About one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities are now detained in so-called re-education camps in northwestern China, according to United Nations information – a tenth of Xinjiang's Uighur population. This week, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published secret Chinese government documents explicitly describing the official policies behind the camps.
So far, Beijing had claimed that the camps are "vocational training centers" where the stay is voluntary. Along with government documents just released by The New York Times, the China Cables show the extent of the state repressive apparatus in the Xinjiang region. The most important questions and answers.
Who are the Uighurs?
The Uighurs are a Turkic, majority Muslim minority from China who speak their own Turkish language. They have been located in the mineral rich Xinjiang Autonomous Region in northwest China for more than a thousand years. It is estimated that around 11 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang. Smaller groups are distributed throughout Central Asia.
The Uighurs adopted Islam after coming into contact with Muslim traders. They have their own cultural traditions and customs and in the past have always sought independence from China. As an ethnic minority, they have long experienced economic disadvantages and political discrimination.
The region of Xinjiang is enormously important for Beijing: the "New Silk Road", the mega-project of the Chinese leadership, which is supposed to connect Asia with Europe via the Middle East, leads along here. For some years now, China, which has formally controlled the region since the 18th century, attempts to assimilate Uighurs by banning Muslim customs and destroying cultural and historical sites.
What is the Chinese leadership accusing the Uighurs?
Repression of the Chinese leadership against the Muslim minority in the country has been getting tougher since 2017. Beijing accuses the Uighurs of fomenting religious extremism and terror because of their isolated attacks and classifies them as enemies of the state, who prevent the building of a "harmonious society".
Already some 70 years ago, the Chinese leadership had started mining natural resources in Xinjiang and advancing industrialization. The economy grew, the standard of living in the province increased – but the resident Uighurs hardly benefit. The immigrant Han Chinese in particular benefited. And so the Uighurs felt discriminated against. In 2009, around 200 people died in Uruguay's riots in Xinjiang, most of them Han Chinese.
Beijing has tightened its "anti-terrorist campaign" since 2014 after rioting with dead people. In the beginning of 2017, the government launched the "becoming family" campaign, in which more than a million inspectors went to the homes of Muslim families to spy on them. Beijing has produced a list of 75 features that claim to be "religious extremism": calls for the "holy war" are considered suspicious, but also if someone "has large supplies of food" or "dumbbells, boxing gloves, cards, Compasses, telescopes, ropes and tents are hoarding for no apparent reason ".
China's leader Xi Jinping seeks to eradicate any ethnic, cultural or religious identity that might oppose loyalty to the Communist Party in his actions in Xinjiang.
What is known about the camps?
Monitoring and repression have been taking place in the remote northwest for some time, but over the past few years Beijing has been building an extremely repressive police state in Xinjiang. The "anti-terrorist struggle" culminated in the construction of probably hundreds of re-education camps. Since 2017, Uighurs have been forced to learn Mandarin and renounce extremist ideas.
Former inmates who have fled to Kazakhstan report being forced into propaganda classes every day, learning songs and legends about communist leaders. Occasionally, former prisoners report torture. Women claim to have suffered sexual violence in the camps. Prisoners should also be forced to do manual labor to work in factories after ideologizing.
The "China Cables" and the New York Times research confirm what people who have escaped from the camps already reported verbally: Beijing has created Orwellian mass surveillance in the Xinjiang region, which includes total social control within the camps, and the occupants, contrary to previous official statements, deprived of their freedom.
The documents also reveal that Beijing monitors Xinjiang's citizens with artificial intelligence and mass arrests for massive data gathering. The China Cables show that citizens are already suspicious of having traveled abroad or merely using a communications app called Zapya, which is equivalent to 1.8 million Uighurs in Xinjiang. Suspected Uighurs are arrested without charge or trial.
How does Beijing react? And how is the international community responding to the revelations?
Beijing calls the "China Cables" "pure invention and fake news". The Guardian said that the camps are an effective tool against terrorism and did not interfere with religious freedom. There has not been a single terrorist incident in the past three years. "Xinjiang will become a prosperous, beautiful and peaceful region again." Beijing had long denied that the camps in Xinjiang existed at all.
In October 2019, the US imposed sanctions on 28 Chinese institutions and people involved in the repression in Xinjiang – including blacklisted Chinese video surveillance companies.
German Siemens AG, on the other hand, continues to work with Chinese companies associated with surveillance. Germany and 22 other countries have criticized China's mass arrest program in Xinjiang in October at the United Nations.