A humanitarian crisis is ongoing in the Chinese province of Xinjiang under President Xi Jinping. According to several reports, upwards of a million ethnic Muslims, the Uighurs, are detained in prison-like facilities for innocuous charges. The Chinese government claims these camps are for “reeducation” and says it is providing vocational training to curb “extremism and separatism” within Xinjiang. These orders for the imprisonment and “reeducation” of the Uighurs are direct orders from Mr. Xi and the ruling Communist Party.
The central government of China has repeatedly stated that Uighur separatists are waging a violent campaign for an independent state by committing terrorist attacks and creating civil unrest. Since the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the Chinese government has increasingly upped its portrayal of these Uighur separatists as allies of al-Qaeda. The government maintains that they have received training in Afghanistan from al-Qaeda even though very little evidence has been found to support these charges.
Critically, the number of formal arrests and prison sentences has also increased in Xinjiang. According to an analysis by the New York Times, courts sentenced 230,000 people to prison in 2017 and 2018, as the violent campaign against the Uighurs began. Xinjiang accounts for about 2% of the country’s total population but about 21% of all arrests.
In September 2019, footage leaked of hundreds of blindfolded and shackled Uighurs and international outcry began to pour in. Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, described the scene revealed through the drone acquired footage as “deeply disturbing”. This was just an introduction to how the Chinese government was treating its own citizens.
Following this in November was a leak of official documents revealing the severity of the situation for the Uighurs. 403 pages of documents have been shared with the New York Times in a significant leak from within China’s ruling Communist Party. The documents revealed conditions that deprive citizens of their basic human rights.
They provide an inside view of the continuing clampdown on Muslims in Xinjiang, in which the authorities have imprisoned an upwards of one million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities in internment camps over the past three years. Inmates undergo months, in some cases years, of party indoctrination and interrogation. This is aimed at transforming them into loyal and secular supporters of the Communist party.
The released documents also reveal that government officials were instructed to inform returning Xinjiang students that their missing relatives were receiving treatment because of their “radical exposure to Islam.” A particularly disturbing piece was their reference to detainees as receiving “chuzhi” which is a term used within the Communist party to mean punishment. Even further, officials were using a scoring system to determine who can be released and who cannot from within these camps. Students were instructed that their behavior could affect their relative’s scores and informed them they must be loyal party supporters who are active members of Chinese society –essentially forcing them into toeing the Party line in hopes that it would help their imprisoned Uighur relatives.
Ultimately, it is unclear who and how these documents were acquired by the New York Times. The Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom adamantly disputed the documents/reports released on the government’s policies within Xinjiang as “fake news” and “pure fabrication”. On top of this, Beijing also denies any reports on mass detainment of the Uighurs and others within internment camps stating it is providing work-related training programs to combat Islamic extremism.
Another statement was released from the Xinjiang regional government and was far more defiant. It stated that the Times article was “completely fabricated by hostile forces at home and abroad”. It went even further calling the article “total nonsense and a pack of lies, with sinister motives behind it”.
According to Freedom House, In 2018, “Chinese authorities increased the punishment of peaceful religious practices under charges of “religious extremism,” resulting in detention and indoctrination for many Uighur, Kazakh, and Hui Muslims. Among other cases during the year, a prominent scholar of Islam, 82-year-old Muhammad Salih Hajim, died in custody at a reeducation camp in January, about 40 days after he was detained. In September, Radio Free Asia reported that most of his family members were in detention or missing, including his young grandchildren.”
According to Freedom House, China’s aggregate score is 11/100 marking it as “not-free”. China is an authoritarian state and this is proven true throughout this report and the document leak. Under Communist rule, civil rights have never been on the agenda. This is particularly true for minority communities across China and in this case the Uighurs. The Uighurs have always faced heavy oppression under the CCP. This all adds to claims about the true nature of the Chinese government. It is fueled by autocratic tendencies and oppressive censorship. This a playbook often used by authoritarian regimes. The denial of key democratic civil rights for the Uighur citizens of Xinjiang is evidence that China is fully authoritarian.
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“China.” China Country Report, 18 July 2019, freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/china.
Kuo, Lily. “China Footage Reveals Hundreds of Blindfolded and Shackled Prisoners.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 23 Sept. 2019, www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/23/china-footage-reveals-hundreds-of-blindfolded-and-shackled-prisoners-uighur.
Myers, Steven Lee. “China Defends Crackdown on Muslims, and Criticizes Times Article.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Nov. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/11/18/world/asia/china-xinjiang-muslims-leak.html.
Ramzy, Austin, and Chris Buckley. “’Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Nov. 2019, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/16/world/asia/china-xinjiang-documents.html.
“Who Are the Uighurs?” BBC News, BBC, 30 Apr. 2014, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-22278037.