Tuyoq Village exemplifies Xinjiang’s touristic appeal. But behind the façade of ancient Silk Road oases and vast steppes and deserts lies endemic state sponsored persecution. Photo credits: National Geographic Society
For China’s Muslim minority, persecution and state sponsored racism are a daily reality in this majority atheist country. The implementation of so-called ‘re-education camps’ in 2014 has facilitated a seemingly perpetual state of fear for Uighurs, a minority group living primarily in China’s north west (in Xinjiang state – where the camps are located). Uighurs have been specifically targeted by Xinjiang’s autonomous government (headed by the bureaucratically elected leader Chen Quanguo), via the wider Chinese government in a move cited as aiming to eliminate religious extremism. Instead, the camps have been staunchly criticised by the United Nations and numerous national governments as violating human rights, referencing their inhumane conditions, and racist ideologies.
Xinjiang has long been regarded as notably culturally and ethnically different to China’s east. An autonomous region, Xinjiang borders several central Asian nations, notably Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Xinjiang is the only region of China bordering these states, which has culminated in the region’s distinct identity. Historically a part of the Silk Road, Xinjiang today has a strong agrarian economy, with thriving cities and markets steeped in a marriage of Oriental and Middle Eastern influences. The region is the main home of Uighurs, with 42% of Xinjiang’s population being from the ethnic group, compared to about 40% Han Chinese (the majority Chinese group). The inception of rural to urban migration facilitated the movement of Uighurs towards China’s metropolises, like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Now, they are being forced to return to Xinjiang, where people will be coerced into entering the camps. Those that are not in a ‘re-education’ camp are under constant fear that they will be sent to one, under the guise of anti-terrorism, but in reality for the most idiosyncratic reasons.
Map of China, showing the location of Xinjiang. The cities of Ürümqi and Kashgar are shown, as well as the location of Dabancheng – which houses one of the largest camps. Photo credits: BBC News
Conditions inside the so-called ‘re-education’ camps (also known as ‘vocational training centres’) are believed to be abhorrent, with the estimated 1 million detainees being condescended and forced to indoctrinate themselves with nationalist sentiment, in addition to receiving poor nutrition and experiencing a poor standard of living in general. Mandatory Mandarin lessons take place, and Communist propaganda is displayed and immortalised. Deaths have been reported inside the facilities too. The notion and mode of action of the camps have been compared to the Canadian Indian residential school system, whereby minorities are being viciously stripped of their identity by the government body using methods of torture and psychological abuse.
To the Uighur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and others, the camps are the harbinger of a full-scale genocide. Xinjiang has long been fraught with turmoil, with Uighurs consistently calling for better treatment and more autonomy. Riots in July 2009 in Ürümqi, Central Asia’s largest city and Xinjiang’s capital, were driven by a yearning for independence, but the civil unrest resulted in the death of nearly 200 people (mostly Hans), reflecting the uncertainty of the region.
Uighur men in a tea house in the city of Kashgar. Photo credits: New York Times
The average Uighur in Xinjiang knows someone that has been sent to a ‘re-education’ camp, or looks certain to be taken to one. Conditions for the Turkic group are dire, as even those that dodge incarceration are under constant surveillance, with their every move questioned by the paranoid government. Cross-examining the policy is dangerous, while the simple act of praying or reading a book gives carte blanche for the authorities to interrogate. The bleak reality for Uighurs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang like Kazakhs and Huis, is that towns and cities are so militarised it is impossible to avoid being profiled. The behaviour of the government is akin to a western far-right movement. Whilst ostracising Uighurs may have initially functioned to shun the growing separatist movement, it today seems to stem from Islamophobia, and an irrational fear of the minority’s distinct culture.
Under a governmental system marred with controversy and a refusal to acknowledge its wrongdoings (Xinjiang’s deputy foreign publicity director Ailiti Saliyev stated that ‘The happiest Muslims in the world live in Xinjiang’), there seems to be little hope for the Uighurs. The camps, and constant surveillance have had many socioeconomic impacts on the region, including loss of revenue and closure of restaurants and coffee shops, and the creation of numerous orphans from the deportation or detainment of their parents (with the expansion of 45 orphanages, or “welfare centres” budgeted for by the government). The persecution is hypothesised to spread abroad, with Uighurs in Sydney already being targeted by Chinese spies. The Australian-Uighur activist Sultan Hiwilla’s Xinjiang based family are known to be in danger, as a result of his speaking out against government policy.
Fundamentally, the global community must come together to put pressure on the Chinese government. This would be most effective at the national governmental level, with UN sanctions also being a plausible mechanism to put pressure on the situation in Xinjiang. Action must be taken now, before the Uighur become a forgotten tragedy.