China’s state-run Global Times newspaper asserted in an editorial Sunday that Islam must accept a branch of the faith “fitting Chinese culture,” adding the detention of an estimated hundreds of thousands of Muslims in what some have called “concentration camps” is necessary to establish such a branch.
Reports have circulated since early 2018 that Chinese officials had constructed sprawling “re-education” camps to imprison ethnic Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim-majority minority members – as well as some Christians and political dissidents – and force them to abandon their faith, learn Mandarin and no longer speak their native languages, and memorize Communist Party songs praising leader Xi Jinping. The camps are believed to be primarily located in China’s westernmost and largest province, Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan.
Failure to comply with these demands, according to camp survivors, could lead to officials denying prisoners food or subjecting them to electroshock, beatings, and other torture.
Beijing has enthusiastically denied torturing anyone at the camps and refers to them as “vocational centers” and “boarding schools,” insisting they are necessary to give unskilled minority workers the tools necessary to find jobs in the Chinese economy. Chinese officials have not clarified how that reasoning justifies the imprisonment of Muslims with advanced degrees and steady jobs.
In its column Sunday, the Global Times makes no attempt to argue for the economic need for internment camps. Instead, the article claims that the camps are engaging in the work of “indigenization of Islam,” the creation of a “branch” of Islam that fits the values of the Chinese Communist Party.
“China’s attempt of religious sinicization is rational and lawful based on its history and national conditions,” the Times asserted. “There are various branches of Islam in the world, so there must be one fitting Chinese culture and national conditions. Chinese Muslims have made efforts in this field and they should be encouraged to carry them forward.”
“The vocational education and training centers in Xinjiang [internment camps] are part of China’s efforts in religious sinicization. They help trainees get rid of extreme thoughts and learn to integrate into the country’s development,” the piece claims.
The piece spends much of its time attacking the “West” generally for not adopting similar measures in the face of growing Muslim populations in Western countries, expressing outrage that “some Western countries are upholding so-called freedom, even allowing religions to develop and spread without limit.” Freedom of religion, the piece continues, has prompted “confrontations between different theists” in the West but curbing that freedom “has become taboo.”
The Times also attempts to claim that “sinicizing” Islam – assimilating it specifically to the demands of the Chinese Communist Party – is different than “assimilating” the religion.
“We are trying to reasonably and legally manage religions to promote sinicization that will lead to a harmony between various religions and atheists in China,” it states. This, the Times argues, is particularly important given the “increasing impact of extreme thoughts and overseas separatism, which has led to extreme incidents.” The article does not specify what it means by “overseas separatism,” though in the past Beijing has used terrorist attacks by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uighur jihadist group, as an excuse for establishing the camps. Chinese officials do not contend that those imprisoned in the camps are members of ETIM, but rather vulnerable to joining jihadist organizations because of their faith.
Chinese state media has regularly argued that the use of the camps and the widespread surveillance of Muslims in Xinjiang is necessary to improve the economic state of the province. Also on Sunday, the state news organization Xinjiang published a photo essay claiming to depict a “tourism boom” in Xinjiang, part of a campaign to attract more of the nation’s Han ethnic minority to Xinjiang. Diluting the percentage of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, officials contend, could help also dilute the influence of Islam as a challenging faith to communism in the region.
The U.S. State Department and various NGOs have estimated that China has imprisoned between one and two million people in its “vocational centers.” While those who survived the camps in early 2018 testified only to political and religious indoctrination, a report published in December revealed that Chinese officials have begun equipping the camps with sweatshops where prisoners are forced to work for no pay, largely manufacturing clothing, some of which has made its way to the United States. Early this year, reports suggested that China had begun cleaning up the camps and preparing to allow international inspectors into the facilities, a response to the international uproar against the treatment of Muslims in the country.
In March, Xinjiang Governor Shohrat Zakir vehemently denied the description of the facilities as “concentration camps.”
“These kinds of statements are completely fabricated lies, and are extraordinarily absurd,” Zakir argued, referring to the facilities as “boarding schools” instead.