and checkpoints dot the streets every few hundred yards. Schools, kindergartens, gas stations and hospitals are garlanded in barbed wire. Surveillance cameras sprout from shops, apartment entrances and metal poles.” The beards and hijabs that signified growing religious observance have disappeared, and those who wish to pray in mosques must now do so under the eye of cameras monitored by government officials.
Dr. Adrian Zenz, who studies Xinjiang and lectures at the European School of Culture and Theology, estimates that over 1,000 internment camps have been built to enact this “targeted political re-education effort that is seeking to change the core identity and belief system of an entire people.” These camps force Uighurs to “renounce their religious piety and pledge loyalty to the party.” They were often required to write “self-criticism” essays that reinforce this re-education program. One former inmate describes hours of studying Communist propaganda, chanting slogans and giving thanks to President Xi Jinping. Some of these Muslim inmates were forced to eat pork, which is forbidden in Islam, and “religious extremists” were made to drink alcohol as part of their punishment, another heresy.
The Communist Party’s propaganda states that these camps are providing job training to these individuals, to help them “escape from poverty, backwardness, and the temptations of radical Islam.” But many of the factories that are supposedly offering these job opportunities are actually built inside the camps, and the inmates have no freedom to turn down these jobs or leave. According to official plans found online, the end goal is to produce a disciplined workforce loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. Although the “re-education through labor” program, which mandated one to three years of labor as well as political indoctrination as punishment for minor crimes, officially ended in 2013, it appears that the substance of these programs has been reconstituted in Xinjiang.
One particularly harrowing story came from the New York Times about a Uighur woman in her 20s, who was put under surveillance after being seen “wearing an Islamic head wrap and reading books about religion and Uighur history.” Local government officials installed cameras at her front door - and in her living room. After being interrogated for two hours every week, “the authorities sent her to a full-time re-education camp.” She was later able to flee the country, but shortly after escaping, she received a text message from her mother: “Please don’t call us again. We are in trouble.”
After initially denying the existence of these camps, the Party now claims they are to minimize the threat of terrorist activity and to facilitate rehabilitation of criminals. They further claim that no specific religious or ethnic groups are being targeted. “There is no arbitrary detention or torture,” said Hu Lianhe, a Chinese official, to the UN human rights panel.
The international response, led by the United Nations and individual governments such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and a number of European governments, has been to decry the detention centers and called for their immediate closure. Yet the vocal outcry has not been matched by any meaningful actions beyond the statements of condemnation. There has been a similar lack of action in the Muslim world as well. In 2009, when the initial conflict broke out between Uighurs and the Han Chinese, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said “the incidents in China are, simply put, a genocide.” Yet for months after the UN report announcing these internment camps to the world, the Turkish government - along with many others - said nothing. Only recently did they declare these camps “a shame to humanity.”
What has caused such a shift in response? Why are governments so much quieter now, when the offenses seem so much worse? Uighur advocates claim the Belt and Road Initiative, which is a program of infrastructure investment undertaken by Xi Jinping’s government, has silenced potential dissent. Governments which might have felt free to criticize the Chinese Communist Party’s actions are no longer willing to speak up for fear of economic retribution. But while the international response may be tepid, the situation is all too real for the millions who have been affected by this policy of detention and re-education.