Simply for being a member of a Muslim minority group and for travelling to Egypt, it seems, Mihrigul Tursun was held in a mass detention camp in her native China for months, forced to take unknown drugs, and once electrocuted until she fainted. After authorities released her Tursun took her children to the U.S., and she testified in late November in the U.S. Congress. China is still imprisoning hundreds of thousands of other people from its northwestern Xinjiang province – mostly Muslims of the Uyghur ethnic group, like Tursun – in a clandestine network of internment camps, forcing them to endure “treatment” for religious extremism. Testimonies from former detainees, government documents, and officials’ Dangerous Speech all indicate that this is the case, though the Chinese government denies reports of brutal conditions, and has apparently destroyed much evidence.
Other former detainees have told journalists that while they were imprisoned, they were forced to renounce Islam, consume pork and alcohol (forbidden for observant Muslims), and listen to or recite Communist Party propaganda ad nauseam. They have described physical abuse and even torture – including solitary confinement, sleep or food deprivation, and waterboarding. A number of prisoners seem to have died in custody.
The government has denied the horrifying charges of torture and other human rights abuses, which its representatives call “politically driven” exaggerations. They claim that the facilities are not internment camps; rather they are “vocational education and training centers” for people convicted of minor offenses associated with extremism, where they can gain the skills and cultural knowledge necessary to transform their lives.
Officials say that these “vocational training and education centers” are necessary because Uyghurs are susceptible to Islamic extremist ideology – and indeed, there are some Uyghurs who have resorted to violence in recent years to protest Chinese rule.
But multiple Chinese officials and Communist Party members have publicly described all Uyghurs as impure, at risk of becoming corrupted by an extremist fringe. One city government in Xinjiang claimed religious Uyghurs are “poisoned by extremism, terrorism and separatism,” and urged them to turn themselves in to the government so they can undergo re-education. The youth wing of region’s Communist Party called the group “ideologically diseased,” while one civilian group tasked with monitoring Uyghur Muslims and enforcing religious restrictions said they had to “eradicate [the] tumors” in predominantly Uyghur areas. A security chief in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar recalled a government official describing Islamic extremists as weeds that must be systematically obliterated:
…You can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one by one – you need to spray chemicals to kill them all … re-educating these people is like spraying chemicals on the crops. That is why it is a general re-education, not limited to a few people.
These analogies seem tailor-made to justify a policy of mass internment. As the Atlantic’s Sigal Samuel writes, explaining the Chinese rhetoric: “attempting to inoculate a whole population against, say, the flu, requires giving flu shots just not just to the already-afflicted few, but to a critical mass of people.”
Such language and ideas are alarming, not only because of the evidence from victims’ experiences, but because this comes strikingly close to rhetoric used in the past by leaders around the globe who have committed atrocities on enormous scales. Messages portraying human groups as diseases (or as universally diseased) featured prominently in many episodes of mass human brutality, since they make that brutality seem necessary by describing target groups as a mortal threat. Like fatal diseases, target groups must be quarantined, removed, or eradicated, en masse. For example, Nazis frequently referred to Jews as diseased or as vermin, such as in the film The Eternal Jew, in which Jews are portrayed as plague-carrying rats. So too have violent leaders used agricultural analogies involving weeds: for Hutu leaders preparing the Rwandan genocide against Tutsis, killing Tutsi children was “pulling out the roots of the bad weeds,” and the architects of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire referred to their eventual victims as “malignant weeds.” Of course, that there are similarities between Chinese officials’ rhetoric about Uyghurs and the rhetoric of people who have committed atrocities does not mean that the secretive mass internment program will lead to a similar outcome in China – but in light of the evidence that does exist, the similarity is alarming.
Much of the foreign media coverage on this issue has repeated the shocking claim that 1-2 million people may be interned at the camps – originally made without a source by the Vice Chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It is impossible to verify the exact number without the cooperation of the Chinese government – but documents made public by a Uyghur exile group in Turkey (allegedly from sources within Xinjiang’s security agencies) estimate that there were approximately 892,000 detainees in Xinjiang province as of Spring 2018.
Documents uncovered by researchers inside and outside of China have also revealed information that suggests that the “vocational education and training centers” have more in common with prisons or internment camps than schools. Xinjiang party secretary Chen Quanguo said himself that the facilities should “teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison,” according to a Chinese government document obtained by Agence France-Presse. Job descriptions for positions at the facilities call for applicants with military or police experience, and construction bids were for prison-like features such as barbed wire, surrounding walls, watchtowers, “facilities for armed police forces,” and comprehensive surveillance technology. Furthermore, publicly-available purchase records show that government agencies bought thousands of police batons, handcuffs, pepper spray, and electrified cattle prods for use at the centers.
There are Uyghur extremists, terrorists, and Uyghurs who wish to secede from China, posing a threat to the state. In 2014, for example, Uyghur terrorists bombed a market in the Xinjiang capital of Ürümqi, killing 31 people, following an attack that same year in which Uyghur separatists committed fatal knife attacks at a train station, killing 29 people. One group in particular – the Turkestan Islamic Party – has fought alongside Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda in Syria, which Chinese military officials argue is evidence of international coordination among Uyghur terrorists.
Of the 10 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, most are neither active in – nor even sympathetic to – extremist or violent groups. Yet China has conflated nearly every expression of Islamic faith or Uyghur culture with the “sickness” of extremism. Growing a beard, fasting, eating halal foods, or simply receiving a call from a relative outside China can all be grounds for arbitrary imprisonment or harassment at a security checkpoint.
This policy of Muslim internment is only the harshest example of repression in Xinjiang, the gateway through which China has been building a trillion-dollar infrastructure project called “One Belt, One Road” that links its economy to economic and political hubs in East and West Asia, Europe, and Africa, and Chinese officials appear to be prepared to tighten their grasp of the region even more as it becomes more important to the country’s geopolitical future. To secure this enormous investment, China has established a massive, relentless surveillance state in Xinjiang, managed by Chen Quanguo, who used similar tactics in his former position as party secretary in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Residents of Xinjiang, especially Uyghur Muslims, have had to endure security checkpoints and constant video monitoring for more than two years. The government even required Muslims to install cell phone applications that would allow security officials to monitor their digital activity.
In spite of China’s strenuous efforts to control Xinjiang and to suppress the full truth of what is happening there, testimony like the account that Mihrigul Tursun gave to a U.S. Congressional committee will continue to reveal the scale of China’s abuses against Xinjiang’s Uyghurs. And as Xinjiang only becomes more and more important to China’s economic and geopolitical future, they may well become worse.
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