China Continues to Defend Its Indefensible Policies Toward the Uighurs
In her first speech since assuming her new post, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet criticized China this week for forcibly detaining more than a million Muslim Uighur minorities in a secretive network of so-called re-education camps. Her remarks were based on findings from a U.N. panel released last month. The panel cited “credible reports” that the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwestern China had been transformed into “something that resembles a massive internment camp.” Ever resistant to such criticism, Beijing pushed back on Bachelet’s remarks and demanded that she “respect China’s sovereignty.” In an email interview, Zubayra Shamseden, Chinese outreach coordinator for the Uighur Human Rights Project, discusses the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighurs.
World Politics Review: What is the scale and scope of the current crackdown on Uighurs in China, and what was the triggering event or justification for it?
Zubayra Shamseden: There are no Uighurs who have not been affected in some way by the current crackdown. Inside East Turkestan (the Uighur term for Xinjiang), elsewhere in China, and even beyond Chinese borders, regardless of social status, gender, generation or profession, all have suffered under the current campaign of repression. This campaign is being carried out in the so-called re-education camps. While there are no official figures from the Chinese government, it is currently estimated that over 1 million Uighurs are in the camps. This estimate comes from Chinese government tenders for the construction and staffing of the camps, and is corroborated by satellite photos, media reports and on-the-ground investigations by human rights groups.
Witness reports from the camps suggest poor conditions and overcrowding. Internees are in prison-like conditions, forced to undergo a “re-education program” that includes renouncing their belief in Islam, praising President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party, and engaging in self-criticism sessions where they are forced to admit to previous “erroneous thinking.” There are also instances of torture through electrocution and sleep-deprivation, and detainees are forced to drink alcohol and eat pork, against their religious beliefs.
These Uighurs are being detained indefinitely without any criminal charges, despite the lack of a legal framework allowing that in China. Chinese counterterrorism laws allow people to be detained for up to 15 days if they have engaged in behavior deemed threatening by the government, but Uighurs have been locked away for months on end, more than a year in some cases, with no hint that they will be released or formally charged with a crime. Even some Uighur officials in the Communist Party who worked for the government are now interned in the camps.
The Chinese government claims that it is “wiping out the roots of terrorism, extremism and separatism” in its “minority” region, but in truth, China has long hoped to assimilate the Uighurs and end them as a distinct people. After the Chinese Communist Party took control of East Turkestan in 1949, it began forcibly relocating Uighurs to Central Asian countries and elsewhere. The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s saw the destruction of traditional culture within the region, including two reforms of the Uighur writing system. In the late 1980s and 1990s, a crackdown on “illegal religious activities” led to periodic Uighur uprisings, which were violently suppressed by Chinese security forces. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were a turning point for Uighurs, since China used the opportunity to suppress Uighurs even more harshly under the pretext of fighting terrorism. These developments led to the July 5, 2009 Urumqi riots, which sparked another harsh clampdown on the Uighur population.
WPR: How do Chinese state authorities otherwise maintain control over the Uighur population, and how has the Chinese government responded to criticism of its policies toward the Uighurs?
Shamseden: In addition to the re-education camps, the Chinese authorities are building a massive police state in East Turkestan, equipped with the latest surveillance technology. Uighurs are forced to install spyware on their phones, allowing the government to directly access their private conversations. The Chinese government is also in the process of building a province-wide facial recognition system and is seeking to collect DNA from Uighur residents. Meanwhile, there is a militarized police presence that serves to intimidate the population, and the threat of collective punishment is also used to control Uighurs. For example, entire families are punished if one member has done anything to displease the government, like traveling abroad. The government also dispatches Chinese officials for “homestays” with Uighur families in order to directly monitor and observe their daily lives. This policy is culturally and religiously offensive, especially when a Chinese man is sent to the house during the absence of an adult male Uighur member of the household.
Suppression of Uighur culture is also an important part of the assimilation campaign. For decades, China has encouraged the mass migration of ethnic Han Chinese into East Turkestan. Now, Chinese authorities are trying to eliminate the use of the Uighur language through control of the education system, where Uighur teachers are being replaced by Han teachers, and use of the Uighur language is forbidden. Uighurs are forced to celebrate Chinese holidays, too, which they do not traditionally observe. One of the most disturbing parts of the current crackdown is the number of Uighur children who have been separated from their parents and placed in orphanages.
Chinese officials have never been receptive to criticism, whether from foreign entities or from inside their own country. In this case, they have responded by preventing journalists from reporting on the Uighur issue, and Chinese ambassadors have written letters to newspaper outlets, criticizing them for their reports and framing Chinese policies as normal counterextremism efforts that everyone in China supports. The government is especially intolerant of criticism from the Uighurs themselves. Take the case of Ilham Tohti, a jailed Uighur intellectual. He called for equal rights, equal development and economic benefits for the Uighur people, arguing that economic exclusion was the cause of many of the problems in their region. For this mild constructive criticism, he was sentenced in 2014 to life imprisonment for fomenting separatism, despite never advocating Uighur separatism.
WPR: What effect are efforts by international organizations, rights groups and journalists to call attention to the Uighurs’ situation having, and what more can be done to pressure the Chinese government to loosen its grip?
Shamseden: Efforts by the international community to draw attention are crucial. Since East Turkestan is an isolated police state largely closed-off from the outside world right now, the voices of journalists, academics, human rights groups and the United Nations are the only way to hold China accountable for its inhumane crimes against innocent people. If the current conditions in the region are ignored by the international community, China will spread its brutality beyond its borders. Already, China is seeking to export its surveillance technologies to other countries.
The international community can help by applying pressure on the Chinese government in a visible and open way. The U.N. can put sanctions on the Chinese government through its human rights-related entities. When countries and individual companies trade or make deals with China, they can condition such deals on improvements in its human rights record. Finally, in lieu of action at the U.N., individual states should impose their own sanctions, for example through the Global Magnitsky Act.