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The Xinjiang region in Western China is home to one of the largest scale systematic oppressions of human rights seen in the 21st century. Throughout the region, the Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic minority, are subject to restricted religious and cultural freedom, arbitrary detention, invasive surveillance, and a far-reaching attempt by the Chinese government to erase their cultural identity through re-education camps. While Chinese conflict with the Uyghur minority has existed throughout the history of the Xinjiang region, the international community has recently been made aware of a series of mass internment camps which imprison hundreds of thousands of Muslim Chinese and Muslim foreign citizens with ethnic ties to the Uyghur population.
China’s re-education and detention centers have expanded rapidly in the past two years, resulting in what a U.S. commission on China described as “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.” While access to the camps is restricted by the Chinese government, survivor testimony and limited international journalism paint a picture of rampant physical and psychological abuse targeting Uyghur religious and cultural identity. Adrian Zenz, a German scholar of the Xinjiang region, told the UN Human Rights Council in November 2018 that the Chinese system of internment and ‘re-education’ is “nothing less than a systemic campaign of cultural genocide.”
Xinjiang is the largest autonomous region in China, taking up much of the country’s western border. While briefly independent in the 1940’s, the region fell under China’s control in 1949 after the Community Party took power. The region is home to roughly 21 million people, with 10 million of those identifying as Muslim Uyghurs. The region holds vast natural resources, making it an important point of control for the Chinese government. Because the Uyghur population holds greater cultural links with central Asia than with China, the Chinese government began sponsoring a policy which would financially incentivize the ethnic majority Han population to migrate to Xinjiang. These efforts worked successfully to dilute the proportion of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the region, and Han Chinese now make up the demographic majority in most Xinjiang cities. With this migration, Han Chinese were granted jobs and political positions before the native Uyghur population, sparking separatist movements and subsequent ethnic oppression throughout Xinjiang.
Since Communist China took power in the Xinjiang region in 1949, Uyghur religious and cultural identity has clashed with the Chinese government’s Communist ideology. Anti-religious sentiment within Chinese government policy can be traced throughout the history of Chinese-Uyghur relations. Starting during the Cultural Revolution of the 1950’s, religion was seen as an obstacle towards the goals of the Communist regime, and it was heavily oppressed. However, once the Communist regime was stabilized, ethnic minorities were permitted to practice religion as part of their “national identity,” and Uyghurs’ right to practice Islam was included within this institutional protection. This protection was not complete, however, as the Chinese government and population subjected religious minorities to political and economic marginalization during the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in a series of Uyghur street protests in the 1990s calling for economic and social inclusion. These protests did little to change the status of Uyghurs living in Xinjiang, as political and economic marginalization continued into the start of the 21st century.
In 2009 Uyghur tensions reached a boiling point and large-scale ethnic rioting broke out in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang. According to Chinese government officials, roughly 200 Han Chinese were killed in these riots, resulting in an increased government crackdown on the Uyghur population. This crackdown increased ethnic conflict and even greater Uyghur marginalization, leading to more resistance and violence from some Uyghur separatist groups. These violent anti-government attacks peaked in 2014, prompting an extreme escalation in government surveillance and oppression with the goal of turning “ethnic Uyghurs into loyal citizens and supporters of the party.” In early 2017, the Chinese government put into place a structured system to convert the Uyghurs. The government introduced high-tech surveillance and began to incarcerate Uyghurs in re-education camps, Chinese repression of the Uyghur population became a systematic attempt to wipe out Uyghur cultural and religious identity.
Economic privilege was granted to Han Chinese in the Xinjiang region, which has fueled Uyghur marginalization and resentment. Selective Uyghur separatist groups have taken action against the government, and the government uses this insurgency to justify extreme security measures and repression in Xinjiang. The Chinese government referred to the systematic surveillance and persecution of Uyghur populations as an “all-out offensive against religious extremism and terrorism.” Similar to Chinese action in Tibet, the government is justifying mass violence by highlighting moments of resistance and extremism and applying that to an entire population. The Chinese government is using invasive state-of-the-art surveillance and abusive internment and re-education camps to combat “hardline Islamic extremism” and to protect the Chinese state from what it sees as a threat of large-scale dissidence. However, the nature of surveillance and detention extends far beyond the perceived threat and exclusively targets Uyghur cultural and religious identity.
In Xinjiang, data-driven surveillance tracks all residents through the use of facial recognition technology, internet monitoring, the presence of thousands of security officers on the streets, and the forced collection of DNA from Uyghur residents. The goal of the new surveillance program is to identify which members of the population should be sent to re-education or internment camps. Because the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang poses minimal threat to the regime, the surveillance systems are exclusively focused upon the Uyghur population.
The surveillance system is programmed to flag behavior considered suspicious so that individuals will be subjected to tighter restrictions of movement or be moved to camps. Actions that flag the system and could result in a Uyghur being moved to a camp include: taking phone calls from relatives abroad, praying regularly (more than once a week), growing a beard, traveling to Middle Eastern countries, the use of an unusual amount of electricity, abruptly trying to quit smoking or drinking, wearing a shirt with Islamic imagery, or praying in a public place. Additionally, the family members of foreign activists who dissent against the Chinese regime are often detained as retribution. Uyghur residents are strongly dissuaded from praying in mosques and they must even register with the government to enter a mosque, a reality which many believe inevitably leads to detention or increased surveillance. It is also widely believed within the Uyghur community that an individual could be sent to a camp for no reason other than being Uyghur. The system surveils every aspect of Uyghur life, restricting religious or cultural expression with the threat of detainment. The segregated surveillance of an ethnic population alone represents a grave violation of internationally-protected human rights. However, the scale and impact of Uyghur internment and re-education camps transform this surveillance from a system of oppression into a tool of cultural genocide.
Internment and Political Education Camps
Chinese Uyghurs are sent to camps to obtain “transformation through education.” While some Uyghurs were tried and convicted of crimes against the Communist regime, many were sent to internment camps without trial or awareness of any wrongdoing. In these camps, prisoners are subjected to physical and psychological trauma which vilifies Uyghur culture and Islamic practices in an attempt at political indoctrination. In the re-education camps, detainees are forced to learn Mandarin and memorize Communist propaganda in order to leave. While access to the camps is restricted to foreign media, survivor and relative testimonies detail how both types of camps abuse inmates and attempt to erase Uyghur cultural identity. According to Omir Bekali, a Kazakh survivor of the camps who was arrested when visiting his parents, “Detainees in internment camps were made to disavow their Islamic beliefs, criticize themselves and their loves ones, and give thanks to the ruling Communist Party.”
Failure to adhere to the strict re-education curriculum or to adequately self-criticize can result in extended isolation or physical violence and torture. Former detainees described beatings, being hanged from ceilings and walls, sleep deprivation, and prolonged shackling. Detainees, especially those who failed to enthusiastically participate in the re-education process, were subjected to interrogations and torture relating to family members’ actions abroad or local terrorist initiatives. The political re-education camps forced inmates to learn and speak Mandarin, recite Communist propaganda, and denounce Islam.
The ramifications of the physical and psychological violence within these camps intimidate the entire Uyghur community. Arbitrary detention, political indoctrination, and physical torture vilifies Uyghur identity, specifically in relation to future generations. While there are no reports of children being put in these camps, “so many parents have been detained in Kashgar, a city in western Xinjiang, that it has expanded boarding schools to take custody” of the children of detained Uyghurs, directly extending political indoctrination and psychological manipulation to a younger Uyghur population. Both internment and re-education camps aim to destroy Uyghur identity by vilifying religion, physically and psychologically torturing detainees, and destroying cultural cohesion by separating families. Combined with constant segregated surveillance, the Chinese persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang amounts to large- scale cultural genocide.
China’s organ transplant trade is noted globally for both its scale and abuse of human rights. According to an independent tribunal, inmates throughout Chinese prison camps are being killed for their organs, feeding a trade that is now worth $1 billion a year. The Uyghur make up a growing percentage of those being held within Chinese prison camps, and many Uyghur inmates testified that they were subjected to both repeated medical testing while incarcerated, and that random inmate disappearances were common in both internment and re-education camps. While the scale of organ harvesting within Uyghur internment camps is not clearly determined, the combination of Uyghur disappearances, China’s noted history of illegally harvesting organs from inmates, and the introduction of medical testing in camps points to what the international China Tribunal calls “crimes against humanity” committed against Uyghur Muslims.
While many countries as of summer 2019 called for further investigation into the situation in Xinjiang, very little global action has been taken to prevent the continuation of Uyghur cultural genocide. No individual country has yet taken action against China beyond offering critical statements. This is due in part to China’s economic power and its role within the United Nations. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet demanded that UN monitors be allowed to access Xinjiang internment camps, drawing a hostile response from China and little global traction. China’s global power has dissuaded the international community from taking action. However, both individual nations and human rights organizations are calling for a multilateral investigation into Chinese camps and sanctions for Chinese trade. Global human rights groups’ continued pressure could prompt individual nations, as well as multilateral governing bodies, to take action to investigate the cultural genocide of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region of China.
In the United States, potential legislature to address the crisis of Uyghur cultural genocide is being debated in Washington, D.C. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act would require reports on national and regional security threats posed by the crackdown in Xinjiang, require the Secretary of State to publish an annual report assessing the state of conflict in Xinjiang, and require the FBI to document efforts to protect U.S. citizens and residents who have been harassed by the Chinese government. The bill would be the first substantive legislation to directly engage with the persecution of the Uyghur population.
One key multilateral initiative which has highlighted Uyghur persecution, and prompted further international action, is the independent China Tribunal. The China Tribunal was initiated by the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China, an international non-profit organization, which publicized the state of transplant abuse throughout China. In June 2019, the China Tribunal delivered its Final Judgment and Summary Report, stating that beyond a reasonable doubt “forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practiced for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims,” including Chinese Uyghurs. While this public judgment calls for significant retributive action against the Chinese state, not enough has been done globally to address the growing accounts of unethical persecution of Chinese Uyghurs.