Xinjiang Reeducation Camps
August 25, 2020
The same sentiments are also surfacing when examining the international response to the Xinjiang Re-education camps, or the Vocational Education and Training Centers. These institutions established by the Central Committee of the CPC have detained potentially over a million ethnic Muslims to indoctrinate them. It is a topic that has garnered both severe international scrutiny and criticism as well as ignorance and passivity. This article attempts to holistically examine the purpose of the internment camps by analyzing the intentions of the CPC, and the promise that the camps will bring to the future of China’s “People’s War on Terror”. Specifically its international implications in an age where ethnic oppression that is supported through legislative action is normalized and overlooked.
China and the People’s War on Terror: Xinjiang, Han Culture, and the Uyghur People
Xinjiang, also known as the Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang (officially Xinjiang Uyghur Zizhiqu) is the largest province-level autonomous region of the country, located in Northwest China. Xinjiang borders the states of Afghanistan, the disputed territory of Kashmir, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, the Tibet Autonomous Region, as well as Mongolia. It also shares a border to the east with Qinghai and Gansu, both of which are Chinese provinces. Given Xinjiang’s strategic orientation following its annexation by the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) was established in 1954 to prime Xinjiang as a defensive force against the Soviet Union. It is important to note that while Xinjiang is considered an autonomous region, the XPCC has de facto administration over 10 of the county-level cities. Additionally, they have “invisible” influence over much of the area through prior economic and affirmative action programs. The group alone represents approximately 12% of the region’s population and accounts for 20% of the regional economy, contributing nearly one-third in agricultural shares and holding large influence in the provincial heavy industry.
Xinjiang is incredibly diverse ethnically, with over 40 different ethnic groups inhabiting the region. The two largest demographics are Uyghurs (a Turkic speaking minority ethnic group) and the Han (which refers to Chinese people that migrated to the region following the establishment of the XPCC intending to introduce a permanent Chinese population to Xinjiang). Since 1954, the Han culture population has grown significantly. The Uyghur population, along with the Hui (Chinese Muslims) population, account for the majority of the Muslim population within Xinjiang. Furthermore, the Turkic branch of the Altaic group is one of the major language groups besides Chinese and the Mongolian branch of the Altaic group.
Xinjiang also serves as a lucrative economic asset to China. It acts as one of China’s most significant sources of mineral resources and heavy industry, with Xinjiang’s largest exports being petroleum and natural gas. Xinjiang is also heavily dependent on agriculture, with the industry serving both self-sufficient domestically while also acting as one of China’s primary fruit-producing sources.
In recent years, Xinjiang has been subject to fierce tension following the Xinjiang conflict, or the Uyghur - Chinese conflict. The region has been subject to a historical and ongoing migration era of Chinese people, often state-sponsored by governments that controlled the region throughout history. This population growth only spiked after the establishment of the Republic of China, with a massive influx of Han people in 1943 following an attempt at Western development by the Kuomintang regime. Many of these attempts at colonial enterprise align well with the intention of modernizing nationalist China’s northwestern outlying territories in a series of “grand northwestern development programs”. Which played into the massive economic and acculturation developments of the CPC in the modern age.
This particularly served as a significant point of contention for some demographics of the Xinjiang population, specifically the Uyghurs and other Muslim groups. The efforts of Uyghur nationalist historians and other significant Muslim figures upheld and promoted the sentiment that the Uyghur culture and many of the other domestic demographics that resided within the Xinjiang region before the establishment of Han culture were independent of the Chinese. Therefore, these cultures had a right to their own government, legislation, and economic systems. The issue of Uyghur sovereignty in Xinjiang and whether or not the Han settlements within the region were validated has been an important topic of debate for several years.
Xinjing Re-education Camps: The Build-up of the Uyghur-China Conflict
In writing, the People’s Republic of China safeguards the same formal rights of the Han people to all minority ethnic groups. Xinjiang, however, is an interesting point of discussion, in that the modernization projects within the region have begun to take precedence over the Confucian-inspired socialist vision of social harmony among coexisting ethnic demographics. The Uyghur Chinese conflict has precipitated tension and unrest among the ethnic Muslims within Xinjiang. Industry recruitment practices became increasingly disadvantageous, leading to excessive legislative action in the region that bypassed previous affirmative action policies that upheld Uyghur legal rights. Ethnic Uyghurs historically had faced economic exclusion in specific sectors, earning them lower incomes and facing purposeful segregation from the Han Chinese in terms of residential accommodation. The invisible hand of the Chinese Xinjiang market along with the increased regional and policy developments that were strung to Chinese sources has prompted Han and Uyghur populations into an economic stalemate. The two ethnic groups are forced to compete within a labour market that is legally advantageous to the Han people. As the exacerbation of intercultural tensions continues to cascade, China has been faced with an unprecedented separatist movement that is becoming increasingly difficult for authorities to control.
Xinjiang has already contained a turbulent history of conflict and terrorism between the Han and Uyghur people. The Uyghur people never willingly accepted the notion of sharing a common future with the Chinese despite their increased economic and political integration, as Uyghur culture is more closely religiously and culturally associated with Central Asia. This, combined with the temporary weakening of Chinese sovereignty over the region and Pan-Turkish reformism led to the first spawns of Xinjiang’s anti-colonial movements, including two independent republics that were short-lived. Additionally, the independence of the central Asian republics following the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the promise of asylum and support from sources outside of Xinjiang’s borders, allowing for an even stronger justification of Uyghur independence. This potential for the destabilization of a large portion of the political infrastructure of Xinjiang and by extension the CPC led to many attempts at blocking external subversion. This was done by persuading countries to ban Uyghur separatist groups and extradite Uyghur refugees through settling border disputes and offering future economic cooperation. These efforts, unfortunately, did little to stifle the growing conflict. If anything, it only added more kindling to the flame.
This attempt to neutralize the few Islamic terrorists that oppose the Chinese vision has cascaded into what has been described as cultural genocide, with an estimated count of approximately three million ethnic Uyghurs being detained in these camps since its initiation. The camps exist outside of the Chinese legal system, meaning that the Chinese government can arbitrarily detain people seemingly without reason.
Uyghurs can be arrested for long facial hair, practicing religion, speaking their native tongue, not knowing how to speak Mandarin or Chinese, etc. Furthermore, detainees are not given the right to free trial and can be imprisoned without being tried. The camps also use forced labor to produce various exports from Xinjiang.
Below are some figures and personal accounts detailing the conditions inside of the camps:
Figure 3: Mihrigul Tursun detailing her experience in custody. Taken from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/detentions-11012018100304.html
“ I was tortured for seven days and nights without sleep by members of the national security department … They examined me and shaved my head. I was locked up until August, when I was released [to a hospital] because I was frequently suffering seizures and losing consciousness ….When they interrogate me, they basically ask the same questions: “Who are you close to? Who do you know overseas? For which overseas organizations did you work? What was your mission?” They ask these questions because I lived overseas and because I speak a few foreign languages, so they are trying to label me as a spy. When I entered the cell, there were more than 40 women in it, but when I left, there were 68 … All of them were people I knew from the past. The cell had no windows … it was built underground … We were never taken outside to get fresh air. They would only open a hole in the ceiling for ventilation … There were cameras on all four sides—they have to see every corner of the room.”
Figure 4: Kayrat Samarkand in an interview talking about the punishment he received while in the camps. Taken from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/former-inmates-of-chinas-muslim-re-education-camps-tell-of-brainwashing-torture/2018/05/16/32b330e8-5850-11e8-8b92-45fdd7aaef3c_story.html
“Those who disobeyed the rules, refused to be on duty, engaged in fights or were late for studies were placed in handcuffs and ankle cuffs for up to 12 hours,” he said. Further disobedience would result in waterboarding or long periods strapped in agony in a metal contraption known as a “tiger chair.”
Furthermore, many of the practices within the camps were aimed at deconstructing the Uyghur culture and forcing them to do acts that were forbidden in Islam in an attempt to convert them to the Han culture. Escaped detainees claim that they were forced to drink alcohol, eat pork, shave their heads, and recite Chinese Communist propaganda on a daily basis. These institutions have been referred to as concentration camps, even being compared to the likes of the Gulag system used during the reign of the Soviet Union as well as the Auschwitz concentration camps used during the Holocaust.
MOTIVATIONS AND INCENTIVES FOR THE PRC
Practical Benefits: Economic and Political
So what is the intention behind this massive domestic security strategy in Xinjiang? Is it purely to de-escalate the rise of ethnic unrest, demand for minority policy changes, and the bleeding of radical Islamist terrorism into China?
The short answer to that is yes. The longer answer is yes, but also….
On the surface, these internment camps are a more aggressive method of effectively suppressing the changing perceptions of Uyghur independence, the Chinese treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, and the rise of what was perceived to be radical Islamism following Uyghur contact with transnational Islamist groups in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The use of mass detention centers, re-educational programs focusing mainly on shifting culture, as well as the increase of Uyghur diaspora networks all reflects what would logically result in the ideological inoculation of the Uyghur people. In other words, not only do these camps neutralize any existing terrorist threats, but they also act as a preventative measure to reduce the theoretical risk of more people shifting their ideologies to support separatist beliefs. This operational “domestic security strategy” essentially eradicates the theoretical risk of more and more people becoming what is essentially anti-CPC, and this concern is well-founded seeing as it is inevitably becoming easier for ethnic Uyghurs to be influenced from outside sources.
This, combined with the active efforts that are being made by the Chinese government to prevent Uyghurs from traveling, seeking asylum, and making contact with groups outside of Xinjiang's borders, support the overarching conclusion that this conflict is seeded in an internal cultural struggle. While these sentiments being superficial do not confirm that the CPC has ulterior motives outside of acculturation and reducing extremism, it still means that the current main objective of the Chinese government does not transcend any of the existing expectations that the international community or even the CPC have of the re-education camps.
However, it is not illogical to assume that there may be some either unintended or smaller goals that the Chinese government is trying to achieve through Xinjiang. Again, Xinjiang is a strategic region that is lucrative and a strong point of military contention. Beijing’s economic development plans in Xinjiang potentially could determine the direction of the conflict. The Chinese government has historically been focused on facilitating a massive demographic shift within Xinjiang to propel their monetary goals, and the Xinjiang re-education camps provide them a valuable opportunity to do so.
Furthermore, Xinjiang plays an important role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI - introduced 2013), with the region being responsible for a $1 trillion infrastructure development and investment scheme. This ultimately led to an effort to eliminate Uyghur dissent in the region entirely, as the Uyghur’s attachment to their traditional lands and culture is seen as a massive obstacle in the implementation of both the BRI and any economic plans that China may have for Xinjiang in the future.
Ethical Implications: Acculturation and the Suffocation of Minority Eastern Cultures
That being said, one of the largest long term benefits that China foresees from the camps is the development of state atheism and the proliferation of their “People’s War on Terror.” These camps serve as a direct method of accomplishing the anti-religious objectives, and also utilize the Maoist strategy of “people’s war” to avoid a greater conflict that could arise if the acculturation of the Uyghur people was handled publicly and explicitly. Even more, these camps serve as a greater warning of the intention of the CPC in their promotion of the sinicization of ethnic and religious minorities. The conversion of people who are not inherently Chinese to the Han culture is becoming more and more widespread through China’s soft power, and these re-education facilities only serve as a testament to the CPC’s campaigns.
The United Nations
The current discussion regarding the camps in the United Nations can be described as somewhat of a turbulent topic.
There have currently been two addresses made in response to the Xinjiang Uyghur Re-education camps. On July 8th, 2019, a letter addressed to the president of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from a group of 22 nations called for an end to the massive network of Chinese controlled domestic security programs in Xinjiang. This letter called into question the widespread surveillance of their population, the restrictions placed on the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, and ask China to refrain from the “arbitrary detention and restriction on freedom of movement of Uyghurs and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang.”
The response was in the form of a second letter, with the signatories expressing that the first letter’s sentiments politicized the larger issue of human rights. Furthermore, many of these nations applauded and supported the notion that China’s efforts in the face of terrorism and Islamist extremism were well-founded and commendable. Some stated that China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights” had safeguarded Xinjiang’s delicate social framework along with the fundamental human rights of all of the people residing in the region. Following this, another joint statement was made in October, asking China to uphold its obligations towards human rights as a member of the Human Rights Committee and to stop the arbitrary detention of Muslim communities in Xinjiang. This statement was also opposed by another joint statement that essentially echoed the second letter, upholding previous sentiments.
An interesting note to make is that nearly all of the signatories of the letters condemning the treatment of Uyghurs within Xinjiang came from the Western World and that Muslim majority states supported the letters in support of the re-education camps.
Self Exoneration and Circular Debate: The Philosophies of International Scrutiny
This leads to a confusing discussion on why opening up the table to negotiations on the re-education camps is quite difficult. There is an interesting conundrum that arises when supporting either side of the topic. On one hand, genuinely using and upholding the counterterrorism narrative, regardless of which side of the argument you support, is difficult because it inadvertently legitimizes the morality of the Uyghur camps and more so pushes it into the direction of how governments should be addressing internal extremism threats rather than a discussion of human rights (which is what should be the center of attention when looking at this issue specifically).
In other words, it is difficult for international discussion to proceed, as an explanation of the CPC’s treatment of the Uyghur population begins to border closely on justification, and therefore pushes the narrative away from the massive human rights abuses that are being argued for by China’s critiques. Even more, there is significant debate over the severity of the Uyghur “uprising” and whether or not the issues of Islamic terrorism is as drastic as China claims it to be. Ultimately, despite the overwhelming evidence of China’s inhumane treatment of the Uyghurs, there is technically no method of definitively concluding whether or not the PRC’s counterterrorism framework is well-founded or if it is simply a way of deflecting international criticism.
What makes progress even more challenging is the arguments that are being made by those in support of the camps. If someone were to try to take a more holistic approach to the topic and acknowledge the counterterrorism objectives of the camps, it could simultaneously support the notion that these camps are necessary to suppress radical Islamism within the Uyghur population. On the other hand, if critiques take a more direct approach by highlighting the excessive violations of human rights in Xinjiang, the opposition falls back onto the politicization of human rights. This means that they can easily argue that firstly, the more political interpretation of human rights within Xinjiang does not belong in the discussion, and secondly, China is upholding the fundamental human rights of each of its citizens by actively attempting to suppress extremism.
Of course, the largest flaw in this argument is that a large majority of the population that is being kept within these camps is not made up of radical Islamists and therefore are innocent. However, seeing as more nations speak in support of China (at least from looking at how many signatories there are on the UN letters that are vocational training camps in comparison to the letters that are against China), this crucial point of evidence is overlooked. It leads to what is essentially a very circular discussion that consistently falls back and forth between previous points of contention. There is no real starting point for where the UN can blatantly condemn or support China, and there is no real ending point where the UN can conclusively stop the overarching “sinicization narrative” that the CPC is pushing forward, even if the camps are abolished.
This article was written with the intention of increasing awareness for the Xinjiang Re-education camps. It is meant to be purely informative and looks solely at the small amount of existing evidence that is available. While some personal analysis was performed, it was conducted on the basis of current ethical and political policies adopted by the UN and nations around the world.
However, I’d like to informally finish off this article, ironically, on a more ‘personal’ note.
This particular event is unsettling in that it does not follow the traditional trend that most oppression-based disasters go by. There was no peaceful protest to mark the small flap of a butterfly wing that would eventually lead to pandemonium, no massive and unsolicited injustice that led to rioting, and no breaking point that led to the ignition of the conflict. It was a quiet build-up of unnoticed tension throughout the years that led to an equally silent threshold. Honestly, that’s probably the best way to characterize this entire issue: silence. There’s silence on China’s end, little to no media coverage on the issue (in comparison to other current events around the world), the international response to the crisis is at a discussion moral-grey area at best, and the overwhelming suppression of discussion surrounding this topic has only catalyzed the development of this event.
Muslim and Chinese cultures are both beautiful, and I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for all cultures mentioned in this article. As someone who comes from a Chinese background and is now growing up overseas, I’ve learned to appreciate my heritage and the history behind it. To see the government of my place of origin commit such questionable and horrifying acts is difficult.
The discussion of this topic will undoubtedly create tension and complicate international relations with China. It’s completely understandable as to why this issue is receiving such little attention; not only is China a massive and imposing economic powerhouse, but we’re currently in an era that requires global cooperation.
Even then, I ask you to consider your voice and the rights to advocacy that you have been blessed with. It’s hard to speak up. Trust me, I know as I’m in a pretty similar position right now. I’d imagine that it’s even more difficult for Chinese people or those of Han descent to openly discuss this issue as well, particularly those who still live in China. But that pales in comparison to the pain that the Uyghurs are feeling in these concentration camps. Please, be compassionate, share an article, discuss with others on social media, do your own research on how you can help those who are being arbitrarily detained. At TWR, we think that no step forward is insignificant, no matter how small. In an age where systematic oppression that is supported through legislative action is normalized and overlooked, it is imperative that we do not ignore the essential lessons that years of history have brought to us.