More than 11 million Chinese citizens live under constant threat of re-education, thought transformation, and cultural genocide simply because of their ethnicity and religion.
While China appears on news sites daily with stories about trade, trash wars and negotiations with North Korea, the tragic story of its Uyghur minority remained largely unknown until recently. Nevertheless, a dire humanitarian crisis is roiling western China. In the last two years, the country has detained about 1.5 million Muslims who are predominantly Uyghur.
The Uyghur peoples are a minority Turkic ethnic group primarily residing in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. Under the guise of combating extremism, the Chinese government—under communist rule—has surreptitiously detained more than one in six Uyghurs in so-called “vocational training centers” in the remote western region of Xinjiang. According to Randall Schriver, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, China could be increasing its use of concentration camps in the Xinjiang Province. Already, more than one million people have been detained in the camps but U.S. officials estimate that the number could actually be closer to three million people.
While the Chinese government claims it is running boarding schools for more than a million Uyghurs held in these facilities, global human rights experts say the centers amount to nothing more than detention camps. Still, state party officials insist they designed these mass detention centers to “transform thought,” and they have made it challenging to disprove these claims. Veiled in secrecy, these highly secure facilities admit only a few, hand-selected foreign officials and diplomats for guided informational tours. The visits are highly orchestrated and provide no real insight into the exact nature and conditions of the “vocational training centers.”
People are sent to these re-education facilities for various reasons. Some visited a country Beijing’s leaders have designated as a “sensitive region,” such as Tibet or India. Others sent text messages containing verses from the Qu’ran. Others were simply known to practice their faith. Former detainees who have fled China after their release say they were forced to renounce Islam, learn Mandarin, and sing praises to communism while incarcerated in the camps. Other ex-prisoners speak of sleep deprivation and brutal interrogation sessions. Children whose parents are sent to the camps typically get placed in state-run orphanages.
Why has the Chinese government recently turned its attention to the traditionally ignored Northwestern region and the Uyghur people? The answers lie in both cultural imperialism and economic ambitions. China technically recognizes five religions, including Islam, but the government fears any religion could divide the people and refocus their priorities away from those of the state. The Chinese leadership especially spurns Islam due to the activities of its extremist groups. Consequently, the communist government has begun cracking down on Muslims by instituting prohibitions against veils, long beards, and the public practice of Islamic worship. Moreover, China’s desire to re-introduce new infrastructure development along the old Silk Road, which runs through historically Uyghur territory, also plays into its interest in subverting any dissident thought in the region.
Since the camps have received attention in human rights circles, China has come under heavy scrutiny and international condemnation for mistreating its religious minorities, including Muslims. Human rights organizations and foreign governments alike have sharply criticized China in the wake of these allegations and reports of abuse and torture happening in these centers. Nevertheless, China’s militant crackdown in the region not only goes unabated, but according to the New York Times, has actually accelerated in the last few weeks. Writing in the Times, Adrian Zenz says, “The re-education campaign in Xinjiang isn’t really about combating extremism…. Those detained aren’t just young men — the group most vulnerable to radicalization, it is thought — but also the elderly and pregnant women, as well as atheists and converts to Christianity.”
It would seem that any person of a different ethnicity, language, or faith from the Han Chinese majority living in Xinjiang could face family separation, detention, torture, or worse. Experts warn that Beijing’s crackdown on the Uyghur peoples could crystalize resistance not only from Muslims but also from other minorities whose lives are at risk of a similar fate.
To that end, the international community needs to assume greater responsibility and take action against China since these recent atrocities serves as a precursor to cultural—and perhaps, total—genocide in western China.