The U.S. has called on China to “end their counterproductive policies” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and urged Beijing to release the estimated hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs who are arbitrarily detained there in “political re-education camps” and jails.
At a press briefing on Thursday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that Washington is “increasingly concerned about excessive restrictions on freedom of religion and freedom of beliefs in China,” as well as the country’s “efforts to pressure other governments into forcibly returning Uyghurs to China or to coerce family members.”
She also expressed alarm over “widespread detentions and the unprecedented levels of surveillance” in the XUAR, where Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” views have been jailed or detained in political re-education camps throughout the region since April last year.
China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of 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.
Among those in custody are dozens of family members of six RFA Uyghur Service reporters, and Nauert specifically referenced their cases Thursday, reassuring the journalists that the U.S. “will continue to raise our deep concerns with the Chinese government” on their behalf.
“We call on China to end their counterproductive policies and … free all of those who have been arbitrarily detained” in the XUAR, she said.
Nauert noted that Laura Stone, the acting deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, visited China earlier this week and expressed concerns over the mass detentions in the XUAR she said “paints a disturbing picture” of life in the region, where Uyghurs have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
Speaking to reporters in Beijing on Wednesday, Stone urged Chinese authorities to employ a “more transparent and accountable system” in the XUAR, noting that while a clampdown on the flow of information coming out of the region had made it difficult to determine the number of people detained, it was “at the very least in the tens of thousands.”
Maya Wang of the New York-based Human Rights Watch told The Guardian in January that estimates of XUAR residents who had spent time in the camps went as high as 800,000, while at least one Uyghur exile group estimates that up to 1 million Uyghurs have been detained throughout the region since April 2017, and some Uyghur activists say nearly every Uyghur household has been affected by the campaign.
Stone said that the U.S. is “troubled by the Chinese efforts to clamp down on the legitimate rights of Uyghurs” in the XUAR and pledged to “continue to … call for legitimate due process in the detention of [China’s] citizens.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying dismissed Stone’s comments later that day, saying “people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang live and work in peace and contentment,” and she urged the U.S. to “stop any form of interference in China’s internal affairs or any unjustified criticisms.”
Stone and Nauert’s comments are the latest to condemn China for its policies in the XUAR and follow a letter earlier this month published by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), led by Senator Marco Rubio, which urged U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad to visit the region with the aim of investigating claims of “mass surveillance and detention” of Uyghurs.
In the April 3 letter, Rubio and U.S. Representative Chris Smith—the co-chair of the CECC—called the camp network in the XUAR “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today” and asked Branstad to determine whether Washington should level sanctions against those responsible for the policies under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
‘Deteriorating rights situation’
On Friday, Omer Kanat, chairman of the executive commission of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, applauded the U.S. State Department for “bringing attention to the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in East Turkestan,” using the name preferred by many ethnic Uyghurs for their historic homeland.
He also thanked U.S. officials for “highlighting the collective punishment of the family members of Uyghurs who bring these issues to light, such as the staff members of Radio Free Asia.”
“Acting deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Laura Stone is correct to point out that the Chinese government lacks transparency and accountability,” he said.
“Uyghurs are being sent to camps in massive numbers, but the Chinese government is attempting to hide this obvious fact by refusing to address the issue and preventing government and non-government delegations and independent journalists from investigating the situation.”
He urged the U.S. to “push back against these falsehoods” and show Beijing that “the world is not ignoring the situation.”
“No country can afford to ignore what is happening in East Turkestan, as the most extreme of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese authorities—the securitization of East Turkestan and mistreatment of Uyghurs—is a disturbing sign of the direction in which the Chinese government is headed, and should affect its relations with the rest of the world,” Kanat said.
Also on Friday, the State Department issued its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, in which it said official repression of the freedoms of speech, religion, movement, association, and assembly of Uyghurs in the XUAR and Tibetans in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) “worsened and were more severe than in other areas of the country” in 2017.
Officials in the XUAR “imposed new regulations, increased severely repressive security measures, and subjected individuals engaged in peaceful expression of political and religious views to arbitrary arrest, detention harassment, and expedited judicial procedures without due process in the name of combatting terrorism and extremism,” the report said.
The State Department noted that many of the Uyghurs who disappeared in the XUAR in 2017 had been detained after returning home from studying abroad, that Uyghurs reported great difficulty in getting passports, and that they also faced restrictions on movement within the XUAR itself.
“Uighurs and other religious minorities continued to be sentenced to long prison terms and in some cases executed without due process on charges of separatism and endangering state security,” the report said.
Since XUAR party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to his post in August 2016, he has initiated unprecedented repressive measures against the Uyghur people and ideological purges against so-called “two-faced” Uyghur officials—a term applied by the government to Uyghurs who do not willingly follow directives and exhibit signs of “disloyalty.”
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in the XUAR, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service and Joshua Lipes. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.