By Gavin Jolly
“All of my Uyghur sources are gone,” said James Palmer, an editor at Foreign Policy, at a recent event, before breaking down in tears. The ethnic cleansing taking place in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China is occurring at staggering scale and pace, with UN in August citing reports that suggested that the government has detained at least 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim-minorities in rapidly-expanding detention centres, and a report by the Chinese Human Rights Defenders putting the number at 2-3 million. The Jamestown Foundation found that security spending on such camps increased by 213% between 2016 and 2017 – an increase of nearly 20 billion yuan (3.8 billion CAD). The same report, released on November 5, also documented a decrease in spending on vocational programs, even as China moved to legitimize its actions in Xinjiang through legislation under the guise of counter-terror “re-education” in October. Satellite images suggest continued growth of such centres, with sentinel satellite imagery suggesting rapid expansion of the scale of the operation throughout 2018. Canada, as well as many other western nations, has strongly-condemned the human-rights violations. China is undeterred.
Xinjiang is China’s largest region, and has long had a contentious relationship with Beijing. Independent during much of the 1940s, the Communist Party re-incorporated the region in 1949. As XUAR has developed economically, immigration by Han Chinese has increased. The Muslim Uyghur people who call Xinjiang home now make up around eight million of its total population of 19 million people. Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been historically discriminated against by the Han Chinese in XUAR, and contemporary independence movements have been prominent since the 1990s, resulting in occasional violence. Over the past few years China has systematized anti-Uyghur discrimination on a massive scale through authoritarian and violent judicial and extra-judicial action that has included mass internment and thus far amounted to at least a cultural genocide.
Chen Quanguo’s Crusade
The crisis in Xinjiang has been intensifying since the appointment of Chen Quanguo as the regional Communist Party Secretary General two years ago, a post he had previously occupied in the also nominally autonomous region of Tibet. Under Chen’s leadership there have been bans placed on wearing veils in public, long beards, Islamic naming of children, refusing to watch state television, refusing one’s child enrollment in public schools, disobeying family-management policies, practicing Islam as a government official, and marrying using solely religious practices. Schoolchildren are mandated to dress in camouflage; merchants in markets must wear bulletproof vests and helmets; passports are confiscated. For a year after Chen’s appointment there were daily military parades. Now, order is ensured through spying phone apps, as well as compulsory phone checks and near-constant public surveillance, including through biometric identification measures and DNA collection. This is the backdrop for a massive program of abduction, extrajudicial detention, murder, and torture.
The internment camps throughout Xinjiang are an enormous, and, until recently, secret, project. Since October, however, China has stopped denying the project, after legislation defining the camps as re-educational centres for the purpose of counter-terrorism. Xinjiang’s governor has referred to the centres as “boarding schools” where students “realise how colourful life can be”. The reality, though, is that they far more resemble death camps than schools. A US Congressional Report included the following with regards to the internment camps: “Reports indicate that this may be the largest incarceration of an ethnic minority population since World War II”. Public records show Chinese authorities have purchased hundreds of cattle prods and thousands of pairs of handcuffs for use in the camps, and ex-detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other institutions report torture and pervasive brainwashing. This brainwashing predominantly takes the form of forced recitation of Communist Party propaganda, with refusal to do so resulting in harsh punishment. Punishment includes solitary confinement and torture devices. A BBC report attests to poor sanitary conditions, including denial of access to bathrooms at night for detainees; Bloomberg reports that Muslim prisoners are forced to drink alcohol and write self-criticisms. Detainees cannot leave the camps until they are deemed loyal subjects of the state. HRW reports that it is not uncommon for Uyghur families to have half of their immediate members in either internment camps, pre-trial detention, or prison. Whether they ever return is a question yet to be answered for most of these families. A full picture of the realities of the camps cannot be assembled, however, as press is barred from even getting near them.
An Official Justification
On October 9, 2018, the XUAR government revised Article 33 to codify its internment camps as re-educational institutions, intended, in part, to “carry out anti-extremist ideological education”. It signified an institutionalization of a supposedly anti-terrorist crackdown that has been escalating since what many point to as pivotal moment: a 2013 attack in Tiananmen Square by Uyghurs that killed two people. The event was a catalyst for a government crackdown that intensified under Chen Quanguo’s leadership of the region and provided a justification for the large-scale human rights violations that have ensued. The anti-terror justification, however, is emblematic of cultural and racial tensions that have historically persisted throughout Xinjiang’s uneasy coexistence with China and the Han Chinese. Anti-Han independence movements have been increasing in prevalence since the 1990s, and conflict regarding the Muslim beliefs of the Uyghur have not disappeared since the end of the mandated atheism of the Cultural Revolution. Another possible factor in the crackdown is President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, an investment and infrastructure program meant to project Chinese power on the world stage with projects throughout the historical Silk Road. Xinjiang would sit in the heart of this project.
What Comes Next?
The ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide in the region may be a Machiavellian means to an end: a method to ensure a quashing of separatist ideology and any resistance to Communist Party rule of the region. The chilling question that follows is this: will China’s government find it easier, ultimately, to turn to genocide to accomplish its goals? And, if they begin to, can they be stopped? China is, by near-unanimous agreement, the second most powerful state in the world and a rising power. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it has veto power over international tools of resistance against crimes against humanity. Regardless of its ultimate ends, China’s actions in Xinjiang show no signs of slowing down. And every day the prospect of genocide grows less and less abstract.