In the midst of a desert, lofty buildings with barbed wire fencing stand tall, red letters on them urge people to learn Chinese, study the laws, and acquire skills that would help them get jobs. Around them, guards stand at attention making clear to the visitors that they would not be welcome here.
These are what are being called ‘re-education camps’ that have kept prisoner within their walls a million Muslims and subjected them to various forms of torture and indoctrination.
The Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region, home to 1.5 per cent of the Chinese population and making up 21 per cent of its prisoners, is an important region for the country. It forms a major part of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative. It is also home to a persecuted cultural and ethnic minority.
Uighurs are mostly of Turkic origin and speak Turkish, some of them are Kazakhs. Its total population is 24 million and about a half of them are Muslims. They see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to the central Asian nations. Agriculture still forms a strong basis of the economy and several towns like Kashgar, the oasis city, are the key hubs of the famous Silk Route.
Historically, this was the East Turkestan region that came under Chinese rule only in the 18th century and has had several phases of autonomy and independence. The independence has been short-lived and in 1949, Xinjiang officially part of the Communist rule. With the fall of USSR, a few decades later, a number of Islamic nations appeared in Central Asia. Any such demands and demonstrations was suppressed by the government and the struggle continues to this day.
These minorities are now subjected to what is being called, ‘re-education’ camps, something that would invoke memories of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and of Vietnam after it came under communist rule.
These camps are centers of – political re-education. Inmates are forced to listen to lectures and sing praises of the Communist Party as well as write self criticism essays. torture, medical neglect, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and other deadly forms of abuse. They are subjected to daily brainwashing and hours of exposure to Communist Party propaganda. The party says that they have done so under “pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.” The goal of these camps is clear – to remove any devotion to Islam.
Restrictions include ban on going for hajj, students not being allowed to fast during Ramadan, checks on the young under 18 trying to enter mosques, curtailments on face veils and Islamic beards and further curbs on several forms of culture. Standard religious practice often invites the wrath of officials. Muslim parents cannot name their children with a too Muslim sounding names like Muhammad or Saddam, failing which they are denied registration which means that the child cannot have a right to free schooling and health care.
These forms of repression are not new but have taken a severe form in the recent past. China has long struggled to maintain its grip over the region and has ruled with an iron fist, wanting to turn Muslims into supporters of the communist party and loyal citizens of the nation. “Xinjiang is in an active period of terrorist activities, intense struggle against separatism and painful intervention to treat this,” Mr. Xi told officials, according to reports in the state news media last year.
Questioned on various accounts about the human right abuses the Chinese government has denied allegations of any sort of mass detentions or discrimination. However, it adds that any sort of restriction of activity is in line with the security of the region and is aimed at “preserving stability” and preventing terrorist attacks. Forcing fellow humans into camps and subjecting them to indoctrination and various forms of torment cannot be justified on security grounds.
On all global stages, China defends its right to protect itself from any form of terrorism, extremism and separatism. They believe that what they are doing in Xinjiang is to protect innocents and ensure the safety of their country, and that they are against any form of extremism in religion. At Geneva, United Nations panel meeting, it was further said that the facilities are mild corrective institutions that provide job training and there is no arbitrary detention.
Nevertheless, mass detentions aside, the authorities have increasingly employed informers and expanded police surveillance leaving families traumatized. China uses big data, iris and body scanners, voice pattern analyzers, DNA sequencers and sometimes even cameras in homes.
As more and more flee to Kazakhstan and Turkey we have an increasing number of personal accounts recalling the atrocities and the mental scars these camps left them with.
It is important to note that the Chinese officials have not banned Islam but have laid out rules within which the religion can be followed. Thus, a Muslim cannot pray if he has guests or non-Muslim friends at home. The state would also determine the length of a woman’s tunic. They are also forced to memorize laws failing which they are denied food until they learn them.
The region is reduced to a police state and conjures up images of North Korea, and of South Africa in which Nelson Mandela fought against apartheid.
Countries like the USA should take the initiative in calling out Chinese actions against a minority by restricting interactions with government organizations and private businesses that support these camps and even deny visas to them. Like-minded nations need to come together at forums like the UN to increase public pressure on Beijing. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation and other Muslim majority nations should break their silence like they did on Dutch cartoons and demand action against the persecution. World leaders need to find the political will to end China’s brutal acts against the Uighurs. Democracies around the world, Muslim leaders and communities cannot remain silent by being threatened by China’s economic and political power and must speak up for ‘all Muslim lives’ before it is too late. As the Uighurs continue to rely on God, holding steadfastly to their faith, chances of any worldly help are getting slimmer and slimmer.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.