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China’s brutal crackdown on the Uighur Muslim minority, explained

China pushed back against international criticism at a UN human rights panel on Tuesday.

Uyghur Life Endures in Kashgar’s Old City
A Uighur man makes bread at a local bakery on July 1, 2017, in Kashgar, in China’s far western Xinjiang province.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

China was sharply criticized for its mass detention of members of the Muslim Uighur community at a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting on Tuesday — but the country pushed back, saying that the condemnation was politically motivated.

Western governments, including those in Europe, the United States, and Canada, had the harshest words for China. The United States chargé d’affaires Mark Cassayre demanded that China “abolish all forms of arbitrary detention” for Uighurs and other Muslims minorities, and that China release the “possibly millions” of individuals detained there.

China’s Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng dismissed these and other comments as “politically driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases.”

China has detained as many as 1 million Uighurs in so-called “reeducation centers” and forced them to undergo psychological indoctrination programs — like studying communist propaganda and giving thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese authorities have also reportedly used waterboarding and other forms of torture on the ethnic minority.

The Chinese government, however, claims that the camps are merely vocational and training centers intended to combat extremism, and that they’re teaching detainees useful and valuable skills. On Tuesday, Le, the foreign minister, made similar arguments. “This protects the human rights of the vast majority, while also saving these people,” he said. “It’s another important contribution of China’s to the global counterterror field.”

Members of the UN Human Rights Council from Africa and the Middle East didn’t offer vocal criticism, but the confrontation between China and Western UN member states is the latest development in a long-simmering crisis. Here’s what you need to know.

China is targeting the Uighur Muslim community

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Xinjiang, where about 10 million Uighurs and a few other Muslim minorities live, is an autonomous region in China’s northwest that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. It has been under Chinese control since 1949, when the communist People’s Republic of China was established.

Uighurs speak their own language — an Asian Turkic language similar to Uzbek — and most practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam. Some activists, including those who seek independence from China, refer to the region as East Turkestan.

Once situated along the ancient Silk Road trading route, Xinjiang is oil- and resource-rich. As it developed along with the rest of China, the region attracted more Han Chinese, a migration encouraged by the Chinese government.

But that demographic shift inflamed ethnic tensions, especially within some of the larger cities. In 2009, for example, riots broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, after Uighurs protested their treatment by the government and the Han majority. About 200 people were killed and hundreds injured during the unrest.

The Chinese government, however, blamed the protests on violent separatist groups — a tactic it would continue to use against the Uighurs and other religious and ethnic minorities across China.

Xinjiang is also a major logistics hub of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure project along the old Silk Road meant to boost China’s economic and political influence around the world. Xinjiang’s increasing importance to China’s global aspirations is likely a major reason Beijing is tightening its grip.

All of which means China has increasingly tried to draw Xinjiang into its orbit, starting with a crackdown in 2009 following riots in the region and leading up to the implementation of repressive policies in 2016 and 2017 that have curbed religious freedom and increased surveillance of the minority population, often under the guise of combating terrorism and extremism.

The Chinese government justifies its clampdown on the Uighurs and Muslim minorities by saying it’s trying to eradicate extremism and separatist groups. But while attacks, some violent, by Uighur separatists have occurred in recent years, there’s little evidence of any cohesive separatist movement — with jihadist roots or otherwise — that could challenge the Chinese government, experts tell me.

China’s “de-extremification” policies against the Uighurs

Uyghur Life Endures in Kashgar’s Old City
An ethnic Uighur man has his beard trimmed after prayers on June 30, 2017, in Kashgar, in Xinjiang.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

China’s crackdown on the Uighurs is part of a policy of “de-extremification.” It’s generated repressive policies, from the banning of certain Muslim names for babies to chilling reports of torture and political indoctrination in so-called “reeducation” camps where hundreds of thousands have been detained.

Communist China has a dark history with reeducation camps, combining hard labor with indoctrination to the party line. According to research by Adrian Zenz, a leading scholar on China’s policies toward the Uighurs, Chinese officials began using dedicated camps in Xinjiang around 2014 — around the same time that China blamed a series of terrorist attacks on radical Uighur separatists.

China escalated pressure on Muslim minorities through 2017, slowly chipping away at their rights with the passage of religious regulations and a counterterrorism law, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a pro-Uighur group based in Washington, DC.

In 2016, Xinjiang also got a new leader: a powerful Communist Party boss named Chen Quanguo, whose previous job was restoring order and control to the restive region of Tibet. Chen has a reputation as a strongman and is something of a specialist in ethnic crackdowns.

Increased surveillance and police presence accompanied his move to Xinjiang, including his “grid management” policing system. As the Economist reported, “authorities divide each city into squares, with about 500 people. Every square has a police station that keeps tabs on the inhabitants. So, in rural areas, does every village.”

Security checkpoints where residents must scan identification cards were set up at train stations and on roads into and out of towns. Authorities have reportedly used facial recognition technology to track residents’ movements. Police confiscate phones to download the information contained on them to scan through later. Police have also confiscated passports to prevent Uighurs from traveling abroad.

Some of the targeted “de-extremification” restrictions gained coverage in the West, including a ban on certain Muslim names for babies and another on long beards and veils. The government also made it illegal to not watch state television and to not send children to government schools. The government reportedly tried to promote drinking and smoking, because people who didn’t drink or smoke — like devout Muslims — were deemed suspicious.

Chinese officials have justified these policies as necessary to counter religious radicalization and extremism, but critics say they are meant to curtail Islamic traditions and practices.

The Chinese government is “trying to expunge ethnonational characteristics from the people,” James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University, told me. “They’re not trying to drive them out of the country; they’re trying to hold them in.”

“The ultimate goal, the ultimate issue that the Chinese state is targeting [is] the cultural practices and beliefs of Muslim groups,” he added.

What we know, and don’t know, about the detention camps

Uyghur Life Endures in Kashgar’s Old City
A Chinese flag flies over a local mosque closed by authorities in June 2017, in Kashgar, in the far western autonomous region of Xinjiang, China.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

“Reeducation camps” — or training camps, as the Chinese have called them — are perhaps the most sinister pillar of this de-extremification policy. Experts estimate as many as 2 million people have disappeared into these camps at some point, with about 1 million currently being held.

The Chinese government first denied these camps even existed. When confronted about them at the United Nations in August, officials claimed they were for the “assistance and education” of minor criminals. China’s state-run media has dismissed the reports of detention camps as Western media “baselessly criticizing China’s human rights.”

But China has since stopped pretending that the camps aren’t real. Instead, the government is trying to cast them as both lawful and innocuous. In October, Chinese officials effectively legalized the “education camps” for the stated goal of eradicating extremism. Later that month, a government official in Xinjiang — who was himself an ethnic Uighur — compared the detention centers to “boarding schools” and its detainees to “students.”

“Many trainees have said they were previously affected by extremist thought and had never participated in such kinds of arts and sports activities. Now they realize how colorful life can be,” Xinjiang governor Shorat Zakir reportedly told Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

The fact that the Chinese government is spreading misinformation makes it difficult to find out what’s really going on, but leaked documents and firsthand accounts from people detained at the camps have helped paint a disturbing picture of the camps.

Millward, the Georgetown professor, said the Chinese authorities see the camps as “a kind of conversion therapy, and they talk about it that way.”

A source also told Radio Free Asia that a Chinese official had referred to the “reeducation” process as similar to “spraying chemicals on the crops. That is why it is general reeducation, not limited to a few people.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin and Clément Bürge, who documented the increasingly oppressive state surveillance in Xinjiang in a December 2017 report, described one of these detention centers:

One new compound sits a half-hour drive south of Kashgar, a Uighur-dominated city near the border with Kyrgyzstan. It is surrounded by imposing walls topped with razor wire, with watchtowers at two corners. A slogan painted on the wall reads: “All ethnic groups should be like the pods of a pomegranate, tightly wrapped together.”

Those detained in the camps are often accused of having “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas, according to Radio Free Asia. But Zenz, the researcher, said people are often detained for arbitrary reasons.

“Many Uighur-majority regions have been ordered to detain a certain percentage of the adult population even if no fault was found. Detentions frequently occur for no discernible reasons,” Zenz said of the detainees.

Though Chinese government officials might try to paint these “reeducation camps” as enriching experiences, a report published in October by the French news service Agence France-Presse undermined that narrative.

The report described camps where thousands of guards carrying spiked clubs, tear gas, and stun guns surveil the detainees, who are held in buildings surrounded by razor wire and infrared cameras. AFP journalists also reviewed public documents that showed government agencies overseeing the camps purchased 2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray.

Inside these camps, detainees are reportedly subjected to bizarre exercises aimed at “brainwashing” them, as well as physical torture and deprivation.

The Washington Post published an account from Kayrat Samarkand, who was detained in one of the camps for three months:

The 30-year-old stayed in a dormitory with 14 other men. After the room was searched every morning, he said, the day began with two hours of study on subjects including “the spirit of the 19th Party Congress,” where Xi expounded his political dogma in a three-hour speech, and China’s policies on minorities and religion. Inmates would sing communist songs, chant “Long live Xi Jinping” and do military-style training in the afternoon before writing accounts of their day, he said.

“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,” Samarkand told the Post.

At a July hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China — a special committee set up by Congress to monitor human rights in China — Jessica Batke, a former research analyst at the State Department, testified that “in at least some of these facilities, detainees are subject to waterboarding, being kept in isolation without food and water, and being prevented from sleeping.”

“They are interrogated about their religious practices and about having made trips abroad,” Batke continued. “They are forced to apologize for the clothes they wore or for praying in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

A lot of criticism but very little action

This UN panel is the latest international body to harshly criticize China’s detainment of the Uighurs. But China has continued to push back against human rights allegations, and there’s no sign that Beijing appears ready to shift its policies.

Zenz suggested in August that increased international pressure might prompt China to disguise their reeducation regime a bit more, or possibly tone down its policies. But so far, the country has pursued the former, trying to portray these centers as “colorful” cultural and educational experiences, rather than arbitrary detention centers.

“China’s stance at the moment is more one of justification, distraction, and defiance,” Zenz wrote.

Some lawmakers in the United States are trying to draw attention to the plight of the Uighurs, including pushing the Trump administration to sanction Chen, the strongman leader of Xinjiang, and other officials and businesses complicit in the detention and surveillance of citizens.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), who co-chair the Congressional Executive Commission on China, sent a letter in August that called on the US government to sanction Chen, the strongman leader of Xinjiang, and other officials and businesses complicit in the detention and surveillance of citizens.

The Congressional Executive Commission on China, under the leadership of Rubio and Smith, has also continued to push for action. In October, the committee released a report detailing human rights violations in China, with a particular focus on the plight of the Uighurs. Those lawmakers are pushing bipartisan legislation that would force the Trump administration to condemn these “reeducation centers” and push for sanctions.

But the State Department, when asked by reporters in November whether the US was considering sanctions against China for its treatment of the Uighurs, said it would not preview any possible sanctions, but said the US remained alarmed at the situation in China.

“The United States will continue to demand transparency and access for diplomats and journalists to Xinjiang,” deputy State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino said, “and we urge China to immediately release all those arbitrarily detained in these camps.”

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