China is now being pressed for allegations of horrific human rights abuse as satellite photos of detention camps with watchtowers and barbed wire fences in Xinjiang, China has been released. In an earlier statement by China, they denied the existence of the camps but have now retracted with a change in narrative expressing that these are vocational centers for “reeducation” to learn job skills and Chinese language and laws. Moreover, China says that this serves as a camp to prevent the spread of infection of extremism and terrorism ideas.
Xinjiang is home to 11 million Uigurs and other Turkic Muslims. According to a published article by CNN and information from PBS NewsHour, one million have been detained in a network of internment camps (a total of 85 camps spread all over the province of Xinjiang) since 2017.
Aside from the satellite photos, there were also leaked documents regarding procurement of spike clubs (a one handed blunt weapon) and internal documents that said “allow no escapes”. There were also gathered testimonies from detainees and their families and relatives who are now too desperate to fear the consequences of divulging the truth about these camps.
Individuals were sent into the camp even for the modest expression of belief. Other reasons include wearing a veil, growing a long beard, or with something as menial as failing to pay the bills. In an interview by CNN with former detainees, they recounted how interned individuals were subjected to political indoctrination and various forms of physical abuse and torture. Since the majority identify as Muslims, they were forced to eat pork which is forbidden in their religion. There were also instances of food and sleep deprivation, forced injections, and even rape. There were also reports of forced IUDs which slash the camp’s birth rates in what is now dubbed as “demographic genocide”. The worst? Deaths.
Those who have been “freed” from the camp were either forced into a long term prison sentence or transferred to factories for labour. Even when they get out, they are under 24/7, high technology surveillance termed as Digital Gulag.
What is happening? A film-maker goes undercover inside the Chinese Digital Gulag
A chilling insight of what is happening in Xinjiang is shared through the lens of a filmmaker named “Li” (not his true name) who travelled under the guise of a businessman to see and film the plight of Uigurs.
In accounts, Uigurs have started to go missing since 2017 including those from the neighbouring country Kazakhstan who were only there to visit families and relatives in China. This was the start of the reports of individuals being detained in the so-called re-education centres which have been advertised in films of happy classrooms. Behind the propaganda are horrifying accounts of political indoctrination and physical and emotional abuse.
Uigurs had already been suffering but with the rise in power of President Xi Jinping in 2012, they tasted more hardships. Way back in July 2009, a series of violent riots broke out in Ürümqi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), in Northwestern China. The first day of rioting started only as a protest with 1,000 Uigurs but suddenly escalated into violent attacks targeting Han people. China’s People’s Armed Police were deployed to subdue the riots but turned into a clash among the police, the Han, and the Uigurs. The end of the riots resulted in the deaths of 197 people most of whom were Han, 1,721 injured, and vehicles and buildings destroyed.
When the riots began during that time, telephone and internet connections were instantly cut off and in the weeks that followed official sources reported that over a thousand Uigurs were arrested and detained while Uigur-run mosques were temporarily closed. And even with the end of the unrest, communication lines were still limited and the presence of armed police remained in place. By November 2009, over 400 individuals faced criminal challenges, 9 were executed and by 2010, at least 26 had received the death sentence. The Chinese media had exposed this story comparable to the 2008 unrest in Tibet.
These riots had led Xi Jinping to appoint a key pacifier who had experience in subduing Tibet to launch the Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism in 2014. This is in part to resolve and control the unrest in the “ethnically diverse and tumultuous” province of Xinjiang. A significant element of this campaign is the imprisonment of a million Uigurs in “re-education” camps.
The Strike Hard Campaign is also combined with China’s resolve to lead in terms of technological innovation which resulted in the “surveillance regime nonpareil” as described by Suzi Feay in an article she wrote featuring “Li” in Financial Times.
Li’s footage exposed the destruction of dozens of Islamic sites as well as the beautiful traditional houses that adorned Urumqi. Houses that remained were installed with barcodes on their doors scannable by police. Uigurs were also forced to accommodate Han Chinese spies as “home guests” under the guise of a cultural exchange. They are also required to install a surveillance app on their phones to scan and record faces and voices.
In 2019, in a coverage by CNN, they noticed the vast surveillance system threading the city with survey cams every 150ft to monitor people and their routines and read body and facial expressions to classify whether they’re “normal, of concern, or dangerous”. Random checkpoints were placed around the city and on the streets requiring people to hand over their IDs and phones for scanning without question.
Greg Walton, a cybersecurity expert, has expressed his horror at this scene in China which he described as a “massive setback to human freedom with the advanced, predictive algorithmic surveillance” being tested on Uigurs “like mice as an official chillingly state[s]”.
Background: Who are the Uigurs and their cultural and religious identity linked to their Islamization
Uigurs have a complex cultural and religious identity stemming from their different origins which scholars have not yet fully mapped out. More importantly the contentions lie between the Uighur historians and Chinese scholars.
But here is what we know about Uigurs.
They are a Turk speaking ethnic minority originally from and culturally affiliated in Central and East Asia. They are now widely spread over China, neighboring Turkic Countries, as well in small communities in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Australia, Russia and Sweden.They are believed to have largely originated with the fall of the Uyghur Khaganate in 842 although some scholars dispute that they are direct descendants. Nevertheless, this has caused the migration of Uigurs from Mongolia to the Tarim Basin.
In most accounts, they are known for traditionally inhabiting the series of oases across Taklamakan Desert found within the Tarim Basin which have historically existed as independent states controlled by various civilizations like China, Mongol, Tibet, and Turkic polities.
Today, they represent 0.31% of the total population of China although even this demographic percentage is still under contention with some claiming that they only constitute 12 million in population quantity, half of Xinjiang’s total population count. Some contests that Uigurs in China account for more than 20 or 35 million.
They are native to the Xinjiang province of China where its largest community also rests but there is also an estimated count of 5,000 to 10,000 Uigurs residing in Taoyuan County, North Central Hunan.
In terms of religious identity, Uigurs practised Shamanism, Tengrism, and Zoroastrianism. But the majority of the Uigurs today identify as Muslims (Sunni Muslims, in general). Its history on Islamization started in the tenth century. During this time, “the Karluks, Yagmas, Chigils and other Turkic tribes founded the Kara-Khanid Khanate in Semirechye, Western Tian Shan, and Kashgaria and later conquered Transoxiana. The Karakhanid rulers were likely to be Yaghmas who were associated with the Toquz Oghuz and some historians therefore see this as a link between the Karakhanid and the Uyghurs of the Uyghur Khaganate, although this connection is disputed by others.”
Beginning with Sultan Satuq Bhugra, The Karakhanids were the first to convert to Islam and this was considered a significant part of Uigur history; however, the Islamization at the Tarim Basin did not happen as fast and had to undergo a gradual progress. By the 11th century, there was a shift from Islam to Buddhism with the conquer of the Indo-Iranian Saka Buddhist Kingdom of Khotan by the Turkic Muslim Karakhanids from Kashgar. Uighur Qocho remained predominantly Buddhist until the late 15th century and conversion of the Uyghur people to Islam was only completed by the 17th century.
Uigur is the second largest predominantly Muslim ethnicity in China after the Hui and though they identify with the Sunni sect, the level of religious observance depended on the region. In general, Muslims in the southern region particularly Kashgar are more conservative and women wore veils; however, this was banned in some cities since 2014 and especially outlawed in all public spaces in Xinjiang. The ban went into effect coincidentally with the World Hijab Day and has empowered Chinese police to punish violators or to dole out fines up to $800 to those who will continue to rebel against the ban.
According to officials, the veil comes as a security restriction as it prevents security personnel from identifying veiled individuals. But this ban came in attempt to regain stability and control over Xinjiang and stripping women of their veils, which are very important in their religious identity, provided the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to an article by James Leibold and Timothy Grose as a “rare measure of what it sees as progress in the struggle against Islamic extremism in this far western region of China.”
Among Muslims, there is also an observed split between the Uighurs and the Huis residing in Xinjiang as they worship in different mosques. The Uigurs are also generally persecuted by the Chinese government evidenced by its discouragement of any religious worship. In a 2020 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Chinese authorities have destroyed and damaged around 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang.
The culture of Uigurs is largely interwoven with their Islamization. Notably, there are also other major influences but Islam plays a significant part especially in their language and literature.
The ancient people who resided in the Tarim Basin, including Uighurs, originally spoke different languages such as Tocharian, Saka (Khotanese), and Gandhari. It was in the 9th century that Turkic people moved into the region bringing with them their language which gradually supplanted the original spoken languages of the local inhabitants.
In the 11th century, Mahmud al-Kashgari, a Kara-Khanid scholar and lexicographer of the Turkic languages from Kashgar, noted that the Uighurs generally spoke Turkic language though they also had another language among themselves and two additional different scripts.
The modern Uighur language is classified under the Karluk branch of the Turkic language and closely related to Äynu, Lop, Ili Turki and Chagatay (the East Karluk languages). They also have adopted a number of scripts for their language including the Arabic script known as the Chagatay alphabet. This was adopted along with Islam. The 20th century politics has led to numerous reforms of the script.
In the 1990s, many Uighurs in Xinjiang were not able to speak Mandarin Chinese.
There is also the literature of the Uighurs. The most important literary traditions considered by modern Uighurs are the literature of the Kara-Khanid period and among which are Islamic religious texts and histories of Turkic peoples. Also, the modern Uighur religious literature include the Taẕkirah, biographies of Islamic religious figures and saints.
Why are the Uigurs targeted?
Majority of the population of Uighur are found in Xinjiang or in complete terms, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in the far western side of China. Uighurs used to be the predominant community in Xinjiang but with the influx of Han Chinese in the area has pushed them into the southern and rural parts of Xinjiang and now only constitutes half of the Xinjiang population.
During the 1930s and the 1940s, Uighurs experienced brief periods of partial independence when two breakaway East Turkestan Republics were declared and put down. The First East Turkestan Republic was founded in November 1933 and was a short-lived breakaway Islamic Republic centered in Kashgar. But it came to an end a year later with the sacking of Kashgar by Hui warlords who were nominally allied with the Kuomintang government in Nanjing. A decade later, the Second Eastern Turkestan Republic was founded and was a short-lived Soviet-backed Turkic Republic. This existed starting 1944 but was ultimately dissolved by 1949 as Xinjiang was finally annexed to China.
Today, the establishment of these two Eastern Turkestan Republics still motivates the pushing of Uighur activists to make Xinjiang as a separate country which would still be called as Eastern Turkestan.
Aside from that, Uighur is also accused of extremist and separatist views threatening national security. In 2013, the radical Islamist group namely the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) claimed responsibility for the attack on Tiananmen Square located in the Chinese capital. A four-wheeled vehicle ploughed through a group of pedestrians which eventually crashed into a stone bridge and caught on fire and had killed five people while a dozen more were injured. The Chinese authorities have identified the driver as Uighur.
The 2014 attack inside the Kunming railway station in Kunming, Yunnan, China was also acknowledged by Uighurs. On March 1, 2014, a group of knife wielding terrorists attacked the passengers inside the railway station slashing innocent passengers. The attack resulted in the death of 31 people and 141 more were injured. Eight people organized the attack, four were shot dead at the scene, 3 were sentenced to death, and one was charged with life imprisonment.
Beijing blamed the unrest in the region to the Islamist groups but they responded that it was the repression of religious freedom that has caused the unrest in Xinjiang.
Moreover, it’s not only the violent unrest attributed to Uighurs of Xinjiang that make them a target of the government. Their separatist views with campaigns to be independent from China as East Turkestan spark the issue on geographical location.
Xinjiang lies on the “special economic zone” which is known for its rich natural resources. In fact, Xinjiang is the largest producer of natural gas and is a key part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in 70 countries as well as international organizations.
It is also a geographically strategic location for Beijing and is considered China’s gateway. Xinjiang borders neighboring Turkic countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan. To the north, it borders Mongolia and Russia and finally to the south are Pakistan and India.
Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang have long been targets of discrimination. Particularly, Uigurs still suffer from religious persecution from the Chinese government. The act of incarceration in a network of propaganda re-education camps, singing hymns of praise to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and writing self-criticism essays, is a strategic campaign of the Chinese to strip off Uighurs of their identity and control them.
But with the exposure of the truth behind the barbed wire fences and watchtowers and international leaders and communities rallying against these camps, Uigurs may still have a chance to get back what is theirs.