In Xinjiang, more than a million Uyghur Muslims are being detained in centres – the real figure is likely to be much more. These centres, the Chinese government has said, are merely schools. Yet, satellite images display these centres to be surrounded by tall fences with barbed wire, and watch towers that bear a closer resemblance to concentration camps than anything education-related.
Former detainees report that in these centres, they are forced to sing the national anthem for China and other communist songs for hours on end, as well as study communist propaganda and chant praise to Xi Jinping. Failure to engage in these activities results in brutal punishments such as electrocution, waterboarding, being placed in handcuffs for hours, or being held in a ‘tiger chair’ – a metal contraption. Detainees are also forced to eat pork and drink alcohol – things that are forbidden in Islam. Former detainees have said that women are subject to sexual abuse, to forced abortions, forced contraceptive use and compulsory sterilisations. These are forces that prevent women having children, prevent the continuing expansion of a culture, a specific ethnic group: a textbook definition of an attempt at genocide. As well as the fact that Uyghurs are detained without being proven guilty of alleged charges, most are held without being informed the length of their sentences – they are detained and punished because, as one victim reported a guard said to them, the crime they have committed is being a Uyghur.
Outside the camps, the majority Han Chinese are sent to live in the homes of detained and non-detained Uyghurs for surveillance purposes. The children of detainees are enrolled to ‘boarding schools’ where they are taught Mandarin Chinese and prevented from exercising and expressing their religion and banned from speaking their ethnic language. The Human Rights Watch have reported that these children have been sent to these mysterious schools without the consent of their parents. Uyghur Muslims are forced to download a specific software on their phones so their online activities can be tracked. The region itself is full of armed police where the Uyghurs are forced to undergo checks at several points. A BBC documentary, linked below, uses satellite evidence to show the gradual demolition and disappearance of mosques. Propaganda labels ordinary and peaceful religious prayers as extremist and terrorist. Any form of Islamic expression will likely result in being taken away and detained.
In this same documentary, when questioned, Chinese officials explained that the purpose of the camps, or ‘Vocational Education and Training Centres’, is to do with the apparent global rise in Islamic extremism. The camps and the ‘lessons’ and ‘teachers’ are there to eradicate any extremist thoughts before they can pose a threat. In other words, all Uyghur Muslims are considered to be future extremists, national threats, and the state is stepping in to prevent the issue before it arises. Or, as one government official put it to a crowd of Uyghurs, ‘You can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one by one. You need to spray chemicals to kill them all.’ This likens a culture and Islam to a contagion. According to Chinese officials, the Uyghurs have an ‘ideological disease’, as leaked documents reveal. Aidan Forth, a contributor to The Conversation, in his article called to attention the sinister history of governments and leaders who have used biological metaphors to describe groups of their citizens as viruses and diseases. For instance, he recalls Hitler proclaiming a ‘Jewish virus’ and that ‘we shall regain our health only by eliminating the Jew’. Forth concludes his article with: ‘The language of disease justified some of the 20th century’s worst crimes. If left unchecked by the international community, China is poised to continue that tradition in the 21st century.’
Once detainees have been released, the torture is far from over. Detainees that have managed to escape or have been granted asylum in other countries are threatened by the Chinese government – if they speak out about the reality of the camps, their families will be detained. Uyghurs that may be studying abroad are commonly detained upon their return to Xinjiang. As well as this, detainees that have served their sentences for alleged charges that they are not guilty of, when they are released, they are forced into labour in factories and, in some cases, sold for labour. The number of former detainees forced into labour under duress is so high that an Australian investigation reported that there can be no guarantee that the vast majority of clothing being produced for the fashion industry in China have not at some point been handled by a Uyghur who has been forced into labour.
This is an attempt of a cultural genocide. And the vast majority of governments around the world have remained silent or impassive. There are now various alarming reports and figures released by investigative journalists and watchdogs. But reports and statistics do not stop a genocide. The Uyghurs have been deprived of their human rights that should be protected by international law. What is most haunting in all this is: what is the point of international law if when it is broken, in an attempt of ethnic cleansing much like some of the most brutal events in history, there is no serious attempt to protect the victims; what happens if others observe that a country can deprive its citizens of their rights in plain sight and not be reprimanded in any way, what can this lead to?
Documentaries and Websites to find out more about the detainment of Uyghur Muslims:
- The Uyghur Human Rights Project – https://uhrp.org
- ‘Uyghurs for Sale‘: ‘Re-education’, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang – https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2020-12/Uyghurs%20for%20sale%2018%20December%202020.pdf?Nybtxl9YOn4IhSPj2caMyeKXOUAx2N8z
Written by Saaleha Iqbal