Since 9/11, the global Muslim community has faced the vitriol of the western world. But now in Xinjiang – a region they have inhabited for centuries – the Uyghur Muslims’ basic human rights are at stake due to the Chinese government’s ideal for ethnic nationalism. The concentration camps are poorly disguised as “vocational education and training centres” which intend to prevent extremist behaviours, but the reports of abuse and forced labour from the camps paint a vastly different story. The fears of an ethnic genocide are at the epicentre of the crisis.
Islamic Human Rights Commission co-founder Arzu Merali says these camps are contributing to Islamophobic beliefs. “The issue is about a minority [the Uyghur Muslims] being viewed as different, therefore as some sort of a risk,” she says.
Forced to hide proof of religious practices or sacred texts, the Uyghurs are left with no choice but to abandon the remnants of their faith or face persecution. Ms Merali says the state’s push is for all outlying groups within the region to assimilate into Han Chinese society and what it means to be “Chinese”.
“Simple acts of teaching the Quran and collecting and distributing charitable contributions to the poor are presented as seditious behaviour,” she says. “Over time they plan for this repression to lead to people abandoning their religious and cultural practices.”
The centres are colossal in size with barbed wire situated around the walled perimeter. The measures seem excessive for a place that’s alleged purpose is to provide “vocational training and combat poverty ”. A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has recorded approximately 380 camps in Xinjiang and reports of forced birth control, deprivation of food and squalid living conditions reveal examples of what is happening inside the camps. With fears of China’s hidden agenda of cultural genocide against the Uyghur Muslims, the camps share more and more similarities with their ancestors: Auschwitz, Sobibor and Birkenau.
In the wake of the Kunming train station attack in 2014, which resulted in the deaths of 31 people, China has increased its counter-terrorism measures. The fear of dissidents working covertly to spread anti-Chinese sentiment has also led to an increase in surveillance.
The unrelenting surveillance on the Uyghur Muslims goes beyond just CCTV cameras. There are reports China has developed facial recognition scanners, use biometric data to monitor the Muslims and have automated systems designed to predict whether a person is suspected of behaviours that could be of extremist nature. The invasive strategy to subvert and control the Uyghurs’ religious and cultural practices is to deny them rights to privacy.
Australian National University Associate Professor Michael Clarke says the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) believes surveillance is one of the key ways to prevent future terrorist acts. “[The CCP] argues that the system of mass surveillance and internment camps is part of a ‘preventive’ approach to terrorism as it seeks to pre-empt signs of extremism within the Uyghur population,” he says.
But the state seems only to have intentions of ridding Xinjiang of what they don’t deem culturally and ethnically “normal”. Dr Clarke says China’s plans to prevent terrorism are the false pretences for ethnic cleansing.
“What Beijing is doing in Xinjiang is not simply, or indeed only, counter-terrorism but rather an effort at the social re-engineering of an entire population by coercing Uyghurs to abandon key elements of their identity,” he says. “What’s important is that the CCP’s current repression in Xinjiang frames Islam as part of a set of qualities of the Uyghur people that are the root cause not only of terrorism but also poverty and under-development.”
Dr Clarke says the nation aims to achieve one Chinese identity. “[The] CCP’s major objective in Xinjiang – the assimilation of the Uyghur (and other Turkic Muslim minorities) to its vision of ‘Chinese-ness’,” he says.
The violent reality the Uyghur Muslims face is expected to worsen. Arzu Merali says the way to resolve the crisis is for China to stop treating the Muslims as a threat.
“[CCP] need to be persuaded that treating minorities as a risk, in the long term, will create resentment and fuel separatist sentiments among the Uighurs, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy,” she says. “We urge campaigners – ordinary members of the public- to raise this issue by written communication with those countries and organisations with positive relationships with China for example various Muslim countries and other countries in the Non-Aligned Movement. We believe sustained conversation and pressure from those countries and international institutions in China’s orbit is the only way to reach peaceful and just resolution.”