by Aarya Chidambaram
Over 1 million Uighur Muslims have been detained in China across at least 1000 internment camps. They have been subjected to torture, indoctrination, and surveillance in such centers. The New York Times estimates that another two million Muslims have endured some form of “coercive re-education or indoctrination.” Tear-gas, armed guards, and waterboarding are common tactics.
These camps are just one tool of the Chinese government’s systematic oppression of the Uighur people. In recent years, Beijing has released a “list of forbidden names,” which includes a large number of Islamic names, as they’ve been deemed “extremist.” Communication between Uighurs and relatives abroad has been cut—those who attempt to contact family outside of the country are punished. Citizens must watch state-sponsored television, and children are required to attend government schools. Police have confiscated phones and passports. In Karamay, Xinjiang, those donning “long beards, headscarves, veils and clothing with an Islamic crescent moon and star,” were banned from using public buses while the city hosted a sports event. Another local government has promoted “Project Beauty,” a campaign to encourage Uighur women to remove their headscarves so to show their “pretty faces,” and led their “beautiful hair fly in the wind.”
The Uighur, a religious and ethnic minority in China, have a long history of resistance against central Chinese authority. They primarily live in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the West of China. It was not until the 19th century that this region was brought under Chinese rule, and its relationship with Beijing has been turbulent since. The Turkish speaking Uighurs comprise almost half of Xinjiang’s population, which is home to a wide array of ethnic minorities. Following a temporary declaration of independence in 1993, there were a series of deadly protests in 2009 in response to the murder of two Uighurs. 2014 showed a peak in anti-government resistance, after which, Beijing began to implement a series of crackdowns.
The UN and other human rights agencies have attempted to close such camps, but to no avail. In fact, local and federal governments are pouring millions into extensive security measures, including greater police presence, the construction of more detention centers, and the implementation of more advanced surveillance technologies. A Human Rights Watch report details the implementation of a policing program that collects the personal data of Xinjiang residents without their knowledge. Such data was used to target and detain those considered “potentially threatening.”The Uighur, even in comparison to other Muslim minorities, are regarded as “bad muslims,” associated with “violence and conflict.”
The response emerging from the central government constructs an image of justified anti-terrorism efforts.The government uses reports of Uighur alleged involvement with extremist groups in Iraq and Syria to justify their authoritarian response. At first China outright denied any culpability in the internment camps; not until late 2018 did officials admit to their existence. However, they framed the camps as vocational training centers, and insisted upon their practical value. Government officials have further argued against criticism by claiming the camps work to save “these people,” insisting that the camps were necessary to squash extremism and global terror threats. Such rhetoric mirrors that utilized by Western nations in efforts to hide their state-sponsored Islamophobia. The Uighur people’s distinct language and culture clearly defy Beijing’s obsession with “national harmony.” As such, the blatant violation of human rights suffered by the Uighur people remains largely ignored. No end to these violent atrocities is in sight.