Reports of prison camps holding up to a million people, persecuted on the basis of their religious and ethnic identity, held in horrific conditions in breach of their basic human rights, might seem to be harking back to the horrors of the past. However, these reports are in fact about China in 2019, and the internment of an estimated one million Uyghur Muslims, from the Xinjiang province in the north-west of the country.
China says that these camps are voluntary ‘vocational educational centres’, and in a recent statement, government officials claimed that the camps were a ‘success’, telling the media that 90 percent of inmates had left and found work, a number impossible to verify. The phrase ‘educational centre’ is telling when combined with the testimony of former camp employees. Such employees suggest that the camps are based around indoctrination, where the idea that Uyghur people do not speak Mandarin is considered treasonous. The Chinese government argues that these camps are necessary in fighting terrorism, but their practices hark back to a longer process of discrimination against Uyghur Muslims.
Two years ago, the Chinese government took what appears to be a first step towards the elimination of Uyghur culture, by banning of long beards and face veils, both practices common among the Uyghur population. Reports also claimed that government officials began visiting Uyghur households, apparently tasked with stopping religious practice. Evidence shows the destruction of dozens of mosques in the area, including indications of forced marriages between smiling Chinese soldiers and officials with crying Uyghur women.
In July, the Chinese government released a White Paper on the Uyghur people, denying their Turkic heritage (the area of Xinjiang is sometimes referred to as East Turkestan) as propaganda, claiming that their conversion to Islam was involuntary as part of an invasion in the Tenth Century. In the eyes of the Chinese government, the islamization of Xinjiang by Turkic Muslim invaders serves to invalidate the Uyghur religion, an argument which holds little sway given the passing of ten centuries. This offers another indication that the ultimate goal of the government is to assimilate the Uyghurs into the wider Chinese population.
If we take this as the objective of the Chinese government, its success or failure is incredibly hard to quantify. The figure of ninety percent of camp ‘inmates’ accessing jobs is impossible to verify, given that the Chinese government has repeatedly refused to explain how many people are held in the camps, which is reportedly in the millions. Indeed, the statement sparked a backlash on social media, particularly from people from the Uyghur diaspora in Europe, using #Provethe90, often accompanied by pictures of missing relatives or friends believed to be held within the camps.
If China, famously secretive, sought to achieve the re-education of the Uyghur people without attracting international criticism, this too has largely been a failure. A report on the camps was made to the UN in 2018, while the British government signed a motion at the UN in July condemning the behaviour of the Chinese government. International attention towards the camps only seems to be increasing – again in July the UK Parliament saw the establishment of an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Freedom in Xinjiang.
Indeed, China’s attempts to stop Uyhgur people overseas from discussing the situation have largely been ignored. For example, China had an Interpol notice placed on the President of the World Uyghur Congress, Dolkun Isa, for fifteen years. Isa, who fled Xinjiang in the late 1980s after leading protests, had his notice ignored by the rest of the international community, eventually being revoked in 2018. It is reported that his elderly mother passed away in a camp last year, while the rest of his family may also be imprisoned.
The conditions in such camps are believed to be brutal – former employees refer to elements of torture, including food and sleep deprivation, as well as indoctrination. The international community has expressed outrage, but must put more pressure on the Chinese government to close down the camps. With access within China famously difficult, and the government set on ignoring the condemnation of the rest of the world, this may be a situation which gets worse still.
Image - Flickr (Carsten ten Brink)