Up to 3 million residents of northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), especially ethnic Uyghurs, may have been detained in political “re-education camps” or forced to attend “education sessions” for “de-radicalization” as of June, rights groups said Friday.
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in political re-education camps throughout the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
Advocacy group China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) and a partner NGO, Equal Rights Initiative, said Friday that in the southern XUAR alone some 660,000 rural residents of Uyghur ethnicity may have been detained in the camps, while another up to 1.3 million may have been forced to attend mandatory day or evening re-education sessions in their villages or town centers.
The total number for the XUAR as a whole, including other ethnic minorities and city residents “is certainly higher,” the groups said.
The new data, collected by CHRD and Equal Rights Initiative through interviews with dozens of Uyghur villagers in several counties of Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture between July 2017 and June this year, marks a stunning increase from previous estimates of how many people have been detained in the camps or forced to attend re-education sessions.
Last week, an editorial in the Global Times dismissed international coverage of the re-education camps in the XUAR, which it labeled “training institutes,” saying western media outlets were incorrectly labeling them as “detention” sites and “baselessly criticizing China’s human rights.”
Aside from the brief mention in the article, China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of political re-education camps in the XUAR, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret. But local officials in many parts of the region have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.
Citing credible reports, U.S. lawmakers Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said recently that as many as 500,000 to a million people are or have been detained in the re-education camps, calling it ”the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, said the number “could be closer to 1.1 million, which equates to 10-11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region.”
While conducting research, CHRD and Equal Rights Initiative said that interviewees consistently spoke of their villages and townships as being “eerily empty,” as a result of widespread efforts to round up ethnic minorities for “re-education.”
One source told the groups on condition of anonymity, that “entire villages in Southern Xinjiang have been emptied of young and middle-aged people—all rounded up into ‘re-education’ classes,” and that “only the elderly and the very docile are left.”
Based on their interviews, CHRD and Equal Rights Initiative found that, on average, nearly 13 percent of the residents of any village—which typically has a population of between 1,500 and 3,000–had been detained in re-education camps, and that an average of 450 residents of any village were being forced to attend day/evening re-education sessions.
The groups said that “at least 30 percent of Southern Xinjiang rural Uyghur residents [are] forced into extrajudicial ‘re-education’ programs,” whether detained in camps or forced to attend sessions, based on their findings.
They said that their sample is likely representative of the wider situation for rural areas throughout the greater southern XUAR “considering the Chinese government’s particularly harsh focus on that part of Xinjiang,” noting that the sub-region had become the “frontier” of Beijing’s war on the “three evils” of “terrorism,” “religious extremism,” and “separatism.”
“Using the estimate of 10 percent of residents in the eight villages detained in re-education camps as a guide, we estimate that approximately 240,000 rural residents may be detained in ‘re-education’ centers in Kashgar prefecture, and 660,000 in the larger Southern Xinjiang,” the groups said.
“Similarly, applying the 20 percent estimate of villagers forced to attend day/evening re-education sessions, we estimate that possibly 480,000 rural residents in the Kashgar prefecture, and 1.3 million in the Southern Xinjiang sub-region, may have been forced to attend the day/evening sessions by mid-2018.”
But the groups suggested that the actual numbers “must be higher,” since they do not include estimates of urban residents and of members in other ethnic minorities, in Kashgar or the Southern Xinjiang sub-region.
By applying their data at the local level to all of the XUAR, where more than 11.3 million Uyghurs make up around 48.5 percent of the population, the groups estimated that roughy 30 percent, or 3.3 million, may have been subjected to “re-education,” including about 10 percent, or 1.1 million, in detention camps and about 20 percent, or 2.2 million, in order day/evening re-education sessions.
“We must be cautious in making these global generalizations, given that the government’s ‘de-radicalization’ campaigns are mostly concentrated in Southern Xinjiang,” they said.
“However, reportedly other ethnic minorities (besides the Uyghurs), in both rural and urban areas, and in Southwestern and other parts of Xinjiang, have also been forced to undergo ‘de-radicalization’ re-education, so the numbers may not be inconceivable.”
The groups noted that on Aug. 10 and 13, the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) will examine whether China complies with its convention, and urged the committee to press Beijing to end the detention of ethnic minorities in the XUAR camps, as well as to report on the numbers of individuals held their or forced to attend re-education sessions.
They also called on the U.N. for pressure on China to allow independent monitors into the XUAR to inspect the camps, remove any legal provisions that permit the “de-radicalization” or “re-education” of ethnic populations, and establish an independent mechanism to investigate torture and other forms of ill-treatment in the camps.
Lastly, they suggested that governments in democratic countries use their own human rights tools, such as the U.S. Global Human Rights Accountability Act—known as the “Global Magnitsky” Act—to sanction top Chinese officials responsible for mass extrajudicial incarceration, discriminately targeting Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
Dolkun Isa, the president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, told RFA’s Uyghur Service on Friday that the international community must step up to halt what he called “horrific crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang, which Uyghurs refer to as East Turkestan.
“Sadly, the international community is still silent about China’s atrocities against peaceful Uyghur people. If the world blinks, immense tragedy will surely befall on the Uyghur people,” he said.
“The international community had come together as one after the World War Two to condemn the Holocaust and had pledged ‘Never Again!’—promising that such ethnic cleansing and mass murders based on ethnicity, race and religion never happen again. Yet, we are witnessing the early signs of ethnic cleansing of the Uyghur people in their own homeland by the Chinese government,” added Isa.
Calls for action
Last week, at a Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) hearing in Washington, Ambassador Kelley Currie, a top official at the U.S. United Nations mission, called on the Chinese government to end its repressive policies in Xinjiang and to free all those arbitrarily detained.
Currie said that the Chinese government is attempting to “Sinocise religion” in a campaign, the scope of which she called “breathtaking.”
Commission Chairman Rubio called for U.S. corporations to stop selling China items that can be used for repression, including DNA technologies and video surveillance tools.
And a growing number of lawmakers are urging U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to take action against China for its policies in he XUAR.
“Part of our role in Congress is to … make sure that this doesn’t get lost, that the president and those in the administration understand what is happening,” Senator Randy Hultgren, another member of the CECC, told the British Broadcasting Corporation in a recent interview.
“But we have to do what we can do to make sure that China realizes that we in Congress … are recognizing that what they are doing is wrong and it needs to stop,” he said.
“When they are using these technologies to target religious faiths and persecute people of certain religious faiths not because they are a threat, but somehow they see this faith as a threat, that’s what’s wrong, and that is what goes directly against what China has signed on to with some of these international accords.”
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.