Xinjiang: A summary of China’s concentration camps

On November 6, in Geneva, the United Nations Human Rights Committee reviewed China’s human rights situation. 17 countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the UK and the US, questioned China on its repression of ethnic minorities in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and called on China to close down its ethno-religion oriented detention camps.

Xinjiang, “New Territory” in Chinese, is home to 24 million people. It has long been a troubled region in northwestern China. The majority of the 24 million are of Turkic ethnicities such as the Uighur (or Uyghur), Kazakh and Kyrgyz. The region, also known as Chinese or East Turkestan, is rich in natural resources. It is also a strategic gateway to many of China’s neighbors and partners in Central Asia – all the more so with China’s “Belt and Road” initiative.

The region has witnessed Chinese influence for more than 2000 years, subject from time to time to Chinese protectorate control. It came under Mongol rule during the Mongol conquests and became an official part of China after being conquered by Qing, the last imperial dynasty of China. Xinjiang saw independence movements in the 1930s and 40s but remained under the rule of Kuomintang’s Republic of China. It became part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after Kuomintang was ousted to Taiwan, and the Chinese Communists sent troops into Xinjiang in 1949.

The official narrative of PRC has been that Xinjiang has been an “inseparable” part of China “since ancient times” and Uighurs and other Xinjiang ethnicities are Chinese. However, both the Han-centric Chinese government and the Han majority has treated them with mistrust as somehow foreign and non-Chinese, if not uncivilized and inferior.

Security measures intensified in the early 2010s

Following the deadly July 5 Incident in Urumqi in 2009, the Chinese government has tightened its grip on XUAR. Security measures intensified after several attacks in the early 2010s, which the PRC declared terrorist. Since 2014, under a campaign against the so-called “three forces”, namely “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism”, China has been sending allegedly active and potential “terrorists” and “extremists” to re-education camps or detention centers.

Armed police patrol the streets. People have to stop every now and then in the streets to go through security and ID checks. Surveillance cameras are ubiquitous. Mosques, imams and scholars of Turkic-Muslim background are closely monitored. Movement within and out of the region have become more and more restricted, and so has traveling abroad, as passports for Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities are ever more difficult to obtain.

Measures have been ramped up further since 2016 when Chen Quanguo became the new party secretary for XUAR.

Public spending in Xinjiang on security, detention facilities and the judiciary sky-rocketed from 2016 to 2017, with several specific regions at an even higher rate, found Adrian Zenz, a researcher on China at the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Germany.

Authorities have stationed more security checkpoints and intensified police patrol in the streets. More surveillance cameras, this time equipped with the new facial recognition technology, have been installed in the streets. Phone calls, messages, and any internet activity are now closely monitored and recorded. Public security organs have forced ethnic minority residents to have their DNA and other biological data collected and to install surveillance applications on their mobile phones.

A continuous and discrete monitoring

Authorities have appointed “informants” among people to tell on their neighbors, colleagues, friends and even family. They also imposed a grading system on Xinjiang residents based on ethnicity, religion and other personal information. Minorities, practicing Muslims and those who have been abroad or have relatives or contacts overseas score lower by default. The lower the score, the less trustworthy and the more dangerous the individual is in the eyes of PRC – and the more prone to surveillance and detention one is.

Though the XUAR authorities have not officially banned the language and culture of the Uighur, Kazakh, and other non-Han ethnicities, they have effectively made using ethnic languages and practicing ethnic culture incriminatory – disloyal and yet to be “Sinicized”.

Under the 2017 XUAR counter-extremism law, any action that does not satisfy the authorities can be arbitrarily categorized under “showing signs of extremism”, an ambiguous blanket term, or as many in China say, a “pocket crime”.

Chinese laws are notorious for their “pocket crimes”, which are intentionally ambiguous, exploited to trump up charges against people or behaviors the government dislikes. The most infamous one is “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, which Beijing has often exploited to convict dissidents.

With the counter-extremism law in place, the Chinese government has also legitimized its ban on hijabs, long skirts and even beards in Xinjiang, seeing them as signs of religious extremism. For the same reason, it has also clamped down on any display and practice of the Islamic faith. In a place where majority is Muslim, mosques are now lifeless and nearly empty.

A sign of reluctance to comply with the local authorities or even a misstep out of negligence could be seen as a “sign of extremism”.

Being detained in an internment camp

Tanner Greer, a researcher on East Asian strategic thoughts, summarized 48 ways to get detained in a Xinjiang internment camp, from reports, interviews with ex-detainees and governmental documents. Most of the “48 ways” are what people would consider human, normal or even trivial. Showing grief publicly after losing a parent, or abstaining from tobacco or alcohol, for example, qualifies for detention.

Experience, relatives or contacts abroad – seen as signs of disloyalty – are well enough to put you inside a re-education camp. In fact, many of those who have been overseas were tricked into coming back or came back because the authorities threatened to throw their family into camps. Upon their return, however, the authorities incarcerate them and their family.

None of the Detainees have been charged, tried or convicted of any legitimate offense. In the re-education camps, individuals are forced to undergo political indoctrination, learn Chinese and political songs and denounce their language, culture, and faith. Survivors recount the camps’ deplorable living conditions and torture.

UN reports estimates at least one million are being held. That is about 10% of the Uighur population in Xinjiang.

Before his appointment to XUAR, Chen Quanguo was the party chief in Tibet, where he imposed his notorious hard-line rule on the Tibetans, another repressed ethnic group in China. Chen’s measures included political indoctrination, re-education camps, forced relocation and oppression of the local identity, culture and language.

It is apparent that Chen has brought his iron clad with him to Xinjiang.

Last month, October 9, 2018, the Standing Committee of XUAR People’s Congress, the regional legislature, passed an amendment to the 2017 Counter-Extremism Law. The amendment officially made re-education camps, or, in the words of Beijing, “education-transformation centers” and “vocational training centers”, legal counter-extremism measures and a duty for local governments.

The amendment is effective immediately upon announcement.

Cover picture. 2008 Summer Olympics Protests for the defense of Human Rights in China. Credit : Tea Rose.

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