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Originally published by The News Lens on August 17, 2018
The world finally appears to be sitting up and taking notice of what United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination member Gay McDougall last week called ” a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”
That camp is nothing less than the entirety of northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which McDougall suggested arbitrarily detains 1 million Uyghurs — almost a tenth of the ethnic minority’s population there.
She referred to Xinjiang as a “a kind of ‘no rights zone’,” citing reports, including from activist group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, of inmates being subjected to prolonged psychological repression, during which they are forced to study Xi Jinping Thought and other Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doctrines for hours on end.
Yemhelhe Mint Mohamed, a panel member, asked a Chinese delegation attending the annual hearing into the country’s record on racial equality and non-discrimination, “What is the level of religious freedom available now to Uyghurs in China, what legal protection exists for them to practice their religion?”
Corresponding media reports speak of torture, including waterboarding and manacling, if prisoners in Xinjiang show dissent. Outside the camps an unprecedented level of surveillance impinges on the day to day lives of everyone who lives there. Those with the merest hint of a dodgy data trail are detained in one of hundreds of re-education camps.
The U.S. mission to the UN said in response to the committee’s announcement: “We call on China to end their counterproductive policies and free all of those who have been arbitrarily detained.”
Counterproductive is right. The sheer pigheadedness of this approach is enough to make you wonder if the aim is to foment extremist tendencies in order to justify the subsequent extension of such suppressive measures nationwide.
Beijing maintains that the draconian regime is necessary to contain the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an extremist group it claims is intent on establishing an independent East Turkestan in China. The U.S. Treasury Department labeled ETIM a terrorist organization in 2002 in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, lending international credence to the CCP’s subsequent crackdowns in Xinjiang.
Numerous incidents labeled terrorists attacks in various parts of China were subsequently attributed to the group by Chinese authorities. Uyghur groups countered that the attacks are more a response to the prolonged denial of basic human rights than a coordinated campaign by would-be secessionists. Those frustration boiled over in July 2009 when rioting broke out in the Xinjiang city of
In any case, those who suggest Beijing exaggerates ETIM’s threat in order to justify the repression in Xinjiang are given short shrift. China in 2015 expelled French journalist Ursula Gauthier after she criticized China’s declaration of solidarity with France in the wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, claiming it was motivated by a desire to curry support for “the merciless crushing of the Muslim Uyghur minority.”
At the time, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said Gauthier’s accusation was spurred by “ulterior motives.”
That language resurfaced this week as Lu, still in his post, labeled the UN human rights committee’s report the result of “anti-China forces” with an “ulterior motive” of undermining the government’s anti-terrorism activities.
“People of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang cherish the current situation of living and working in peace and happiness,” Reuters quoted Lu as saying.
What’s happening in Xinjiang is just the latest in a series of crackdowns put into force there since 9/11, but differs in the sheer scope of its ambition, which appears to be to brainwash an entire population, or at least the Uyghur half of it.
Xinjiang is often referred to as “predominantly Uyghur”, though it is hard to gauge whether the largely Sufi Muslim group remains the largest ethnicity in the region — census data from 2010 put the proportion of Uyghurs to Han Chinese at 45.8 percent and 40.5 percent, respectively, but improved transport links with the rest of the country are thought to have accelerated inward migration of Han Chinese in the intervening eight years.
Xinjiang as a whole is home to about 23 million people, roughly the same population as Taiwan. Everybody living there thus likely knows somebody who has been “sent to study”, but what remains unclear is whether those people really learn to love the CCP, or instead emerge with hardened hearts and simmering resentments, sentiments that must in turn be checked with further surveillance and detentions, as the CCP creates a soul-sucking quicksand that drains the life out of a region that was once the beating heart of the glorious Silk Road.