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Sigal Samuel answers 8 key questions about the Chinese crackdown on Uighur Muslims

Future Perfect reporter Sigal Samuel has spent the past year investigating the humanitarian crisis in western China.

A Uighur woman passes the Communist Party of China flag on the wall in 2017 in Urumqi, China.
Wang He/Getty Images

Over the past year, Vox Future Perfect reporter Sigal Samuel has been investigating China’s campaign of repression against Uighur Muslims, 1 million of whom are being held in internment camps in the northwestern Xinjiang region. On April 26, Sigal did a Reddit Ask Me Anything session, discussing everything from the actions civilians in the US can take to help the Uighurs to the international community’s response to the crisis. Here’s a roundup of some of the most interesting questions and answers, lightly edited for clarity.

1) Why are Uighurs targeted in the first place?

Stanislav1: Can you give us a quick history lesson on how this started in China?

Sigal: China has been worried for a long time that the Uighurs will want to split off from China and make Xinjiang an independent homeland (a lot of Uighurs refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan). The Chinese paint the Uighurs as a separatist threat as well as a terrorist threat. So they claim “de-extremification” in camps is necessary for national security. There’s more background in this link, which you might find useful.

Capitalist_Model: Why are they targeting a fringe and such a specific religion?

Sigal: For China, it’s not fringe. The Uighurs are concentrated in Xinjiang, a very important region, both because it’s oil- and resource-rich and because it’s geographically central to China’s huge new infrastructure project, the Belt and Road initiative. China feels it needs to have tight control over Xinjiang; otherwise, that project could be jeopardized. And China has long feared that separatist Uighurs will try to create an independent homeland in Xinjiang.

2) What exactly goes on in the internment camps?

NYLaw: Is there any evidence of violence used in these camps in order to “re-educate” the Uighur folks who are unfortunately subjected to internment? How badly are they being treated?

Sigal: Unfortunately, all the evidence suggests that violence is being used and that the conditions in the camps are very bad. There have been reports of torture and death. We know this from detainees who’ve made it out of the camps, and from former guards there. You can also get a sense of what goes on in the camps by examining the lists of equipment that the Chinese government agencies order for the camps — in one case, that included 2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray.

3) How do we know about the things that go on inside the camps?

uproxx4tron: Have you collected any evidence from the camps yourself?

Sigal: I haven’t seen the camps firsthand, but I’ve seen video from inside the camps and have seen Chinese government documents, construction bids, social media posts, etc. I really recommend checking out the work of scholars like Adrian Zenz and Timothy Grose, Uighur activists like @uyghur_nur on Twitter, and on-the-ground reporters like Josh Chin of the Wall Street Journal. Here’s one paper by Zenz that I think is especially illuminating.

4) How have the governments of Muslim-majority countries reacted to China’s crackdown on Muslim minorities?

hankhillforprez: What has been the response from the broader Muslim world, and specifically from governments such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan?

Sigal: The response from the broader Muslim world has been pretty muted on the whole. There have been a few exceptions. Malaysia and Indonesia have criticized China for the camps. Turkey released an unusually strong statement in February slamming China. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has actually defended China’s “right” to place Uighurs in these camps, in the name of “national security.”

5) Is China’s strategy just an attempt to spur ethnic violence in order to justify more repressive policies?

LivingAncientHistory: If the Chinese Communist Party is effectively trying to de-Islamicize and de-Uighurize Xinjiang, then their policies of choice seem not only crude and ineffective, but potentially leading to the very opposite outcome: repression on ethnic lines leads inevitably to an invigoration of national feeling, with varying degrees of violence (Korea, Catalonia, East Timor, Palestine, Kashmir). Do you suspect this could actually be a strategy of the CCP to elicit violence in Xinjiang (e.g., suicide bombers and the like) in order to justify even more aggressive policies of repression and ethnic cleansing in the future? Or are they just really, really obtuse?

Sigal: I agree this will be an extremely ineffective strategy, and worse, it’s likely to backfire. This is what sociologists call “reactive ethnicity” — when you have a policy to ban a practice, so people double down on it in protest. My best guess is that China is not instituting this policy with the specific intention of eliciting violence, but that they really are seeking to indoctrinate (we’ve seen China use this strategy before, toward Falun Gong). But there’s not much point in speculating either way, I suspect.

6) How does Western Islamophobia factor into how neglected this humanitarian crisis has been?

TanktopSamurai: Do you think the way Muslims were presented in the Western media plays a role in the Western lack of popular response?

Sigal: Yes. I was really dismayed to see that when I published an article about how China is likening Islam to a mental illness, a lot of people on social media responded saying they agree with China.

One thought experiment I think is worth doing: How would the world respond if this were a story about a million Christians being locked up in internment camps? I’m pretty sure the global response to such a crisis would be unhesitating.

7) What is the difference between “internment camps” and “concentration camps”?

_BindersFullOfWomen_: Who came up with the descriptor of “internment camps”? Was it China or rather news agencies once they started reporting on it? I only ask because what I’ve seen and read about the camps likens them more to concentration camps of Germany in World War II than the Japanese internment camps established under FDR.

Sigal: Good question. Academic researchers and news agencies started using the term “internment camps” (and I use this term in my own reporting). For a long time, China was insisting that the camps are just innocent “vocational schools,” so the goal was to make clear they are not that. Some academics I interviewed told me they actually think the term “concentration camp” is more accurate here (and considering the electric cattle prods and other methods that are being used in the camps, there’s a solid argument to be made for that), but that they have so far avoided using the term because they didn’t want the public to think they were just being hyperbolic.

8) How can the international community help?

BrownBetaMale: Do you think there is any way for the international community to do anything about this? China is so economically tied to so many powerful countries that it seems doubtful anybody would step up and stop them.

Sigal: I think you’re right that China’s economic power is a big reason why the international response has been so muted. Here in the US, folks can call or write to their representatives to let them know this is a humanitarian crisis they care about and want to see political action on. They can show support for the Xinjiang Uyghur Human Rights Act, a bipartisan bill that recommends considering several responses to China’s crackdown, including imposing sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the camps.

I also think there are things people can do to support Uighurs in the diaspora. As China is trying to erase their culture back home, Uighurs in the US and Europe are trying to make sure their kids will learn the Uighur language, for example at Ana Care Uighur Language School in Fairfax, Virginia. People can support those institutions. Another thing I’ve found really gutting is that with so many parents in internment camps now, a lot of Uighur students in the US are no longer getting financial help from them. In some cases, the students were relying on their parents’ help to pay for college. People can consider starting a scholarship fund to help out.


Watch: China’s secret internment camps


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