China steps up pressure on Uighurs with re-education camps

State media says security crackdown in Xinjiang prevents ‘tragedy’ from taking place

International pressure is growing on China after reports that more than one million ethnic Uighurs are being interned in political re-education camps in Xinjiang as Beijing steps up security in the restive western province.

A United Nations human rights panel said last week it had "credible reports" that 1.1 million Uighurs, who are largely Muslim and have a Turkic culture different from that of the Han Chinese majority, were being held in secret camps.

Another 2.2 million people are required to attend “open re-education camps”, which include daily indoctrination sessions but allow attendees to return home in the evening.

Xinjiang, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, is an autonomous region that is home to 10 million Uighurs.

Gay McDougall, vice-chairwoman of the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), expressed her concern that Xijiang was being turned “into something that resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy” in the name of eradicating “religious extremism” and “maintaining social stability”.

Following a series of attacks by Islamist extremists in 2013 and 2014, it has become heavily policed. The streets are monitored with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, and the government has introduced some policies that critics say discriminate against Muslims.

There are reports of re-education camps scattered all around the autonomous region. Last year, a local security chief said about 120,000 people were being held in camps in Kashgar, the city with the biggest Uighur population.

‘Great tragedy’

The government has not confirmed that the camps exist. China’s Global Times newspaper said that stepped up security in Xinjiang had helped to prevent “great tragedy” and described western public opinion as “destructive”.

"The turnaround in Xinjiang's security situation has avoided a great tragedy and saved countless lives, thanks to powerful Chinese law and the strong ruling power of the Communist Party of China. What the West has been hyping has destroyed numerous countries and regions. When the same evil influence was spreading in Xinjiang, it was decisively curbed," the paper said.

While Global Times is not an official mouthpiece for the government, it is published by the same state-owned company that publishes People’s Daily and its views are generally believed to be in line with official thinking.

“Xinjiang is at a special stage of development where there is no room for destructive Western public opinions. Peace and stability must come above all else. With this as the goal, all measures can be tried. We must hold onto our belief that keeping turmoil away from Xinjiang is the greatest human right,” the tabloid said. The commentary was run in both Chinese and English-language editions.

China says there are links between Uighur separatists and fundamentalist Islam, and Uighurs have fought with Islamic State (also known as Isis) and the al-Qaeda affiliate group Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.

The increased security presence has impacted on everyday life in Xinjiang. Knives in butcher shops and restaurants have to be attached to the wall by a chain, following an attack in 2014 where a group of Uighurs attacked Kunming train station with knives and killed 31 people.

The Global Times editorial said the Communist Party's leadership had stopped Xinjiang from becoming China's Syria or Libya.

“Xinjiang is operating under the rule of law and ethnic unity. As business recovers, the region’s future is promising,” it said.

Xinjiang is China's biggest domestic producer of oil and gas, and is a key element in President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, a policy that aims to connect Europe and the Middle East to China with trade, infrastructure and investment ties.

During last week’s UN hearings in Geneva, China’s ambassador Yu Jianhua cited economic progress and improved living standards in Xinjiang as evidence of how China was treating the province fairly.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing