What's Happening in Xinjiang? Four Questions About China's Human Rights Crisis

One of the world’s worst human rights crises is happening in Xinjiang, an area twice the size of Texas in the far west of China. Xinjiang is the ancestral home of the Uighurs, a people who practice Islam, speak a language related to Turkish, and whose capital city Urumqi is closer to Baghdad than it is to Beijing.

Xinjiang’s Uighurs have long had an uneasy relationship with the Chinese Communist Party — but the situation has worsened considerably in the last two years. Human rights advocates and journalists estimate that Chinese authorities have detained up to one million Uighurs indefinitely in euphemistically named “re-education facilities,” where detainees are allegedly cut off from the outside world and subjected to torture. Uighurs both in and outside of Xinjiang have also reported severe restrictions on their personal freedoms — police checkpoints are ubiquitous across the region’s cities, and technology such as facial recognition software and tight internet censorship have enabled authorities to impose Orwellian-like controls on the population.

The Chinese government has strongly denied the punitive nature of the facilities, instead touting them as educational in nature and insisting that the prisoners are there voluntarily. But evidence gleaned from satellite photographs and interviews with former detainees reveal conditions that more resembles an internment camp — as well as a region where even the most basic freedoms are increasingly curtailed.

Why Has China’s Crackdown Intensified?

Relations between Uighurs and the Chinese government have always been strained. Since formally incorporating Xinjiang into the fledgling People’s Republic of China in 1950, the Communist Party has encouraged members of China’s Han majority to migrate to the region with the lure of financial incentives. Once a tiny minority, Han now comprise 39 percent of Xinjiang’s population. Uighurs have struggled to assimilate into Chinese society and have complained of ethnic, linguistic, and religious discrimination by the Chinese government. Beijing, for its part, claims it has provided ample opportunity to Xinjiang’s poorest by investing billions of dollars in economic development in the region.

In July 2009, following a brawl in south China that resulted in the death of two Uighurs, ethnic tensions boiled over in Urumqi: A riot between Uighurs and Han officially resulted in almost 200 deaths and thousands of injuries. In response, Communist Party leaders cut access to the internet across the region until May of 2010. Sporadic Uighur violence against the Han continued in the ensuing years, most notably a knife attack at the train station in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in 2014 that killed 31 civilians. These incidents, combined with reports that some Uighurs had joined the then-ascendant Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, created a widespread fear in China of terrorism.

In 2016 Chen Quanguo, who had served as the Communist Party boss in Tibet, was appointed to the same position in Xinjiang. Since assuming power, Chen has installed a “grid-like social management” system in which police checkpoints have been established throughout cities and villages and officials collect data based on video surveillance. Chen also launched a campaign against “two-faced” officials who exhibit political disloyalty and, as a result, prominent Uighurs such as the president of Xinjiang University have been arrested.

Most notably, Chen has orchestrated the detention of as many as one million Uighurs in “re-education” camps that he, according to official documents reviewed by Agence France-Press journalist Ben Dooley, has designed to “teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison.”

What Are the Detention Camps Like?

The Chinese government — which until this month had denied the existence of the re-education facilities altogether — strongly argues that the camps are not punitive in nature. In a segment broadcast on state television on October 16, detainees were shown studying Mandarin, learning trades, and reflecting on past political mistakes and crimes, presenting the camps as rehabilitation centers for Uighurs who had run afoul of the law.

Chinese officials have not permitted independent journalists to visit the centers. But satellite imagery, journalist investigations of official documents, and interviews with the minority of detainees no longer there have revealed something far more sinister than an educational facility. According to the documents reviewed by Dooley, “2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray” were ordered as part of a procurement request, while the purpose of the camps was to “break [Uighur] lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.”

An interview with a former detainee named Omir Bekhali published in the Associated Press described daily life in the camps, where he shared an unsanitary cell with several others:

Internees would wake up together before dawn, sing the Chinese national anthem, and raise the Chinese flag at 7:30 a.m. They gathered back inside large classrooms to learn “red songs” like “Without the Communist Party, there is no New China,” and study Chinese language and history. They were told that the indigenous sheep-herding Central Asian people of Xinjiang were backward and yoked by slavery before they were “liberated” by the Communist Party in the 1950s.

The one million Uighurs reportedly detained in camps — many for infractions as minor as growing a beard, purchasing a tent, or praying — represent more than 10 percent of their total population in Xinjiang. Their absence has ruptured communities across the area.

Police surveillance of China's Uighur population has increased
Chinese government control over the Uighur minority has intensified in the last two years. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

“On the streets of villages you can only see very old Uighurs,” Gulchehra Hoja, a Uighur journalist who has reported extensively on the camps for Radio Free Asia, told Asia Blog. “Younger men and women are gone. This has greatly damaged Uighur society.”

How Has Daily Life in Xinjiang Changed?

Life for Uighurs who are not detained in the camps is scarcely less challenging. In some ways, this is nothing new: Uighurs have always endured discrimination from the Chinese government, which has periodically enforced restrictions on Uighur economic life, movement, and religious freedom.

Today, Uighurs live in a world where government officials, assisted by sophisticated technology, impose an iron grip over nearly every aspect of daily life. Video cameras equipped with facial recognition software are omnipresent in Xinjiang’s cities and villages. A police officer visiting a Uighur home can now scan a QR code — like those seen on airplane boarding passes — to learn who lives there. Officials have also required Uighurs to place QR codes on items, like knives, which may be repurposed into weapons.

Cell phones belonging to Uighurs comes equipped with mandatory “spyware” apps that record their online activity, and officials have detained those for what they have written in text messages or said in video conversations with relatives abroad.

Internet censorship and government surveillance are found throughout China. But Rian Thum, an expert in contemporary Xinjiang at Loyola University in New Orleans, told Asia Blog that Uighurs must also contend with discrimination based on who they are, not what they’ve done.

The campaign in Xinjiang generally assumes that by virtue of being a member of a certain ethnic minority group, people are a threat to the state, whereas other campaigns throughout China have focused on beliefs. To be sure, they do pay more attention to people who behave in certain ways — but basically, just being a Uighur or Kazakh is enough to bring you under suspicion.

And it’s not just religious activities. Simply going abroad is enough to get you sent to internment camps if you are a Uighur or Kazakh. People have supposedly been sent to the camps for not greeting officials.

Political instruction doesn’t just happen in the camps. An astonishing story by ChinaFile, the publication of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, reveals that over a million Chinese citizens have moved into Uighur homes throughout Xinjiang for the purposes of indoctrination and surveillance. Many of these Han participating in the scheme view it as a patriotic duty. “These Uighurs are just uneducated — it is not their fault they began to practice these extremist forms of Islam,” said one. “They’ve been misled by hardened extremists. They don’t know any better.”

Uighurs who wish to flee Xinjiang mostly cannot. The Chinese government has confiscated passports and closely monitors communication between Uighurs in Xinjiang and members of the diaspora in the United States, Turkey, and elsewhere. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian of Foreign Policy has reported that Uighur residents living abroad are not free from harassment: The Chinese government is creating an online database of the global Uighur population, while Chinese police officers are demanding personal information from Uighurs living in France.

What Is China’s End Game?

For years, China presented itself as a multi-ethnic nation state in which the Han, who comprise over 90 percent of the population, peacefully coexist with 55 ethnic minority groups. The reality has always been more complicated — particularly for Uighurs and Tibetans — but in the years since market reforms began in 1978, China’s minorities enjoyed a certain degree of freedom to practice their cultural, religious, and linguistic customs.

The two-year campaign against the Uighurs is the greatest sign yet that China's policy has changed. In the last four decades, Beijing has invested billions of dollars in economic development in Xinjiang and Tibet in the hopes that once-restive minority groups would become more fully invested in the Chinese state. Instead, prosperity strengthened, rather than diminished, ethnic identity, leading to fears within China that the country was at risk of separatist movements that roiled Russia in the 1990s.

“The political re-education camps and classes in Xinjiang are signs of a regime that is losing patience, and seeks to use its newfound power to ‘mingle’ and ‘standardize’ the non-Han minorities out of existence,” wrote James Leibold, an expert in China’s ethnic politics, on the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief blog. “In deeply divided societies like Xinjiang and Tibet, force begets instability, which in turn justifies more security.”

The question of what to do about the Uighurs is also caught up in the evolving role of the Chinese Communist Party. Since the implementation of market reforms and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese government has always claimed legitimacy by engineering perennially high economic growth — but recent signs indicate that this may not last forever. Instead, under the powerful Chinese president Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has increasingly positioned itself as the protector of ethnic Han interests both within the People’s Republic and abroad.

Where does this leave the Uighurs? A policy reversal within China, at this stage, appears unlikely. And while some U.S. politicians — most notably Senator Marco Rubio — have taken up Uighur causes in Congress, their plight has long struggled to garner as much international sympathy as that of the Tibetans, who have a high-profile champion in the Dalai Lama and lack the stigma associated with Islam. At present, human rights in Xinjiang ranks low on the list of issues most defining the U.S.-China relationship, behind North Korea, trade, the militarization of the South China Sea, and others. The administration of President Donald Trump, whose approach to foreign relations is more transactional than idealistic, seems unlikely to pressure Beijing over its treatment of the Uighurs.

For now, the best many Uighurs like Gulchehra Hoja, the Radio Free Asia reporter, can do is remind the world that they exist as a distinct culture, language, and ethnicity.

“Inside our hearts, the hope of freedom is always there,” she said.

About the Author

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Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.