By Isabella Cavallo
In the Xinjiang region of China, there is an ongoing incarceration of Muslims, specifically the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs, Turkic-Muslims who mostly live in Xinjiang, have been discriminated against under China’s communist regime. Uyghurs have been forced into concentration camps where they suffer brutal treatment and harassment. It is now considered the largest imprisonment of an ethnic group since the Holocaust, yet it continues to remain largely under the radar. This violation of human rights has been suppressed by the Chinese media, leaving most of the country and the rest of the world unaware of the crisis against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
It is estimated that over two million Uyghurs in the past three years have been forced into these secretive detention centers in Xinjiang. These prisons have been considered vocational, educational and training centers by the Chinese government. This leaves many people around the world unaware of the torturous realities of these camps. The detainees were beaten, constantly watched, tortured and abused.
Uyghur Muslims have lived in the Xinjiang region with their own developed culture and language for one thousand years, before the Xing Dynasty invaded the region and took over. Today, the Uyghur Muslims are forced under a strict regime and journalists are suppressed, making it impossible to produce stories of the occurring atrocities for the rest of the country and world to read.1 Photography in many places in the Xinjiang region is forbidden, with police everywhere watching.
In 2009, Xinjiang exploded into riots after two Uyghurs were killed and the government suppressed the peaceful protests. An unknown number of Uyghurs were killed and imprisoned, and the police cracked down on the Xinjiang region. There has been hostility between the Uyghurs and the government ever since they were invaded by the Qing Dynasty and forced under the Han Chinese. Despite local protests and hostility from the Uyghurs, the Chinese government wants to keep the Uyghurs under their rule because Xinjiang is rich in oil. Making matters worse, after the riots, rumors of Uyghurs harassing Han Chinese spread, further dividing the Uyghurs from the Hans, and setting the stage for the gradual and secretive disappearance of Uyghur Muslims without opposition from most of China.
Today, police presence and surveillance is even greater in the Xinjiang region. There are cameras on almost every street of Xinjiang to watch the Uyghurs due to the technological revolution President Xi has pushed since coming to power. These cameras add an additional psychological effect, worrying the government is always watching you. Additionally, the cameras are more advanced than they appear, as they are capable of facial recognition and they record your expressions and behavior to collect information on each person.1
An anonymous journalist who went into the Xinjiang region for Frontline PBS’s investigative documentary, “China Undercover,” noticed that for the ethnic majority group, Han Chinese, traveling was easier as security did not bother them. Meanwhile the Uyghurs were thoroughly checked and watched. The Chinese government has even gone so far as to tap into phone calls when certain key words are spoken, so those attempting to talk to others about these detention camps will be unable to without being listened to or without the call being canceled.1
The New York Times received leaked Chinese government files which stated that President Xi Jinping told officials to “unleash the tools of dictatorship, to eradicate radical Islam in Xinjiang,” which the Chinese government responded to saying the files were lies and fake.1 The incarcerations of the Uyghurs then began with the government assessing every Muslim in Xinjiang, in order to determine them as “safe” or “unsafe” people. The questions included purposely discriminating ones such as, “Are you a Uyghur?” or “Do you pray regularly?”1 prompting them to build detention camps for the growing number of “unsafe” Muslims.
However, the Chinese government continued to shut down inquiries about these concentration camps for Uyghur Muslims, claiming they did not exist. Satellite images taken eventually proved these camps were being built, and being filled with thousands of handcuffed Uyghurs. Additionally, many Uyghurs abroad lost track of their relatives who lived in or traveled into Xinjiang. By now, it is estimated that China has built 1,200 camps capable of holding two million Uyghurs.1
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists leaked Classified Chinese government documents on November 24, 2019. These documents state, “strictly manage and control student activities to prevent escapes during class,” and “There must be full video surveillance coverage of dormitories and classrooms free of blind spots, ensuring that guards on duty can monitor in real time, record things in detail, and report suspicious circumstances immediately.” The Uyghurs are referred to as students, however they are forced to suffer through brutal treatment and imprisonment without committing any crimes. The documents stated that the students, “may not contact the outside world apart from during prescribed activities.” Meanwhile, the Chinese government has also claimed that the “trainees” are respected, their human rights are acknowledged, and violence and harassment are not allowed.
Despite the Chinese government referring to the camps as voluntary indoctrination centers, Uyghurs who were eventually released say differently. Rahima, a Uyghur who was detained for 12 months, shared with Frontline PBS that she was imprisoned for simply having WhatsApp on her phone. 1 Gulzira, who was detained for 17 months, stated that there were rotating cameras in the dormitories, a disturbing violation to the privacy of these so-called students. Rahima and Gulzira also described how they were hit and beaten by the guards during their time in what was referred to as training and educational centers.
The treatment of the Uyghurs inside these camps has been further proven to be inhumane after Merdan Ghappar, a model who hid his Uyghur identity in order to avoid discrimination, sent videos and text messages to his family. The video shows dirty conditions while Ghappar himself is handcuffed to the bed. In the background, propaganda messages are being blasted through speakers. Ghappar’s messages state that he could hear the screams of those being beaten and tortured. Additionally, the conditions worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, with inmates sharing the same spoons and bowls and being packed into small quarters together.
In a written response to the Frontline PBS’s inquiries, “Requirements on respecting and safeguarding rights are strictly followed,” a Chinese official wrote, “the dignity of the trainees are fully respected.” The official also claimed, “insults and cruelties of any form are strictly prohibited.”
Children in Xinjiang’s city, Kashgar, are no longer permitted to learn about the Uyghur culture or language. Mosques are generally empty, for people were afraid to get in trouble, forcing them to hide their faith and religious practices. Additionally, China’s government has been demolishing mosques, even turning one into a public toilet. The Chinese government has claimed they are only repairing mosques and only one was destroyed.
The Chinese government is increasingly becoming a surveillance doctrine against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Uyghurs were forced to give fingerprints, DNA samples and voice recordings so that they were accounted for and on file. The government also had a method to gather data on every Uyghur, called Becoming Family. Han Chinese would “adopt” Uyghur families and call one another relatives, all in the name of promoting unity in Xinjiang. In reality, the Han Chinese were working for the government and would collect information on the Uyghurs they were visiting. Many Uyghur homes are also marked with digital barcodes taped to the door, allowing the police to pull up the residents’ files.
In Dec. 2019, the Chinese government announced that all of the “trainees” have been released, however, there are still many relatives of Uyghurs who are missing and have not been heard from. However, the governor of Xinjiang has not agreed to show any proof of this claim. The Chinese government has refused to permit UN experts to evaluate the release of the Uyghurs. They also have restricted Uyghur’s to communicate freely to any relatives overseas, making many of these relatives believe their family members are either still in these camps, freed but under high and strict surveillance, or even put into different forced labor camps. 1
The United States has done little to fight against these injustices. The Trump administration first proposed imposing sanctions on Chinese officials in 2018 for their human rights violations against Uyghurs. This was shut down when a deal to end the Trade War with Beijing came into discussion, and President Trump instead focused on this while working with China for his re-election campaign while ignoring the human rights abuses by China.
According to “The Room Where It Happened,” by John Bolton, Trump questioned Bolton on why they were considering sanctioning China for their atrocities of the Uyghurs. Additionally, Trump allegedly agreed with President Xi’s plans to build more concentration camps. Trump did not feel it was worth punishing China for their human rights violations, allowing them to continue, as long as the trade negotiations between America and China were continuing.
On Aug. 7 of this year, the Trump administration implemented sanctions on Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive along with ten other senior officials, due to the human right abuses against the Uyghurs in China. The Trump administration has been recently criticizing Hong Kong’s interference with free press and pro-democracy and incarcerations of Uyghurs protests. Under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, the U.S. can place human rights penalties on foreign officials, such as those in the Chinese Communist Party.
There is currently no concrete evidence that the concentration camps are being shut down and the liberties of Uyghurs are being protected. With millions of Muslim’s lives at stake, America’s limited actions are not substantial enough to stop the Chinese government from continuing human rights violations against ethnic minorities.