By Meriem Cherif
“We have done illegal things, but we now know better.” These are the words chanted by detained Muslim minorities in China, repeated for hours upon hours a day. On social media and the internet, attention has turned to Xinjiang, a Chinese autonomous territory home to more than 12 million Uyghurs and ethnic Muslim minorities. Since 2016, the Chinese government has started a project of building “Vocational Educational and Training Centers” in the region, with the goal of employing Uyghurs and eradicating extremism. Yet, satellite imagery depicting barbed-wire fences, high walls, and guard towers paint a drastically different picture of the purpose of these compounds.
In 2018, Scott Busby of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department gave a number between one and three million Uyghurs detained in re-education camps over the past few years. Many witnesses and ex-detainees have recounted their experiences inside the centers, detailing how they were forced to condemn Islam and repeat phrases praising the president of China, Xi Jinping. Everyday, detainees wake up early to learn the history of Communist China, memorizing songs that pay thanks to the Communist regime, and having their ethnic and religious practices ridiculed. Associate Press News interviewed a Uyghur woman previously held in the camps, who stated “she and fellow prisoners repeatedly were forced to apologize for wearing long clothes in Muslim style, praying, teaching the Quran to their children and asking imams to name their children.” Some women in detainment were forced to take birth control, others injected with fluids that made them sterile. For those who misbehaved, like Kazakh man Omir Bekali, instructors resorted to different methods of torture—solitary confinement, locking detainees in tiger chairs for up to 24 hours, and dunking their heads in ice water. Bekali, who was detained for eight months, explained the emotional effect of re-education: “I still think about it every night, until the sun rises. I can’t sleep. The thoughts are with me all the time.”
At a press conference in December of last year, Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir attested that all detainees “graduated” and found jobs following their release. However, an investigation published by BuzzFeed News on August 27 found that in the past year, new facilities were constructed all over the region, some with the capacity to hold 10,000 people. Satellite images and map cross-referencing counted more than 260 compounds in total, with newer facilities in Xinjiang resembling high-security prisons more than “re-education” centers. Contradictory to Zakir’s statement, the rise of facility construction reveals that Uyghur internment shows no signs of stopping.
Despite the obscurity surrounding circumstances in the camps, the warrants for internment raise even more questions. A leaked Xinjiang government document called the “Karakax List” catalogued the reason and explanations for arresting 311 Uyghurs from Karakax County, all of whom were placed in a re-education camp afterwards. One general rationale for internment included “untrustworthiness”; the government also justified detainment for one individual because they were “disassociated from society.” More concerning, over 25% of people on the list had detainments cited for religious reasons: growing a long beard, wearing a veil, and simply visiting a Muslim country. Although the list only represents a small percentage of detained Uyghurs, it provides a look into the greater pattern of religiously determined internments, and detainments for seemingly petty purposes.
Even after arrests, internments, and indoctrination, the abuse continues. Ex-detainees are exploited for their labor, “forced to sign job contracts and barred from leaving factory grounds during weekdays,” and “working long hours for low pay,” according to Associated Press News. The forced labor of Uyghur and other ethnic minorities drive the economy in Xinjiang, most notably in the fashion industry. Jinfujie Clothing Co. is only one of the many companies profiting from this labor, opening a factory in a re-education camp to profit off of the forced work of detained Uyghurs. “The threat of the camps hangs over everyone’s heads, so there is really no resistance to assigned factory work,” explains Darren Byler, Xinjiang scholar at the University of Colorado Boulder. At the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, thorough research traced potentially abusive Uyghur labour to 82 domestic and foreign companies: Huawei, General Motors, H&M, and Zara, to name a few. Uyghur mistreatment is enabled by the world economy, requiring a complex upheaval of the labor system in Xinjiang to stop the unethical practices.
For years, China has unlawfully, unethically, and unjustifiably treated ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. Leaked documents and stories from ex-detainees reveal that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs conforms to portions of the United Nations’ definition of genocide, such as causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group. The United States has placed sanctions on Chinese officials, and more than 22 countries have publicly condemned the Chinese government in a joint statement. Nonetheless, actions in the status quo do not seem to suffice—abuses toward the Uyghurs still prevail. Luckily, change is always near, and the widespread attention toward the subjugation might be the spark that lights the fire of justice for Uyghurs.