Currently, at least one million Uighur Muslims along with other Turkic Muslim minorities, are being detained in a network of concentration camps in the semi-autonomous northwest region of Xinjiang. The Chinese government has employed a plethora of arguments in defense of these camps and the wider campaign targeting Uighur Muslims (an ethnic minority that numbers about 11 million), including calling the camps ‘re-education’ centers, ‘hospitals,’ and ‘vocational training centers.’ In addition to a network of concentration camps, Beijing has transformed Xinjiang into what rights organizations have described as a police state, replete with Orwellian surveillance and monitoring measures. Uighurs who live abroad are risking their lives to raise awareness about the targeted campaign against their families back in East Turkestan (the name many Uighurs call the region) and human rights organizations have called on countries to take action against the Chinese government. Despite what many scholars have identified as cultural genocide, there’s been almost complete silence from the international community, including Muslim-majority countries. Experts have noted that China’s economic power and its investments in other countries, mainly through the Belt and Road Initiative project (which runs through Xinjiang as the region connects China to the rest of central Asia and beyond), have effectively bought the silence and thus complicity of other states.
What is happening?
Around 2017, observers recorded major construction boom in the establishment of detention centers and prisons. A 2018 investigation by Reuters revealed that the number of camps was rising at a “rapid rate,” and satellite imagery “revealed that the footprint of the built-up area almost tripled in size in the 17 months between April 2017 and August 2018. Collectively, the built-up parts in these 39 facilities now cover an area roughly the size of 140 soccer fields.” Access to published construction notices revealed the government specifically called for “guardhouses, surveillance systems that leave ‘no blind spots,’ automatic weapons and their safe storage.” Additionally, a 2018 report by Dr. Adrian Zenz found that government spending in areas "that explain nearly all security-related facility construction" rose by 213% between 2016 and 2017,” providing further evidence of a government-led securitization campaign.
An estimated 1 to 3 million Uighur Muslims are currently detained in these camps, which the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China notes is “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.” Chinese officials initially denied the existence of the camps; however, when it came to domestic activities, the Party acknowledged and defended the centers to their citizens. In 2017 an official Communist Party recording was sent to all Uighurs in the region describing the centers as ‘hospitals’ for those ‘infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology’:
Members of the public who have been chosen for reeducation have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient. … The religious extremist ideology is a type of poisonous medicine, which confuses the mind of the people. … If we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumor.
Officials changed their tune following mounting international pressure and criticism. In October 2018 authorities wrote the camps into law, calling them ‘vocational training centers,’ aimed at tackling extremism through ‘thought transformation.’ Shohrat Zakir, the Chairman of Xinjiang, stated the training schools would allow the detainees “to reflect on their mistakes and see clearly the essence and harm of terrorism and religious extremism.” He added the schools were necessary as those who struggled to find work were "vulnerable to the instigation and coercion of terrorism and extremism."
Former inmates have described psychological and physical torture in the camps where they were “forced to renounce Islam, criticize their own Islamic beliefs, and recite Communist Party propaganda songs for hours each day.” Additionally, former detainees reported being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, both of which are forbidden to Muslims. Media reports have also noted the deaths of detainees. The camps remain shrouded in secrecy and information about what is going on behind the barbed wires and watchtowers is extremely limited.
In China today, every facet of Uighur Muslim identity is deemed to be suspicious or indicative of a “religious extremism” threat, and can land individuals into the concentration camps. A 2017 directive from the Xinjiang government lists 75 “signs of religious extremism,” which include praying in public places outside mosques or abruptly trying to give up smoking or drinking. Media reports have also found that having an ‘abnormal’ beard, giving children Muslim names, wearing a niqab (face veil), saying As-Salam Alaikum (peace be upon you), buying/seeking/promoting halal products, fasting during Ramadan, having a Qur’an in one’s home, abstaining from alcohol, contacting family abroad, studying at Islamic schools abroad, traveling abroad, praying regularly, going on Hajj, have all been reasons for individuals being detained in the camps.
Those sent to the camps are “not put on trial, have no access to lawyers or right to challenge the decision,” reports Amnesty International. It’s also unclear how long individuals remain detained in the camps as the length of internment remains ad hoc, a decision made by officials when they’ve deemed the individual to have been “transformed.”
The government directives and the justifications for the camps are built on the view that Islam is a threat to the Chinese state. Beijing's actions in Xinjiang seek to eliminate Uighur Muslim identity, to eradicate Uighur Muslim culture, and to “sinicize” the population to the majority Han ethnic group. In 2015, Party officials introduced the term "sinicization" into official government lexicon, in which they called on “Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian leaders to fuse their religions with Chinese socialist thought.” Any sign of what the Chinese government views as resistance, in this case the mere expression of a different identity to the Han majority, is viewed as a threat not only to the stability of the region but also to the existence of the state itself.
A deeply disturbing and alarming practice by the state intended to “sinicize” the population includes the separation of Uighur children from their parents. There have been documented reports of a “systematic policy of intergenerational separation.” However, due to the lack of transparency, concrete numbers of children separated from their parents are hard to come by. A 2019 report by the BBC found that in one town more than 400 children had one or two parents detained in camps, making them vulnerable to the state’s ‘centralised care.’ The report noted that “alongside the efforts to transform the identity of Xinjiang's adults, the evidence points to a parallel campaign to systematically remove children from their roots.”
The separation involves the state taking children whose parents have been detained in the camps and housing them in state run orphanages, public boarding schools, or placing them with Han Chinese families. Dr. Zenz describes this as the “weaponization of education and social care systems” by the state as it seeks to create a long-term plan for children (including infants) of detained Uighurs, to be under the watch and ‘care’ of the state in “increasingly centralized and highly securitized educational boarding facilities.” Dr. Zenz concludes that such policy is “very likely a deliberate strategy and crucial element in the state’s systematic campaign of social re-engineering and cultural genocide in Xinjiang.”
Those who are lucky enough to escape time in the camps live in a techno-security state. Xinjiang is enveloped in facial recognition software, GPS tracking with all phones equipped with mandatory government spyware, recording devices, checkpoints, and DNA collection, that specifically target Uighur, Kazakh, and other Turkic Muslim minority populations. Data and information collected through these invasive surveillance measures, including some 40,000 facial recognition cameras, are used to track the Muslim minority populations. One way the government has done this is through the regional data system, Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP). IJOPs is used at checkpoints across the region and is able to alert authorities to individuals it flags as “potential threats,” effectively curtailing individuals' privacy and freedom of movement and automating the racial profiling of Uighur Muslims. Uighur homes are not exempt from this government-surveillance as an estimated one million state spies are stationed in Uighur homes and “report on whether they display Islamic or unpatriotic beliefs.” Additionally, a New York Times podcast revealed that Uighurs abroad are not safe from the reach of Chinese state surveillance as, “Chinese officers have attempted to suppress opposition from Uighurs abroad by detaining their relatives.”
How did we get here?
The region where Uighur Muslims have lived for centuries was conquered by the Qing Dynasty and came under the rule of China in 1759. According to Dr. Rian Thum of the University of Nottingham, however, the “modern Uyghur [sic] identity was only named and formalized in the 20th century,” and the region actually became a “closely monitored, assimilationist, settler colony in the 21st century, ruled by a Han Chinese–dominated bureaucracy.”
One of the most prominent historical events that affected Uighur identity was the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), a political campaign led by Mao Zedong to reassert his control over the Communist party. During this period, Uighurs “faced an openly assimilationist agenda from authorities in Xinjiang” as they forced them to “conform to Chinese cultural norms.” The revolution specifically involved the targeting of religion. As Dr. Kelly Anne Hammond of the University of Arkansas noted, mosques were shut down and defaced, “copies of the Qur’an destroyed, and Muslims were prohibited from going on the religious pilgrimage of hajj.” Parallel to this, there was a massive demographic shift, as members of the Han ethnic group moved into Xinjiang. Following Mao’s death and a move to reform and open policies between 1980 and 1990, there was a reinvigoration of Uighur culture and public display of religion. However, cycles of inter-ethnic clashes in the region have persisted as Uighurs continue to face economic and cultural discrimination along with increased restrictions on their identity by the state.
On July 5, 2009, riots broke out in the regional capital of Urumqi following reports that two Uighur migrant workers were killed in a factory brawl. Dr. Thum describes the event as an uprising that started as a “peaceful protest” by Uighurs angry about the discrimination they faced from the state and their Han neighbors, but it “deteriorated into the indiscriminate killing of Han civilians.” Han civilians responded with their own protests and killed a number of Uighurs. Professor Joanne Smith Finley of Newcastle University states that the riots revealed "very ugly scenes" of distrust highlighting the inter-ethnic tensions between the Uighurs and Han Chinese. Beijing responded by implementing even more restrictions targeting the Uighur population.
Following the deadly September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, China adopted the “Global War on Terror” terminology to justify its actions in Xinjiang. The state used incidences of violence by some Uighurs as evidence of a coordinated campaign of terrorism at the hands of the Uighur population.
In 2014, China launched its “people’s war on terror,” remodeling its historical campaign against the Uighurs as one intended to root out the three forces of evil: separatism, extremism, and terrorism. All loosely defined words, of which “extremism” and “terrorism” were mainstreamed through the U.S. Global War on Terrorism discourse, and are now being used to criminalize Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim identities that Beijing views as a threat to the state. China’s parameters of what constitutes extremism or signs of extremism include anything from “expanding the concept of halal - which means permissible in Islam - to areas of life outside diet, refusing to watch state TV and listen to state radio and preventing children from receiving state education.” This framing has institutionalized Islamophobia as state policy seeks to criminalize Uighur Muslim identity.
What are the implications?
China’s “deliberate campaign of state terror,” involving concentration camps, surveillance, and family separation, points towards a concerted effort to eradicate Uighur Muslim identity, which amounts to cultural genocide and social re-engineering of an entire people. Dr. David Brophy, a senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney, has argued that while China may intend to physically remove the Uighurs from the land, its “efforts to marginalize the Uighur language and rewrite the region’s history serve similar goals to a policy of ethnic cleansing.”
The repression in Xinjiang is unique because it is not only carried out through police action, but also through data collection by means of advanced technology which is automating and amplifying racism and discrimination. As the crisis drags on, Beijing is marketing its surveillance technology to the international community as a part of its burgeoning security-industrial complex, raising fears that governments across the continent, and the globe could soon use the same tactics to suppress its own citizens.