The mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) “has nothing to do with terrorism,” and is part of a war Beijing is waging on religion, according to Washington’s counter-terrorism czar.
In an interview with RFA’s Uyghur Service, Ambassador Nathan Sales, the U.S. State Department’s Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, dismissed China’s claims that its vast network of internment camps in the region—where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.5 million people since April 2017—is part of a vocational training program that is saving those influenced by religious extremism.
“In addition to the people who are in custody and these forced labor camps there are millions more who are subjected to political re-indoctrination in daytime facilities,” he said.
“The scope of this campaign is so vast and so untargeted that it simply has nothing to do with terrorism. Instead, what's going on is the Chinese Communist Party is waging war on religion. It is trying to stamp out the ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious identities of the people that it’s been targeting.”
Sales also rejected statements from Beijing recently reiterated at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva by XUAR vice governor Erkin Tuniyaz that internment camps in the region had allowed detainees to “gain access to modern knowledge and enhance their employability.”
“You don't need to send people who have jobs to vocational training centers,” he said.
“Again, the scope of the detentions and the scope of the measures that have been applied to people outside the camps is simply so vast and overwhelming that it belies any claim that this is counter-terrorism or a targeted job training program. It’s repression, plain and simple.”
Regardless, he added, counter-terrorism cannot be used as a pretext for advancing what he called “a domestic agenda of political or religious or ethnic repression,” and said the U.S. is “deeply concerned” by the Chinese government’s “misuse” of the issue to achieve its goals in the XUAR.
Sales stressed that the mass detentions and restrictions on religion in the region are only part of a larger attack by Beijing on an entire culture.
Specifically, he highlighted reports of children of detainees being placed in state-run orphanages, where they are taught only Chinese, regularly have their names changed, and are “effectively being separated from the cultural and linguistic heritage … from which they come,” as an example of how authorities hope to force Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the XUAR to assimilate into Han Chinese culture.
Holding China accountable
While the U.S. Congress debates three pieces of legislation aimed at holding China accountable for its actions in the region, Sales vowed that Washington will continue to bring public pressure against Beijing to convey its view that “this is not counter-terrorism, but repression.”
“Rest assured, this issue has the attention of the highest levels of our government, and we’re going to continue to focus on it,” he said.
He also urged governments representing Muslim-majority nations to “speak out for members of their religion who are being targeted because of their religion” and to call on the Communist Party to “stop this war on faith.”
And he advised Beijing that it is not too late to reverse its policies in the region, and honor the fundamental rights and freedoms of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities guaranteed by China’s constitution and regional ethnic autonomy laws.
“Stop. Close the camps. Release the prisoners. Dismantle the surveillance state that keeps track of people outside the camps,” Sales said.
“Return the children to their families so that they can be brought into the culture and religious traditions that they hold dear,” he added.
“Every nation has the right and the responsibility to defend itself and its citizens from actual terrorism. That's not what's going on here. This is an ugly campaign of religious and ethnic repression.”
Following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001, the U.S. captured nearly two dozen Uyghurs in Afghanistan, sent them to its military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and accused them of ties to al Qaeda and the Taliban Muslim insurgency groups as part of a Uyghur group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
On Sept. 3, 2003, the U.S. placed ETIM on the Treasury Department’s list of terrorist organizations, but by the end of the year determined that the Guantanamo detainees were not security risks and eventually allowed all of them to be resettled to third countries, where they were not at risk of persecution by the Chinese government.
In 2009, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. government had failed to present sufficient evidence that ETIM was linked to either Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and while the group remains on the Treasury Department’s terror list, there is little to suggest that it has made significant inroads in China, nor that what limited amount of Uyghur radicalization exists in the country presents a significant security risk.
Asked about current thinking on the ETIM designation, Sales declined to comment.
“What I can tell you is that today the United States is deeply concerned about the misuse of counter-terrorism by the Communist Party of China to initiate and sustain a years-long campaign against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities,” he said.
RFA’s interview with Sales comes weeks after Vladimir Voronkov, the United Nations’ under-secretary general for counter-terrorism, traveled to the XUAR on an official visit, drawing condemnation from Washington, which said the trip risks lending credence to China’s claims that detentions in the region are related to a counter-terrorism issue, rather than a violation of human rights.
The U.S.—which stopped attending the Human Rights Council last year after alleging that the forum is biased against Israel—recently called Tuniyaz’s appearance at the session “an embarrassment” to the U.N. for providing “a representative of one of the world’s worst human rights abusers a platform for propaganda.”
Last month, after China’s ambassador to the U.N. invited its human rights czar Michelle Bachelet to visit the XUAR to “see for herself” what he called “education training centers” in the region, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) told RFA that she would not accept unless given access to the camps on her own terms.
If Bachelet accepts a trip to the XUAR, she would become the highest level U.N. official to visit the region.
Reported by Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.