The Chinese government recently allowed journalists to tour high-security facilities housing an estimated 1.5 – 3 million Muslim minorities in China’s Western regions. The Chinese government branded these campsas “training” schools helping rehabilitate “terrorists” to the right path.
Over the past decade, a number of attacks have been blamed on separatists in Xinjiang and beyond . About 200 people – mostly Han Chinese – were killed in rioting in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009. A crackdown was stepped up after five people were stabbed to death in February 2017.
Human Rights Watch says China’s Uighur population are subject to intense surveillance and are made to give DNA and biometric samples. Those with relatives in 26 “sensitive” countries have also reportedly been rounded up. Rights groups say camp detainees are made to learn Mandarin Chinese, undergo indoctrination on the supremacy of the Communist Party, and criticise or renounce their Islamic faith.
China’s actions have been roundly condemned by the global community. 22 members of the United Nations Human Rights Council in the first such joint move on the issue urged the Chinese government to stop its mass detention of Uighur Muslims. Britain, France and Germany were among the European nations to join the call, along with Australia, Canada and Japan, but not the United States, which quit the council a year ago.
Firsthand accounts from detainees
Rakhima Senbay, who spent over a year in the camp system before escaping to Kazakhstan, told BBC that she experienced times at camp when they had to prepare for a “visit.”
“They warn us ahead of visits: ‘If any of you speak out, you will go to a worse place than this,’” she recalled. “That’s why everyone is scared and does what they are told, including dancing and singing.”
Many people are in the camps despite committing no crimes. Senbay explained that she was detained simply for having WhatsApp on her phone.
“They put cuffs on my legs for a week. There were times when we were beaten. Once I was struck with an electric baton,” she said, through a translator.
Vice reporter Isabel Yeung interviewed a group of former Uighur detainees who have since fled to Istanbul. One unnamed woman explained that she was locked up simply for reading the Quran and learning Arabic. She said she was accused of trying to “divide the country.”
“They gave me this letter [from state security] saying I was a terrorist,” another woman said. “They did it because I’m a Muslim and I’m Uighur. My feet were shackled for one year, three months and 10 days.”
Former detainee Aduweli Ayup told Vice News that he was jailed because he opened a Uighur language school for kindergarten children.
“They arrested people at night, they want people to disappear and be untrackable.”
In response, government officials have maintained that such measures are purely preventative and only individuals with the “likelihood of committing a crime” are detained.
Families of missing Uighurs speak out
Activists and members of the Uighur diaspora are calling for proof of life videos of their relatives who have disappeared over the past few months and years. Under the hashtag #MeTooUyghur, members of the Uighur community are posting the names and photos of their missing family members.
Arslan Hidayat, the son-in-law of a prominent Uighur comedian, Adil Mijit, who has been missing since November 2018, said in a video posted on Facebook: “We would also like a similar sort of proof of life video of Adil Mijit and the rest of our three to five million brothers and sisters who have been locked up in Chinese concentration camps.”
Destruction of mosques
Recent research also suggests that China may have undertaken large-scale destruction of Islamic sites in Xinjiang province.
The Guardian and open-source journalism website Bellingcat used satellite imagery to examine 91 religious sites identified by people who used to live in the locality.
Results showed that 31 mosques and two major shrines showed significant structural damage between 2016 and 2018, of which, 15 structures were “completely or almost completely razed.” Other mosques had defining features like domes or minarets removed.
Straits Times defends China’s actions
While the rest of the world was justifiably appalled at the events unfolding in Xinjiang, others appear to be more sympathetic of China’s hardline methods. Singapore’s leading newspaper the Straits Times published an opinion piece that echoed China’s official statements on the Uighur detention camps.
Written by ST’s associate editor Ravi Velloor, who had visited the camps on official invitation by Chinese state publication China Daily, the article seems to support China’s narrative that these camps are merely rehabilitation facilities for radicalized Uighurs.
In his article, Mr Velloor wrote that while Western media has vilified the centres as ‘concentration camps’, “it is hard to fault China for wanting to rehabilitate the Uighur if their ideology is anathema to the Chinese state and hostile to other communities”.