Political “re-education camps” in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) were “created to wipe out the cultural and religious identity” of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities as part of Beijing’s wider “war with faith,” U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said Friday.
Delivering remarks on religious freedom at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong, Brownback noted that authorities in the XUAR have detained more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslims accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in the camp network since April 2017, often for common religious practices, including praying and attending services.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
On Friday, Brownback suggested that it is time to “call these camps what they are—they’re internment camps created to wipe out the cultural and religious identity of minority communities.”
“Authorities force innocent people into these camps often based primarily on their religious beliefs and ethnic identity ... They are then held for an indeterminate amount of time and subjected to physical and psychological torture, intense political indoctrination, and forced labor.”
Brownback also highlighted repression in the XUAR beyond the camp system, as authorities restrict travel, monitor movement through what he referred to as “a high-tech Orwellian surveillance system,” and banning certain religious practices.
He urged governments to speak out against the abuses in the XUAR, despite China’s economic might, and applauded a rare statement of criticism against Beijing from a majority Muslim nation issued by Turkey in February, urging authorities to close the camps.
“China justifies its use of internment camps and other repressive practices by claiming that it is rooting out terrorism preemptively,” Brownback said.
“But China is not solving a terrorist problem by forcibly moving women, children, the elderly, and the highly educated intelligentsia into mass detention centers and internment camps,” he said.
“Instead, they are creating one. The magnitude of these detentions is completely out of proportion to any real threat China faces from extremism, even according to China’s own official media and police reports.”
According to Brownback, the Chinese government’s actions are intended to ensure that distinct ethnic and religious peoples “are brutally and forcefully controlled.”
“Somehow, men and women of faith are viewed as a threat to the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
“It is clear that China’s misguided and cruel policies in Xinjiang are creating resentment, hatred, division, poverty, and anger.”
'War with faith'
Brownback said that Beijing’s policies in the XUAR were part of the government’s wider “war with faith” in the country, which he warned is “a war they will not win.”
He cited the government’s destruction of houses of worship, imprisonment of unsanctioned religious leaders, and actions to silence dissent, which he said demonstrates its “disregard for the individual dignity of every Chinese citizen.”
The ambassador also cited religious restrictions on both lay people and Buddhist monks and nuns in Tibet that have led 155 Tibetans to self-immolate since the wave of fiery protests against Chinese rule of their homeland began in 2009.
He noted that China amended regulations for religious affairs last year that gave the government more power to control how people worship, and have used the new rules to severely crackdown on Christians in the country.
Following his remarks, Brownback was asked what possible actions U.S. President Donald Trump might take against China over its repressive policies in the XUAR, but he said the administration would not “discuss internal matters.”
The ambassador said he had requested access to camps in the region to investigate reports of abuse, but had been refused.
Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, admonishing the Trump administration for failing to hold Beijing to account for its actions in the XUAR.
In January, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Bob Menendez of New Jersey put forward the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act,” which would dedicate new resources from the U.S. State Department, FBI, and other intelligence agencies to documenting abuse of Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslims in the XUAR, as well as Beijing’s intimidation of U.S. citizens and residents on American soil.
The act calls for “high-level U.S. engagement” on the issue, as well as the application of travel and financial sanctions against Chinese officials who are responsible for the policies in the XUAR under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Rubio and Chris Smith of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China recently called the situation in the XUAR "the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today."
Since 1999, the U.S. has designated China a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.