Three Years of Mass Internment in Xinjiang Lead to Diplomatic Woes For China

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uyghur-artush-re-education-camp-dec-2018.jpg A guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around an internment camp in the XUAR's Atush city, Dec. 3, 2018.
AP Photo

Three years after its launch, a campaign of mass incarceration of Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has become a diplomatic headache for China, particularly in its relations with the West, but observers say a more coordinated global approach is needed to hold Beijing to account.

Since April 2017, authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” in some 1,300 internment camps throughout the region.

While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China last year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.

But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets indicate 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.

Amid testimonies from camp survivors and leaks of official documents, Washington has taken the lead on publicly condemning Beijing over its policies in the XUAR, which also include a high-tech surveillance and police state under Communist Party Chairman Chen Quanguo that monitors the region’s minorities and subjects them to systematic persecution and discrimination.

Among those who have called for Beijing to shut down its camp system and end other rights violations in the region are U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and several high-ranking lawmakers.

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate both approved versions of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act in late 2019, which would allow for sanctions against officials, such as Chen, deemed responsible for rights violations in the XUAR under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. The legislation would also target entities involved in the construction and operation of the camps.

The two versions of the act must be reconciled before it can be passed through Congress and sent to U.S. President Donald Trump to be signed into law.

Shifting policy

Amid pressure from the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, the European Union and the United Nations, experts believe that China has begun sentencing those held in internment camps to prison as part of a bid to legitimize their continued detention, or relocating them to factories both inside and outside of the XUAR as forced labor, under the guise of providing them jobs connected to their so-called vocational training.

In a recent statement provided to RFA’s Uyghur Service, a spokesperson from the U.S. State Department reiterated a call for China to “immediately release all those arbitrarily detained Uighurs and Muslim minority groups, and to end its draconian policies that for three years have terrorized these minority communities in Xinjiang.”

“The Chinese government must live up to its own laws as well as its international obligations and commitments related to human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the statement said.

U.S. Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey called the last three years “grim” for Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China and urged Congress to pass the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which he introduced in 2018.

He also called on Congress to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which he introduced last month, and which would prohibit imports from the XUAR to the U.S. unless proof can be shown that they are not linked to forced labor.

In early March, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said that tens of thousands of detainees in the XUAR have been transferred to factories throughout China, where they are forced to produce goods for at least 83 global retailers, including Apple, BMW, The Gap, Nike, Samsung, Sony, and Volkswagen.

“We also need to make sure that no Chinese businesses profit from their crimes,” Smith told RFA.

“There is wide bipartisan support in Congress [for the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act] and I will continue to work until the assault on Uyghur religion, culture and language is finally over.”

Call for greater pressure

Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, welcomed the attention China’s rights violations in the XUAR had received over the past three years, saying it had “become an international issue of global concern, raised at all relevant international bodies, including the United Nations.”

And while he said that China “can no longer hide the existence of this mass detention” due to growing global awareness, he called on the international community to do more to address the problem.

“We have not yet seen any concrete actions on the part of U.N., such as sending a fact-finding mission into East Turkestan to assess the real situation,” he said, using Uyghurs’ preferred name for their homeland.

“To some extent, this is troubling because we can see the nefarious influence of China working at the U.N. level.”

Earlier this month, China was appointed to a seat on the Consultative Group of the U.N. Human Rights Council, despite objections from rights groups, while Beijing has threatened countries at the U.N. that might seek to draw attention to its persecution of Muslims in the XUAR. In October last year, more than 60 countries praised China’s “human rights progress” in the region during the U.N. General Assembly.

Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China Studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and one of the world’s foremost experts on mass incarcerations in the XUAR, called the U.N. “inherently a mechanism of compromise” on the Uyghur and other issues.

“It is a forum for every nation in existence, and many of those have been coopted by China,” he said.

“The Uyghur human rights crisis has exposed the U.N. human rights mechanism as impotent. Its work to eliminate racial discrimination is a hollow façade.”

Meanwhile, he said, beyond sending letters to U.N. entities, the EU and its member states “have not taken any significant steps in regard to the Xinjiang crisis,” while the response from Muslim majority nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) “has been even worse.”

Fallout from the coronavirus is also likely to keep the individual nations in these blocs focused on stopping the spread of the pandemic and economic recovery, rather than the situation in the XUAR, Zenz said.

‘Total social control’

But three years on from the launch of the internment camps, “Xinjiang’s strategy is clearly shifting from a short-term strategy of mass internment to a long-term strategy of total social control” through imprisonment and forced labor, Zenz said, calling Beijing’s approach to the region a “systematic cultural genocide.”

Intellectuals and cultural figureheads have been thrown into prison, while those who are not or no longer interned are “subjected to the state’s unfettered social re-engineering project,” with children sent to full-time boarding schools where they must study in Chinese, women sent to “satellite factories” making garments, and men regularly sent to industrial parks far from home or in other parts of the country.

“Wherever Uyghurs are, they live under the constant surveillance of the state and in perpetual fear of being detained,” he said.

“Population growth rates have plummeted. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders and anxieties that they cannot process. Intergenerational separation, labor exploitation and cultural annihilation are becoming the new normal.”

But Zenz said that despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, “this is not a time to give up.”

“Beijing has maneuvered ethnic relations in Xinjiang into a corner,” he said.

“The consequences of everything that has been done are unfolding as we speak. Every single act of humiliation and abuse continues to affect both perpetrator and victim in some way, with debilitating results,” he added.

“Let us not grow weary in uncovering or speaking truth, because truth has a way of overcoming falsehood, just as love has a way of overcoming hate.”

Reported by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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