The Chinese Government has been detaining people belonging to Muslim minority groups for the past two years.
In China’s northwest lies East Turkestan, a large province twice the size of Germany. East Turkestan is home to the native Uyghurs, one of China’s ten Muslim minorities, as well as Kazakhs, Tajiks and Uzbeks from neighbouring states. The Chinese Government refer to the province as Xinjiang, meaning “new territory” in Mandarin Chinese, refusing to acknowledge the people’s desires for an independent state. In their latest attempt to “Sinicize” the people, and erase their culture, they have been detaining Muslims without charge in internment camps.
Due to propaganda within China as well as the limited entry of foreign journalists, international awareness was limited. Within the first 18 months, an estimated 1million people had been detained, separated from their families and imprisoned without any basis. When challenged on the issue, the Government denied the existence of the camps.
However, satellite reports clearly showed images of the internment camps growing on a large scale. Only recently, after members of a UN committee challenged them on the issue, were senior Chinese officials forced to publicly respond in an international forum. They admitted that ‘criminals’ involved in minor offences had been assigned to so-called ‘re-education centres’ where they received vocational education and training as part of a rehabilitation programme.
Stories from inside the camps reveal a vastly different picture; political indoctrination is the norm, with detainees being forced to renounce their religious convictions, instead pledging allegiance to the Chinese Communist (CPC).
Torture and death are common, and international human rights experts say these ‘re-education centres’ are akin to concentration camps. Recently, reports emerged that factories are being built at the camps, and detainees are coerced into forced labour, with very little or no pay.
US company Badger Sportswear has been receiving shipments from a factory inside one of these internment camps, despite it being illegal in the US to import products of forced labour. John Anton, the CEO of Badger Sportwear, a leading sportswear supplier in North Carolina, said that the company would source sportswear elsewhere while this issue is being investigated.
International experts now agree that this latest campaign by the Chinese Government is perhaps the largest and most brutal repressive practice conducted in China since the Cultural Revolution, on par with Myanmar’s treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority. However, China continues to claim that the heavily guarded Muslim camps are actually training centres offering free vocational training to the minorities as part of a plan to eliminate poverty. Chinese authorities allege that the people in the centres have signed agreements to receive vocational training.
They maintain that vocational training is a method of solving the global issue of extremism and terrorism, which they describe as the ‘common enemy of human civilization’. In a wave of propaganda, the CPC insist the expansive network of camps in Xinjiang is for the good of the people, offering them a way out of poverty, and an escape from the temptations of ‘radical Islam’.
Despite China’s claims of contributing to poverty eradication, numerous reports from relatives of detainees say that their loved ones were actually well-educated and were in high-paying jobs before their arrest; they were not in need of the Government’s poverty alleviation programme.
Rezila Nulale, a 25-year-old college graduate, worked in advertising in Xinjiang’s capital city Urumqi, where she afforded a comfortable urban lifestyle. After returning from a visit to her family in Kazakhstan, she disappeared into one of the detention camps and was discovered to have been forced into weaving clothes within one of the factories.
Nulale’s mother, Nurbakyt Kaliaskar who lives in Kazakhstan, learned that her daughter wasn’t being paid, nor was she allowed to leave. Contact between detainees and family members is mostly prohibited or strictly monitored if allowed at all.
Luopu County, in South Xinjiang, bore the brunt of the crackdown. Despite being a relatively sparsely populated county, with only 280,000 residents, it is home to eight internment camps.
In an analysis of 28 camps across Xinjiang, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that there was a 465 per cent expansion rate in the size of camps since 2016, with one camp increasing 2469 per cent in size between 2016 and 2018. Over the past two years, Government spending on domestic security in Xinjiang has almost doubled and Hotan prefecture, where Luopu county is, has seen a threefold increase.
This has become one of the world’s most urgent human rights crises, and despite small-scale action by a handful of individuals, it has still not received the attention needed to cause change. Maung Zarni, a human rights activist and intellectual, was scheduled to deliver a speech on his country’s Myanmar genocide at a Beijing-sponsored forum in London on December 7.
To protest the detention of the Uyghurs, Zarni withdrew from the event, and said he will be boycotting all Beijing-sponsored events until China takes action against the ‘racially motivated persecution of Uyghur Muslims’.
Moreover, New Jersey Republican Congressman, Chris Smith, has called on the Trump Administration to ban Chinese imports with any affiliation to the detention camps. He rebuked US consumers and business for buying goods made in what he called ‘modern-day concentration camps’.
Over ten foreign governments, the UK and the US among them, have now denounced China for the camps and called for their closure. US lawmakers, led by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, have recently petitioned the White House to impose sanctions on the Chinese officials believed to be responsible for the campaign against Muslim minorities in East Turkestan.
In December, the UN requested direct access to the camps after reviewing the credibility of reports stating that at least 1.1 million ethnic Muslim minorities had been detained, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Huis./agencies