China’s oppression of the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang province has transformed the region into a vast prison camp where a shocking percentage of the population is literally incarcerated without due process, while the rest live under constant surveillance.
The Associated Press reported on Friday that China is taking Uighur children away from their imprisoned parents and throwing them into orphanages.
One Uighur couple profiled by the Associated Press was not even jailed – their “offense” was traveling to Turkey to visit the wife’s sick father. While they were away, the Chinese government imprisoned the husband’s mother and packed their four children off to an orphanage. The parents are not even entirely certain which facility their children are being held in.
The AP uncovered evidence that a great number of Uighur children have been treated this way, including official proclamations that if one parent is sent to detention, the children must be hauled off to “boarding school” over the objections of their other parent. Even before launching the crackdown that put a million Uighurs in re-education camps, the Chinese government took steps to separate Uighur kids from their parents:
The orphanages are the latest example of how China is systematically distancing young Muslims in Xinjiang from their families and culture, The Associated Press has found through interviews with 15 Muslims and a review of procurement documents. The government has been building thousands of so-called “bilingual” schools, where minority children are taught in Mandarin and penalized for speaking in their native tongues. Some of these are boarding schools, which Uighurs say can be mandatory for children and, in a Kazakh family’s case, start from the age of 5.
China says the orphanages help disadvantaged children, and it denies the existence of internment camps for their parents. It prides itself on investing millions of yuan in education in Xinjiang to steer people out of poverty and away from terrorism. At a regular news briefing Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the measures taken in Xinjiang were necessary for “stability, development, harmony” and to fight ethnic separatists.
But Uighurs fear that these measures are essentially wiping out their ethnic identity, one child at a time. Experts say what China is doing echoes how white colonialists in the U.S., Canada, and Australia treated indigenous children — policies that have left generations traumatized.
“This is an ethnic group whose knowledge base is being erased,” said Darren Byler, a researcher of Uighur culture at the University of Washington. “What we’re looking at is something like a settler colonial situation where an entire generation is lost.”
The Associated Press noticed the Chinese government allocated some $30 million to go on an orphanage construction spree in 2018, with plans to construct or expand at least 45 facilities in Xinjiang province. Some of the “boarding schools” have the capacity to hold thousands of “students.” One of the new orphanages is “nearly as big as four football fields.”
China identifies the facilities with a variety of euphemisms – “schools,” “welfare centers” – but they all tend to be surrounded by high walls, sometimes topped with barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards, and only Mandarin Chinese is spoken within their walls. Children allowed to return from these facilities have a creepy tendency to begin lecturing their parents on good manners, correct behavior, and Chinese “patriotism.”
Uighurs and other minority groups under Chinese domination are convinced Beijing is grabbing their children to annihilate their language, religion, and culture.
“If the kids are forced to speak Mandarin and live like Han Chinese every day, I’m afraid they won’t be like us anymore,” one Uighur told the Associated Press.
Uighurs who make their way into the Chinese educational system as teachers are kept on very short leashes. Radio Free Asia reported on Wednesday that four Uighur university officials were sacked and immediately scrubbed from the school website for “two-faced activities” and “separatist tendencies,” without any details of their alleged offenses specified. University staff were uncertain about the whereabouts of the four professors but thought they might have been sent off to re-education camps.
Foreign Policy on Wednesday accused the Chinese of perpetrating “cultural genocide” against the Uighurs, and worried they might escalate to literal genocide if that doesn’t work, because Xinjiang province is so vital to China’s “Belt and Road” trade and infrastructure ambitions:
Cultural genocide means the elimination of a group’s identity, through measures such as forcibly transferring children away from their families, restricting the use of a national language, banning cultural activities, or destroying schools, religious institutions, or memory sites. Unlike “physical” genocide, it doesn’t have to be violent. Uighur activists point to the forced separation of families, the targeting of scholars and other community leaders for detention and “re-education,” the bans on Uighur language instruction in schools, the razing of mosques, and the onerous restrictions on signifiers of cultural identity such as hair, dress, and baby names as evidence that China is trying to eradicate the Uighur identity.
Cultural genocide is not a defined crime in international law. Although it was discussed at length during the drafting of the 1948 Genocide Convention, the distinction between physical and cultural genocide did not make it into the final document. Of the actions that might qualify as cultural genocide, only the forcible transfer of children is criminalized.
In practice, this absence hasn’t been such a problem. The type of acts that qualify as cultural genocide generally occur alongside, or as a precursor to, mass violence. Nonviolent actions undertaken in pursuit of the destruction of cultural identity therefore often serve as the evidence of intent necessary for a mass slaughter to qualify as genocide.
One reason China might have chosen the more expensive, less certain path of cultural genocide is that it does not yet feel secure enough in its position as a rising global superpower to get away with an outright massacre. Killing the Uighurs would alienate the civilized world and probably enrage a number of countries China needs to do business with. The entire first leg of the “New Silk Road” might burst into flames.
Socially engineering the Uighurs out of existence is more feasible right now. It remains quite remarkable that very few leaders in the Muslim world are speaking up on behalf of the Uighurs, who face physical hardships and religious persecution far beyond even the wildest claims of Palestinian victimhood.