China’s ‘cultural genocide’: Uighur repression continues

China may have shut down its controversial re-education camps, but minorities are still persecuted

 A re-education camp for ethnic Uighur in Hotan, in China’s Xinjiang province. Photograph: Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times

A re-education camp for ethnic Uighur in Hotan, in China’s Xinjiang province. Photograph: Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times


When senior Communist official Wang Yang surveyed China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang on an inspection tour recently he congratulated the party on its “major achievements” in the deeply troubled region.

Beijing’s policies – which many human rights groups have labelled “cultural genocide” – have “promoted social stability, optimised industrial structure and led to people living in peace and contentment”, said Wang, one of the seven men on the party’s all-important politburo standing committee.

But rather than living in a world of peace and contentment, Uighurs and other ethnic minorities are on their knees in fear following years of a systematic, government-led programme of oppression and assimilation, according to Zubayra Shamseden, who is originally from Xinjiang and is now exiled in the US.

“Whether it is culturally through the [re-education] camps, or through prisons or house arrest, or just through slave labour – it is just a clear genocide,” she tells The Irish Times.

Beijing authorities announced late last year they would be shutting down the sprawling re-education camp system across Xinjiang where more than 1.5 million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities were detained as “all the students had graduated”.

Rights activists confirm some camps have been shut down, others have been transformed into formal prisons, while the status of many remains unclear.

But human rights groups say that beyond the camp issue, intense repression prevails in a range of other forms across the region. A large number of Xinjiang minorities are still reporting their family members as missing – not knowing if they are in a camp, or in a prison, in pre-trial detention, in an assigned labour position, or even if they are still alive.

Observers believe that up to 700,000 Uighurs and other Turkic minorities have been transferred to formal prisons or are in pre-trial detention.


China’s gateway to central Asia, Xinjiang has long been a tense and restive region – where the predominately Muslim ethnic minority groups make up more than 60 per cent of the province’s population of 25 million.

Many Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities resent the Communist Party’s rigid rule, saying they have endured decades of cultural, religious, political and economic discrimination.

In the wake of 9/11, China tightened its grip on the region by combining US counterinsurgency tactics with its own history of “violent paternalism” that pathologises behaviour, thought and emotions deemed deviant and tries to forcefully transform it, according to Darren Byler, a Uighur expert and fellow at the University of Colorado.

Following a series of terrorist attacks conducted by Uighur militants in 2013 and 2014, Beijing ratcheted up the intensity by unleashing the “People’s War on Terror”, with president Xi Jinping calling for a state response that showed “absolutely no mercy”.

Police were ordered to “round up those who need to be rounded up” and deposit them in the extra-judicial camps, including anyone harbouring anti-government views, those with “extremist ideas” that required “treatment”, and anyone who might have been “infected” by the “virus” of Islamic radicalism.

The wide-ranging justifications for incarceration included wearing long beards, face veils or headscarves; giving up smoking or drinking; educating children at home; having WhatsApp on a smartphone; or being in contact with relatives or friends who lived abroad.

In the camps, detainees would undergo months or years of indoctrination and interrogation aimed at transforming them into secular-minded, patriotic, industrious citizens and loyal supporters of the party.

Rights groups argue that while there were legitimate grounds for China to take measures against areas of extremist and terrorist activity in the region, the blanket response against the minority populations across the province has been immensely disproportionate.

After taking 20,000 pages of testimony from 9,000 former detainees to date, the Xinjiang Victims Database researchers noted persistent efforts to rewire the ethnic minorities in the camps and concluded that: “In the name of combating ‘religious extremism’, Chinese authorities have been actively remoulding the Muslim population in the image of China’s Han ethnic majority.”

China first denied the existence of the camps, and later defended them as “vocational training centres” set up to help fight extremism.

But secret internal party documents known as the China Cables that were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and shared with The Irish Times and other media partners in November last year, helped show clearly the facilities were mass internment camps.

In the face of growing international condemnation, the government announced in December the camps would be closing. In their defence, officials said that thanks to the camps and “other preventive counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation efforts”, there had been no terrorist incident in the province for three years.

Camps to jails

Gene Bunin, a scholar who specialises in Uighur and Kazakh affairs and assists with the victims’ database research, says that as camps began to be dismantled many detainees were formally sentenced and moved to prisons.

He believes that up to 500,000 of the ethnic minority population have been formally prosecuted and sentenced to long years in prison, with terms often ranging from 10 to 20 years. The local prosecution rates far outpace other provinces, with data from 2017 showing that while Xinjiang has less than 2 per cent of China’s population it accounted for 21 per cent of arrests across the country. International legal experts say the judicial process minorities go through is extremely opaque and arbitrary.

“In terms of suffering, I think this is the big problem in Xinjiang right now,” he says, adding that another large number, perhaps in excess of 200,000 minorities, were in some kind of pre-trial detention. Uighur activists make similar estimates.

“In my opinion, people who were not released from camps by this point are either likely sentenced, in a pre-trial detention centre or deceased,” he says.

House arrest

The evident “social stability” that Wang Yang praised on his visit to the troubled province is what Shamseden and others call communities under total surveillance living in dread.

“They may have closed some of the camps but it is taking place in a different form, the surveillance is still there, people are not free at all, they are under strict control. It is simply house arrest, it is open prison,” says Shamseden, who collects witness testimonies for the UNHP.

One Uighur woman she knows who was recently released from the camps said her new life was almost the same as when she was in detention. Early every morning she has to attend a flag-raising ceremony and stand to solemn attention with other former detainees as the Chinese flag is raised. Then she has a strict roster of mandatory study sessions each week: learning how to speak Mandarin; reciting the nation’s laws and regulations; and political classes on Communist Party ideology and the thoughts of president Xi.

Minorities must apply for permission to leave their local areas, and need to proffer a good reason for wanting to do so. And the phones are monitored 24/7, Shamseden says, so she hasn’t dared to call her own family for six years from the US, “or they would face big trouble”.

The key driver of the control operation is the state-of-art surveillance technologies. Biometric data – including DNA, voice and facial recognition – is collected from all citizens in the province. Spyware apps are forcibly installed on Uighur and Kazakh smartphones, and GPS units are installed on cars. Facial recognition checkpoints dot the province where police scan smartphones to divulge digital histories.

Byler, who recently wrote a study for the Centre for Global Policy on the implications of re-education technology in Xinjiang, says “the world is witnessing the birth of a new form of technology-enabled systems of social and behavioural control”.

This rise in China’s “authoritarian statecraft” coincides with breakthroughs in face surveillance, voice recognition, automated data recovery tools and algorithmic assessments of social media histories in China’s private and public technology industry, he says.

No passports

However grim their predicaments, getting out of China is not an option for most Uighurs, as many had their passports confiscated years ago, Shamseden says. In the recent past, simply applying for a passport was a red-flag suspicious activity and enough to land someone in a re-education camp.

Even those Uighurs living outside of China are corralled by minority policies weaponising passports. A Uighur Human Rights Project report in April details how Uighurs abroad have been unable to renew their passports at Chinese embassies and consulates, as ethnic Han and other Chinese citizens are able to. Instead, Chinese embassy officials often destroy their existing passports and replace them with one-way travel documents in order to force them to return, the report said.

“Those Uighurs who have returned to China have disappeared,” the report says.

Forced labour

The working day is another contentious realm in the region, and the “optimised industrial structure” Wang Yang applauded during his tour is what rights groups say is in many cases tantamount to forced labour.

Bunin says the labour programme appears to be one of the mechanisms for returning the detainees to society – giving them limited freedom and keeping them under control. “I see it as a mechanism for re-injecting traumatised and possibly angry people into society gradually.”

In a recent study conducted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, researchers wrote that as well as being forced into labour in Xinjiang, more than 80,000 Uighurs have been transferred out of the region to work in factories across China, with some sent directly from detention camps. The factories are in the supply chains of at least 83 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors, it says.

Workers typically live in segregated dormitories, undergo organised Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, are subject to constant surveillance and are forbidden from participating in religious observances, the report says. Numerous sources, including government documents, show that transferred workers are assigned minders and have limited freedom of movement.

“It is extremely difficult for Uighurs to refuse or escape these work assignments, which are enmeshed with the apparatus of detention and political indoctrination,” the report notes. “In addition to constant surveillance, the threat of arbitrary detention hangs over minority citizens who refuse their government-sponsored work assignments.”

Let me breathe

The Chinese government rejects the allegations that the assigned positions are coerced in any way and says the “Xinjiang Aid” project is aimed at delivering jobs and alleviating poverty. In response to wider criticisms of Beijing’s approach to the region, a government spokesman says: “Xinjiang-related issues are not about human rights, ethnicity or religion, but about fighting violence, terrorism and separatism.”

At the conclusion of party leader Wang Yang’s inspection tour to the province, he called on all of Xinjiang’s ethnic groups to build “a stronger sense of community among the Chinese people”.

For people like Shamseden, however, the party’s “experiments in Xinjiang” have disintegrated the community she once knew. “They are just trying to make Uighurs give up everything,” she says. “At some point people say ‘I have had enough. I will do whatever you want, but just please leave me alone. Let me breathe’.”

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