Chinese government officials and state-run media outlets are denying reports that over a million Uighur Muslims from the province of Xinjiang have been herded into “re-education camps” where they are held without due process and, according to some reports, physically tortured.
CNN reported Monday on the allegations made to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by a Uighur group based in Germany, and the response from the Chinese government:
In their submission to the committee, the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said they estimated at least one million Uyghurs were being held in political indoctrination camps as of July 2018.
“Detentions are extra-legal, with no legal representation allowed throughout the process of arrest and incarceration,” the submission said, adding there were “widespread” reports of torture.
Responding to questions Monday, a representative of the Chinese government called the accusations of mass imprisonment “completely untrue.”
“Xinjiang citizens including the Uyghurs enjoy equal freedoms and rights,” Hu Lianhe, a spokesman for China’s United Front Work Department, told the UN panel. “There is no arbitrary detention or lack of freedom of religion and belief.”
He said there is “no such thing as re-education centers,” but added criminals convicted of “minor offenses” have been assigned to “vocational educational and employment training centers with a view to assisting in their rehabilitation.”
“They are not subject to any arbitrary detention or ill-treatment there,” Hu said.
Human-rights groups accuse China of trying to cover up a crime against humanity. The U.N. committee said Beijing needs to do more than simply deny the allegations, which have been backed up by photos smuggled out of Xinjiang and posted on social media.
The Chinese government has maintained heavy censorship on Xinjiang for the past decade, escalating to a near-total information blackout when a crackdown on purported Uighur separatists began several months ago.
The UK Guardian caught one Chinese official claiming those huge camps are actually massive vocational training schools thoughtfully provided by the Chinese government to teach the Uighurs useful skills:
Hu Lianhe from China’s united front work department – an agency under the Communist party that focuses on China’s influence abroad – told the panel: “There is no such thing as re-education centers in Xinjiang.
“For those who are convicted of minor offenses, we help and teach them in vocational skills in education and training centers, according to relevant laws. There is no arbitrary detention and torture.”
Another defensive strategy employed by China involves comparing the Xinjiang crackdown to measures taken by other governments to combat Islamic extremism, which China’s apologists keep bringing up as the major issue in Xinjiang, even though they also insist their government is committed to religious freedom. For instance, the Chinese delegation to the U.N. religious freedom committee pointed out that “wearing masked robes is also prohibited in many other countries in the world.”
China’s state-run Global Times on Monday credited the crackdown with preventing Xinjiang from “becoming China’s Syria or China’s Libya,” applauding the “strong leadership” of the Communist Party for imposing “the rule of law and ethnic unity” upon the restless province.
The Global Times dismissed human-rights investigations as an international plot to undermine the Communist Party’s authority, accusing the critics of attempting to “stir trouble for Xinjiang and destroy the hard-earned stability in the region.”
The bulk of the editorial was devoted to paranoid attacks on human-rights activists and blustery insistence that Xinjiang is Chinese territory, so Beijing will do as it pleases to the residents:
Some forces in the West are smearing Xinjiang governance. They either don’t understand the real situation or deliberately find fault in order to sabotage local governance by exerting external pressure.
It can be imagined that the West will keep piling more pressure on Xinjiang and radical Western forces may even come up with new tricks to do so. External public opinion about China’s governance in Xinjiang might further deteriorate and China should be prepared.
Officials, the ordinary people of all of Xinjiang’s ethnic groups and Chinese society must not be affected by the influence and pressure put on us by Western forces. Maintaining peace and stability in the region is the core interest of people both in Xinjiang and all of China.
The turnaround in Xinjiang’s security situation has avoided a great tragedy and saved countless lives, thanks to powerful Chinese law and the strong ruling power of the Communist Party of China. What the West has been hyping has destroyed numerous countries and regions. When the same evil influence was spreading in Xinjiang, it was decisively curbed.
The Associated Press noticed that the Global Times editors did not mention the re-education camps or directly address the other allegations presented to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
In fact, committee vice-chairwoman Gay McDougall cited “numerous and credible reports” that the entire province is becoming a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”
The worst-case estimates say over three million Xinjiang residents are now confined to some sort of prison or re-education camp, mostly without the benefit of anything the Western world would recognize as due process. Even the low-end estimates of half a million detainees would make China’s Uighur crackdown one of the largest mass incarcerations in the world. Some Xinjiang officials have reported nearly half the population of their villages marching off to re-education camps.
A June report from Radio Free Asia painted the Xinjiang camps as a totalitarian nightmare, where the inmates are intensely scrutinized, routinely humiliated, and occasionally tortured and murdered:
“The authorities force the detainees to accept this so-called education, which is political indoctrination,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) China researcher Maya Wang told RFA on Wednesday. “Before they eat, they have to wish [President] Xi Jinping good health, or thank the government and thank the party, before they are allowed to eat anything.”
“They are forced to study Chinese characters, and anyone who challenges this arbitrary detention is punished, some physically, some by being locked up in isolation with no food or water,” she said.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, which represents the ethnic minority Uyghur group overseas, said many detainees are closely monitored using the latest facial recognition technology, which is believed to predict a person’s actions through the analysis of micro-expressions.
“They use surveillance video of micro-expressions to analyze what people are thinking or feeling,” Raxit said. “By looking at changes in these expressions each day … they can tell whether the person is likely to engage in acts of collective or individual protest.”
He said the consequences for not engaging with this process can be dire.
“People have been tortured to death, while others have been beaten to death, or prevented from sleeping, or refused food or water,” Raxit said. “Either that or they do whatever would be most humiliating to that person’s psychological profile. Sometimes they humiliate them physically, and have been known to employ electric batons.”
Although the Chinese government claims it is merely taking prudent security actions against violent extremists, human-rights activists say the crackdown has been used as an excuse to jail completely non-violent Uighur academics and critics of the Chinese state.
The Economist in May denounced China’s actions in Xinjiang as a high-tech version of apartheid or the Soviet Union’s Gulag Archipelago. The article noted China has actually ordered Uighurs living abroad to return to the province so they can be processed – a “process” that supposedly involves obtaining new identity papers but frequently ends in a re-education camp.
One Uighur man profiled in the article was en route back to Xinjiang when he was involved in a highway accident that killed his wife and daughter. He was still recuperating from the accident a month later when he was sent to a re-education camp, never to be heard from again.
The Economist reported re-education camp construction is a booming industry, on par with China’s frenzied construction of military outposts in the South China Sea, with well over $100 million spent on building 73 new camps over the past year. Police stations in Xinjiang are constructed with the frequency of convenience stores in suburban America; in fact, some of the Chinese security outposts in Xinjiang essentially are convenience stores, selling goods such as bottled water and offering phone charging stations.
Tickets to the camps are written by Communist Party officials and police officers, not courts, and they can be issued for activities that have nothing to do with separatist terrorism:
A woman working as an undertaker was imprisoned for washing bodies according to Islamic custom. Thirty residents of Ili, a town near the Kazakh border, were detained “because they were suspected of wanting to travel abroad,” according to the local security chief. Other offenses have included holding strong religious views, allowing others to preach religion, asking where one’s relatives are and failing to recite the national anthem in Chinese.
There is little doubt that Uighur separatists and jihadis exist, and they have carried out some bloody attacks across China and abroad. One of the major security concerns mentioned by international analysts is that a sizable number of Uighurs went to Syria to fight with the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Also, as the Economist pointed out, at least one Xinjiang separatist group called the Turkestan Islamic Party is recognized as a terrorist organization in America and Europe, in part because so many of its members traveled to Syria and fought for terrorist militias.