The Chinese government is detaining hundreds of thousands of Muslim Chinese and ethnic Uighurs in mass internment and re-education camps in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China.
These camps aim “to rewire the political thinking of detainees, erase their Islamic beliefs and reshape their very identities … with almost no judicial process or legal paperwork,” the Associated Press reported. “Detainees who most vigorously criticize the people and things they love are rewarded, and those who refuse to do so are punished with solitary confinement, beatings and food deprivation.” According to the BBC, reports of these camps began to appear in 2017.
The Chinese government is interning the Muslim and ethnic Uighur populations in Xinjiang due to “currents of separatism in the region… [and] numerous incidents of violent extremism” attributed to the Uighurs and their religious beliefs, according to NPR. Riots that killed almost 200 people following the deaths of two Uighur migrants in 2009, “more than justified the establishment of camps,” according to Al Jazeera.
Serena Ma, freshman art and illustration major, is from the Henan province in northeast China. “The Chinese government doesn’t want to have religions. They want to have more power,” Ma said. “Also, Chinese culture is more … like a whole family, but if you have lots of religions then people have different beliefs. Then [the nation] will fall apart … That can be dangerous because we all love freedom, but if you train the people [to be] all the same, that’s not a good thing.”
In August 2018, Chinese government officials denied existence of the camps in a meeting with the United Nations, “defending its policies as a humane initiative, saying that it was providing vocational training for Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities, protecting vulnerable populations from the scourge of extremism and generating employment opportunities,” according to the New York Times.
However, Trisha Posey, associate professor of history and director of the Honors Program, said that these camps are not rehabilitating extremists, but imprisoning ordinary individuals: “They’re taking everyday citizens into custody, and … making arguments based on particular attacks that have happened, particularly when we are talking about the Uighur communities, Uighur attacks on the Chinese … If you are of the same ethnic group or same religious background as anyone who has committed an act of extremism, then you must be extreme as well. This logic has allowed them to take hundreds of thousands of people in custody.”
Propaganda films released by the Chinese government masquerade these camps as vocational training schools, showing rows of students, wearing matching uniforms, reciting lessons to a teacher or working on textiles in factories. Graduation certificates state: “these men and women have passed the test to become law-abiding citizens,” according to Al Jazeera.
Looking at historical examples of oppressive regimes, Posey said that the euphemisms, especially involving education, are used frequently. “It’s a common tactic among nations that are carrying out atrocities against their own people—to use coded language or veiled language to talk about what’s going on,” Posey said. “It does not surprise me at all that they’re using the language of re-education because that is what a lot of oppressive regimes do. They talk about educating people into the ideals of the state.”
Elissa Noel, junior history major, sees parallels between the video released by the Chinese government and films she watched in her Holocaust course last semester.
Inside the camps, persecution does not stop with denouncing one’s religion. Mihrigul Tursun, was arrested twice, once after one of her infant children died. She was imprisoned with 60 other women for three months, according to CBS News, and they were “forced to take unknown medication, including pills that made them faint and a white liquid that caused bleeding in some women and loss of menstruation in others,” leading to the deaths of nine women.
The BBC spoke with 29-year-old Ablet Tursun Tohti, who experienced imprisonment in southern Xinjiang for one month. Ablet told BBC, “There was a special room to punish those who didn’t run fast enough. There were two men there, one to beat with a belt, the other just to kick. We sang the song called ‘Without the Communist Party There Can Be No New China.’ And they taught us laws. If you couldn’t recite them in the correct way, you’d be beaten.”
“I could see some similarities to the camps that we learned about in the Holocaust class,” Noel said. “They were forced to do physical exercises every day and, if you didn’t do them well, you would be beaten. Some guards in those camps didn’t like if you sang Jewish songs. If you were going to sing, you had to sing German-approved songs.”
The camps possess elements similar to past mass atrocities, but these human rights abuses do not fit the definition of genocide. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, enforced in 1998 after the Rwandan genocide, defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” including “killing members of the group” and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
“The Rome Statue strongly focuses on genocide and so it’s very difficult to see how the Rome Statue can be invoked in this situation,” Posey said. “Really, the only option is for the UN to decide that they want to take action because this technically does not fit the definition.”
“Historically, we can look back and see steps that led to genocide and, in the case of the Uighurs in particular, what is interesting is that it is not just dissidence and it’s not just those who have engaged in acts against the state that have been arrested. It’s members of the entire population,” Posey said.
“Does that mean there will be a genocide? It’s hard to tell. But what is clear is that the Uighurs are being targeted specifically because of their ethnic and religious identity. That never bodes well for a future of a people in any particular state,” Posey said. “By all means, we as an international community have to be paying attention to this and considering a response before it goes any farther because history has shown that if we don’t act then it will get worse.”
The impact of forced labor within the camps is leading many nations to evaluate their trade relations and imports. One United States company, Badger Sportswear, cut ties with a factory based in one of the camps and removed the clothing from their inventory in early January, according to Time.
In November 2018, the United States Congress introduced companion bills with bipartisan support, calling “for the secretary of state to consider invoking the Global Magnitsky Act to impose economic sanctions on Chinese officials … [and] ask[ing] the commerce secretary to consider prohibiting the sale or provision of any American-made goods or services to state agencies in Xinjiang,” among other measures, according to The New York Times. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations in the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Committees on Intelligence and the Judiciary in the House.
Lack of awareness about the camps among Americans can be attributed to many causes, said Noel. “There’s a lot of stuff going on with our country and Muslims and refugees. People want to hear what they want to hear. Some people are more concerned about what’s going on in our country so why should we care about what’s going on in others,” Noel said. “I guess the reason why no one’s really hearing about it is because it’s not some loud, brazen attack. It’s something that’s quiet, secretive, covert … It happened behind us without us even knowing.”