Written by: Jasmine Owens
Since April 2017, between 800,000 and two million Uighurs have been forced into internment camps in the Xinjiang region of western China, camps which Chinese authorities call “vocational education centers.”
The Uighurs are a Muslim minority group who live mainly in the Xinjiang region of China but view themselves as more culturally and ethnically similar to Central Asian populations. Over the past few decades, more and more Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China, have been moving into Xinjiang. This has caused an uptick in cultural and political tensions between the two groups. Specifically, the Uighurs’ Muslim faith has been a contentious and unacceptable factor for Chinese authorities, who perceive the religion as a gateway to radicalization and terrorism. The Chinese government has blamed numerous instances of violence stemming from riots and political unrest on Uighurs in the past, alleging that these attacks are perpetrated by militant Islamist groups. Human rights groups, on the other hand, claim that violence is a result of the oppression imposed on Uighurs by the Chinese government.
Still, China has used this alleged extremism as an excuse for detaining millions of Uighurs in internment camps. US intelligence reports have found that most of these people are not charged with crimes. Some have even been apprehended for simply traveling to or having family in other countries. Inside these camps, occupants are forced to recite Communist propaganda, sing songs praising the Chinese Communist Party, and rebuke Islam. If they do not comply, they are subjected to any number of severe punishments such as beatings, starvation, sleep deprivation, or even sexual abuse.
However, the human rights violations against Uighurs are not confined by the walls of these camps. The entire Uighur population, as well as other Muslim minority groups, are forced to endure draconian surveillance by the Chinese government within their communities. Muslim families are forced to live with Communist officials; mosques are destroyed or heavily monitored with ID scanners; entry and exit points guarded by armed officials are found in some Uigir neighborhoods. Using equipment created by a U.S. company and genetic data collected by a Yale geneticist, Chinese authorities have been collecting DNA to track its citizens. This tactic has been masqueraded as free “Physicals for All” in Xinjiang. Almost 36 million people took part in the program. Considering Xinjiang’s population is around 24.5 million, it is unclear if some people participated more than once. One citizen said they drew his blood, scanned his face, recorded his voice and fingerprinted him. Not once did they bother to give him an actual physical examination. When he asked to see the results, they told him he did not have the right to ask for them, and to go to the police if he wanted to know more. Human rights groups and Uighur activists assert that this tactic is vital to China’s assimilation campaign. Using this data, the Chinese government can easily track down Uighurs who are not complying with their policies and dole out punishments accordingly.
Uighurs that escape and flee to other countries are not safe either, as they are repeatedly harassed by Chinese security officials and ordered to return home. When they refuse, they get calls from family members begging for them to come home, scared they will be the next target of the Chinese government. When they finally do agree to return to China, they have often disappeared without a trace
At first, China denied the mere existence of such camps. But once international pressure began to build, it changed the narrative to the camps being “vocational education centers” meant to educate young people in Xinjiang on job skills and the Chinese language. Early in 2019, a trip was scheduled for foreign reporters to see the camps for themselves. They were met with lots of singing and dancing, like a performance of “If You’re Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands” in English. Reporters were able to speak with the residents only in the presence of Chinese officials. All of those interviewed had a similar story of coming to the camps voluntarily, and talked about how they had been “infected with extremist thought” in the past.
The international community has slowly begun to condemn the Uighur internment camps as human rights violations. Trump has threatened to enforce sanctions against China, and in January 2019, lawmakers introduced a piece of legislation called the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019 rebuking China’s actions. The Turkish government released a statement in February 2019 also denouncing China for “violating fundamental human rights of Uighur Turks and other Muslim communities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.” When China was bullying countries to return its Uighur citizens who had fled, Malaysia refused. With the backing of the U.S. and other states, it instead allowed them to claim asylum in Malaysia or gave them safe passage to other countries.
But the international community needs to act faster. Many Uighur leaders are warning that China’s human rights violations are “precursors to genocide,” and if China’s actions continued to go unchecked, “we may see mass murder.” The world did not act fast enough when the Jews were being exterminated in Germany, nor did it rush to the aid of Tutsi Rwandans who were massacred by their Hutu counterparts. What is happening in Xinjiang has not reached a genocidal level yet, and there is no guarantee that it will. But in the mere chance that this is a case of history repeating itself, it is imperative the international community act sooner rather than later.