The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where a majority of citizens are Turkic-speaking Muslims, is a fearful place of widespread surveillance and re-education camps. Yusur Al-Bahrani reports on the ongoing human rights struggle in China’s westernmost region.
Internment camps, surveillance, and systematic discrimination are the everyday reality that Uighur Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities face in China. The world is not silent. But nothing happens—beyond criticisms and condemnations—in the midst of Chinese denial.
Uighurs are mostly Muslims, speak a Turkic language, and live in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Due to geographic location and history, Uighurs are culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations; as a minority group, they value and hold onto their culture.
Out of the approximately 11 million Uighurs, more than one million are held in re-education camps. Amnesty International states that they are being arbitrarily detained in “de-extremification” camps in Xinjiang. “Among them are Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic minority groups whose religious and cultural practices are key to their identity,” reports Amnesty.
It has been alleged that some of the detained were restaurant owners whose “crime” was not selling alcohol. In another case, a woman was sent to an internment camp for sending a greeting on Eid, a religious holiday that Muslims celebrate everywhere. These measures aim to enforce political loyalty to the State and the Communist Party of China, in addition to erasing the culture and identity of ethnic and religious minorities.
Xinjiang is China’s biggest administrative division and is officially autonomous.
“The Chinese government has long carried out repressive policies against the Turkic Muslim peoples in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwest China. These efforts have been dramatically scaled up since late 2016, when Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo relocated from the Tibet Autonomous Region to assume leadership of Xinjiang,” reports Human Rights Watch.
Stories from Xinjiang are finding their way to the world. Here is a story that Amnesty has documented:
“26-year-old Kazakh student Bota Kussaiyn and her family had a happy life in Kazakhstan, having moved there from China in 2013. But in November 2017, Bota’s father returned to Xinjiang to see a doctor and never came back. Three months later, her mother learned from relatives that he had been sent to a political ‘re-education’ camp. Bota and her family don’t know where he is. Bota’s relatives in Xinjiang are now so afraid that speaking with her mother might bring suspicion from the Chinese authorities on them that they have cut off all communication.”
Bota is one of more than 100 people who shared their stories with Amnesty. They are concerned about their missing loved ones and until today, they don’t know their whereabouts. Amnesty also interviewed those who fled China and were tortured in detention camps. According to reports, no one is immune: men, women, young people, urban or rural all face the risk of being detained. Human Rights Watch confirms the detention of children, elderly and pregnant and breastfeeding women.
“So-called ‘re-education camps’ are places of brainwashing, torture and punishment that hark back to the darkest hours of the Mao era, when anyone suspected of not being loyal enough to the state or the Chinese Communist Party could end up in China’s notorious labour camps. Members of predominately Muslim ethnic minority groups are living in permanent fear for themselves and for their detained relatives,” says Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia Director.
Kairat Samarkan was sent to a detention camp in October 2017. He was hooded, made to wear shackles on his arms and legs and was forced to stand in a fixed position for 12 hours when first detained. There were nearly 6,000 people held in the same camp, who were forced to sing political songs and study speeches of the Communist Party. They were prohibited from talking to each other and forced to chant “Long live Xi Jinping” before meals. Kairat told Amnesty that his treatment drove him to attempt suicide just before his release.
Those outside the camps face surveillance. Information about every detail of their daily lives can be known to the Chinese authorities. Around 2.5 million people in Xinjiang are being tracked by cameras and other devices. Victor Gevers, a cybersecurity researcher and co-founder of an organization defending Internet freedoms, first wrote about the issue in a series of Twitter posts.
Surveillance measures targeting people in Xinjiang are on a terrifying scale—authorities conduct compulsory mass collection of biometric data, such as voice samples and DNA, and use artificial intelligence and big data to identify, profile, and track everyone. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities envision these systems as a series of “filters,” picking out people with certain traits that they believe indicate a threat to the Communist Party’s rule in Xinjiang.
Beijing is defending its repressive measures. “Counter-terrorism” is used as a blanket to target minorities. They accuse Uighurs of starting “terrorist” attacks in 1990s and claim that this remains a threat.
Government “Strike hard” campaigns haven taken place regularly in the past two decades. For instance, in 2009 violent riots between Uighurs and Han Chinese caused a repressive response from Beijing that not only targeted those who were involved in the unrest, but punished the whole ethnic minority. “From the start of November, public security bodies in Xinjiang will … start a thorough ‘strike hard and punish’ campaign to further consolidate the fruits of maintaining stability and eliminate security dangers,” said the Communist party newspaper People’s Daily in 2009.
Ten years later, many countries, organizations, and the UN have condemned these repressive measures. Chinese officials deny that abuses have occurred in the detention camps, which they call “vocational education and employment training centres” for “criminals involved in minor offenses.”
It’s unclear what is meant by “minor offences.” If the camps were “training centres,” authorities would have permitted monitoring of these facilities by the UN, human rights organizations, or the media.
While every state has the right to protect its national security, measures should not be collective punishment. Charging those who commit terrorism does not require mass detention of over a million citizens.
The UN is alarmed by “numerous reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.”
China’s position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council makes it immune from threats of sanctions. But this does not spare the international community from the duty to defend human rights.
Many countries condemned the violations. However, despite Saudi Arabia’s unique status as custodian of the holy city of Mecca, that country’s leaders defend China’s repressive measures against the Muslim minority. “China has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremization work for its national security,” Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was quoted as saying on Chinese TV.
Hussein Celil is a member of the Uighur minority and a human rights activist. In the 1990s he was detained for his work in defending the political and religious rights of Uighurs. He fled China and was recognized as a refugee by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Celil was resettled to Canada in 2001 and became a Canadian citizen in November 2005.
In 2006, he visited his wife’s parents in Uzbekistan. He was arrested and extradited to China, where he faced a trial with no access to a lawyer, his family or Canadian officials. Celil was sentenced to life imprisonment in China after an unfair trial. His prison sentence was reduced to 20 years in February 2016. He remains in prison despite attempts at intervention by the Canadian government.
Like Celil, many Uighurs and members of minorities in China are detained under unfair trials and have no access to their families. Reports on detention camps, prisons and surveillance are people in need of an urgent action to end this oppression.
Yusur Al-Bahrani is a journalist based in Yellowknife, NT.