UYGHUR MUSLIMS IN CHINA: A HUSHED CRISIS
Presenting the facts, allegations, and responses linked to one of the most puzzling situations yet.
“A crude age. Peace is stabilized with cannon and bombers, humanity with concentration camps and pogroms. We're living in a time when all standards are turned upside-down…” - Erich Maria Remarque
Officially termed as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Xinjiang is an autonomous territory officially a part of the People’s Republic of China. It has also been termed as the Chinese Turkestan because it houses almost 12 million Uyghurs (Turkik Muslims), comprising half of the region’s population.
Since an excessively long period of time, citizens of China's Xinjiang region have witnessed constant police presence, extreme surveillance, and multiple checkpoints a day. It is widely believed among the local populace that this response is due to the presence of Uyghur Muslims. 90% of China's Uyghur Muslim population lives in Xinjiang, and over the past decade, numerous allegations against the Chinese Government have stirred worry and controversy on a global scale.
These allegations, coming from rights groups, range from misconduct by police officers to the commission of “cultural genocide” by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The Situation So Far:
Since 2015, several eyewitness accounts, satellite imagery, and independent investigations by news sources have brought to light the existence of ‘camps’ run by the Chinese Government. These camps are allegedly de-facto prisons housing Uyghur Muslims from Xinjiang. At first, the Chinese denied the existence of any camps but then later claimed that they were ‘re-education camps’, necessary for combating separatist violence at a grassroots level. They were legalized by the Chinese government in 2018, which is when the existence of such locations was accepted.
The government has also released videos from inside the camps, which show men and women studying in classrooms, learning how to dance, and having meals in a cafeteria. Their videos show no signs of people being kept against their will or of torture or any of the other allegations. However, statements from people who were ‘prisoners’ in these camps say that they were unlawfully picked up from cities in Xinjiang, against their will, and transported to these camps and were not allowed to leave.
According to the Human Rights Watch, at least a million Uyghur Muslims have been detained in these camps since 2017, whereas the Chinese government has both, on different occasions, not chosen to comment on, or denied these claims.
What Diplomats Say:
China has invested heavily in Xinjiang over the past decade. In January 2019, diplomats from 12 nations were invited to visit Xinjiang. Pakistan's Deputy Head of Mission in China, Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said the development of infrastructure, airports, railways and the road network has enhanced connectivity of Xinjiang with the rest of China and with neighboring countries.
The diplomats also visited the aforementioned camps in 3 cities, including Hotan, which is the camp that the BBC would visit later that year and is discussed later in this article. According to an interview with Mumtaz Zahra Baloch about the camps:
“The training program includes the teaching of national common language (Chinese), law and constitution, and vocational skills. The students also participate in recreational activities like sports, music, and dance. The diplomats witnessed several skill classes being offered in these centers.”
Baloch stated, “We had the opportunity to interact with both the management and the students. We observed the students are in good physical health. The living facilities are fairly modern and comfortable with separate dormitories for men and women. They are being served halal food.”
To another question, she added, “I did not find any instance of forced labor or cultural and religious repression. The imams we met at the mosques and the students and teachers at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute told us that they enjoy freedom in practicing Islam and that the Chinese government extends support for the maintenance of mosques all over Xinjiang. I learned that there are over 30,000 mosques all over Xinjiang that form part of the religious life of the people there.”
In July 2019, 22 countries sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council, criticizing China for its mass arbitrary detentions and other violations against Muslims in China's Xinjiang region. However, on July 12 of the same year, a group of 37 countries submitted a letter in defense of China's policies.
The region has been prepared for its critical role in the development of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Reports released by the local Xinjiang government have reaffirmed Chinas policy of accepting and uplifting ethnic minorities. The government also arranged for subsidies of many temples and mosques in the region.
The citizens and foreign visitors of Xinjiang have described a surveillance state, with an abundance of security cameras, armed policemen, many checkpoints, and even collection of biodata ranging from DNA samples to voice samples, all of which they claim are used by law enforcement to track citizens in the region.
For many years now, Muslims living in Xinjiang have claimed that their loved ones have been picked up by local law enforcement and taken somewhere without any warning; no trials were conducted either. They claim that they have not been able to get in touch with their loved ones for months on end.
These claims come not only from people across China but internationally as well. Human Rights groups say that within these camps, men and women are forced to learn Mandarin, criticize their faith and even renounce Islam. Forced labor is also believed to be a staple at these camps.
An Uyghur woman who claims to be a former prisoner at this camp in 2018 stated to the French media that she was regularly injected with a substance that caused her menstrual cycle to stop. This testament is similar to another given by a former female prisoner, Mihrigul Tursan, who says the women were forced to drink a strange white liquid and take various drugs that caused them to lose consciousness and occasionally not have periods.Mihrigul, who is currently in the US, underwent medical examinations that confirmed she had been sterilized and would never be able to bear children. She added that 3 of her children born before her detainment had also undergone unknown surgical procedures without her consent. One of her children died and the other 2 still suffer from several ailments.
The texts that shook the Internet
As recent as August 4, 2020, a famous Uyghur model released footage from inside the camps. Merdan Ghappar, 31, sent a collection of texts and a video to his uncle who then released all of it to the media.
In August 2018, Ghappar was convicted of selling cannabis, which his friends said were trumped up charges, and sentenced to 16 months in prison. Less than a month after his release, Chinese law enforcement of his area came to his house and informed him that he was required to return to his home city in Xinjiang for routine registration. Ghappar complied and was not heard from for months until he contacted his uncle in the Netherlands through text message. He also exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 around January, and was put into isolation and given his personal belongings, which contained his phone. He used his phone to contact his uncle. The video he sent shows himself handcuffed to a bed in an otherwise empty room, with a single-window covered by steel mesh. Outside the room, you can faintly hear announcements on a loudspeaker blaring pro-China propaganda.
The texts read as follows:
"I saw 50 to 60 people detained in a small room no bigger than 50 square metres, men on the right, women on the left," he writes.
"Everyone was wearing a so-called 'four-piece-suit', a black head sack, handcuffs, leg shackles and an iron chain connecting the cuffs to the shackles."
Mr Ghappar was made to wear the device and, joining his fellow inmates in a caged-off area covering around two-thirds of the cell, he found there was no room to lie down and sleep.
"I lifted the sack on my head and told the police officer that the handcuffs were so tight they hurt my wrists," he writes in one of the text messages.
"He shouted fiercely at me, saying 'If you remove your hood again, I will beat you to death'. And after that I dared not to talk.”
"Dying here is the last thing I want."
The texts by Ghappar explaining in graphic detail about the horrors inside the ‘reeducation’ camp; sourced via BBC.
Ghappar goes on to describe what he believed to be torture rooms, the deplorable conditions they were forced to stay in and the cruelty of the guards.
As suddenly as the messages started, they stopped. Merdan’s family asked local authorities of his whereabouts. They have provided no formal notification or even given a reason for his continued detention after his 16-month sentence. To this day, he continues to be missing.
The eyewitness accounts given by the former prisoners and journalists have led to many people informally accusing China of genocide, although no government has formally said so yet. Uyghurs say that the forced sterilizations, unlawful detainment, re-education of “true Chinese traditions”, and deplorable conditions are an attempt to quash their ethnic identity and amount to cultural genocide.
The children of people who are sent to these camps are also often sent for what activists call brainwashing to make them forget their ethnic roots and to immerse them in Han Chinese culture.
The Chinese Government has denied all these allegations and constantly emphasizes that the camps are simply for re-education for minor offenders. Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang’s Uighur governor, defended the practices as vocational training for Uighurs by comparing it with boarding schools.
Official reports and releases linked to this crisis are very few. However, an investigative report by BBC at Hotan, Xinjiang, strongly condemned the Chinese government and used satellite imagery of the region to prove that the camps were rapidly expanding and already had huge numbers of people in them. The report also attempted to use footage of the camps to show that people were being led in, shackled, and lined up under the supervision of armed police.
Many reports fully denied this. Chinese journalists vehemently criticized BBC for using editing, poor translation, and camera tricks to create a narrative that compared the situation in Xinjiang to a modern-day Auschwitz.
A section of the documentary includes interviewing a student at the school who was previously shown practicing dance in the same scene. The student says that a policeman in the city praised the school and its ideals which is why he (the student) enrolled there. The BBC report translated this into English as, “A policeman told me to enroll.”
The footage also included a clip of a student typing on a computer, where it can be seen that both Mandarin and the Uyghur language are being used. An interview with a Uyghur instructor is also shown, where the instructor reiterates that everyone is there willingly.
Video footage of the camps shows sports facilities, surveillance cameras, high fences, guards, and at some points, barbed wire. Many have claimed that all these show the resemblance to prisons but others say that it is normal for every school across China, and even the world, to have these precautions.
Chinese officials strongly opposed anything shown in this report/documentary. The Chinese Foreign Ministry even invited Beijing-based European Diplomats to visit the Xinjiang region
Near the end of the video, a BBC journalist is shown interviewing some high-level officials of the local government. Both men interviewed talked about the advantages of the center and how providing vocational education gives the citizens the skills to succeed instead of the government waiting for a crime to be committed and then dole out punishments. It is made clear that the camps are mainly to combat minor crimes.
The BBC documentary also has footage of students leaving in a bus, which contradicts earlier statements and brings into question the credibility of many of the eyewitness accounts which said that nobody is allowed to leave the camps.
Despite growing international concerns, most countries have only issued statements critical of the CCP. Some have pressured Beijing to allow foreign investigators and observers, which China has disregarded. Muslim-majority countries are also unusually silent. The United States has imposed some sanctions on companies based in Xinjiang.
The Chinese Response:
On June 2, 2016, The State Council Information Office released a paper titled "Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang". As per the Chinese government’s website, the aim was to “help the outside world understand and understand the situation of freedom of religious belief in Xinjiang, help the outside world understand and understand China’s efforts and contributions to protect the freedom of religious belief of the people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang, and help eliminate outsiders’ influence on our country.”
Instructors from within the camps have said that they aim to help eliminate religious extremism in the region. This stance is also held by many Chinese government officials as well as the public outside of Xinjiang.
Uyghur separatist terrorism has been a long-standing problem for China, especially in Xinjiang.
From 1950 to 1970, China enforced the mass migration of thousands of Han Chinese to the region in an attempt to quash the cultural identity and religion of the Uyghur population. This led to the formation of many Uyghur separatist organizations, some of which were reportedly backed by the Soviet Union.
Since the 1970s, there has been occasional violence in the region, such as terrorist attacks, the responsibility for which was claimed by Uyghur separatists. In 1997, police rounded up and publicly executed 30 Uyghur Muslims, suspected of being terrorists. This led to a chain of incidents over the next few months, with large protests, a Peoples Liberation Army crackdown, and at least 2 confirmed attacks by Uyghur terrorists. These attacks have continued till as recent as 2017. Many say that the Chinese Government orchestrated these attacks themselves and blamed the Uyghur community, but no evidence has been produced to support this claim.
China’s Ambassador to the UK was recently confronted with drone footage of people being shackled and led into a camp, which the Ambassador called fake and assured the world that the Uyghurs live harmoniously in Xinjiang.
In conclusion, China has time after time reassured the international community that everything in Xinjiang is normal; the CCP is committed to maintaining religious harmony in the region while also battling separatist violence after a long history of troubles in the region. However, it is not an option for the world to ignore the countless allegations and investigations of human rights violations in the Xinjiang camps.