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BEIJING — In China’s western Xinjiang region, populated by mostly Turkic-speaking Muslims, up to one in 12 Muslim residents languish in political re-education camps, according to the United Nations. Many have been confined for seemingly inoffensive activities, including:
Abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes. Having too many children. Owning a tent or a compass. Refusing to let officials take a retinal scan or a DNA sample. Giving a deceased relative a traditional Muslim burial instead of cremation. Traveling abroad, or just having spoken with someone who has.
“Straight out of George Orwell” is how outgoing U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley described the persecution of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang by a government dominated by the ethnic Chinese, or Han, majority.
Social control is aided by facial-recognition software. Local ethnic Uighur Muslims making the traditional Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, must wear government-issued electronic monitoring devices.
Yet much of the coercion remains face-to-face, relying on “an erosion of social trust,” according to James Leibold, an expert on China’s policies on minorities at La Trobe University in Australia. “Husbands don’t trust wives, Han Chinese don’t trust Uighurs, brothers don’t trust sisters.
“Is Orwell the best metaphor?" Leibold asked. "Maybe Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ is a better one, where someone is detained but he doesn’t know why, or what might happen to him.”
For decades, Western criticism of Beijing’s oppressiverule in Xinjiang met with stony silence or denials.
Recently, that changed. On Oct. 16,the governor ofXinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, delivered the most detailed justification to date for the re-education camps, describing inmates as “students” in Xinjiang’s “vocational education and training program.”
According to Zakir, camp inmates live in air-conditioned dorms under “humane” conditions. They watch movies. They acquire job skills to become tailors, e-commerce traders and hairdressers.
Zakir’s statement, reported at length by China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency, reflected a new approach by Beijing: an all-out propaganda campaign to legitimize its practices in the region.
Up to 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims are held in Xinjiang’s camps, according to a U.N. report released in August. Until recently, however, Chinese authorities rarely acknowledged that the extra-judicial facilities even existed.
Officials have long ruled this Central Asian outpost with a heavy hand, viewing it as an incubator for terrorism and separatism, “but originally [they] tried to do it by stealth,” Leibold said.
Then, on Aug. 13, officials were stunned and embarrassed when international criticism erupted at a meeting of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Gay McDougall, the committee’s special rapporteur for China, called Xinjiang “a massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy, a no-rights zone."
At the meeting, China rejected the allegations.
And now, Beijing is pushing back. Government apparatchiks seem suddenly to be everywhere, spreading Beijing’s side of the story.
The unusually descriptive comments by Zakir — himself a Uighur — were a bid to help legitimize the camps. State-run television broadcast prime-time video of Uighur students reading a lesson titled: “I am a law-abiding citizen.”
Global Times, a pro-government daily newspaper that often publishes nationalistic viewpoints, praised the “vocational training centers, where people who are brainwashed by extreme thoughts and have committed misdemeanors” are taught the Chinese language, laws and job skills.
Other officials tried to dilute Muslims’ strict adherence to the “halal” foods permitted under Islam. Senior prosecutor Ilshat Osman, also a Uighur, published a commentary titled: “Friend, you do not have to find a halal restaurant especially for me.”
Why the urgency behind this narrative? It is too simple to assume Beijing sees President Donald Trump as abandoning longstanding American pressure in support of human rights and freedom of the press. And Chinese policymakers in recent years could not have missed the fact that brutal autocrats were on a roll, from Moscow to Manila, from Ankara to Riyadh.
Chinese leaders are driven by domestic politics. Experts say the ruling Communist Party fears internal challenges similar to the centrifugal forces — including ethnic fissures — that once tore apart the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. While Leibold believes China “is not likely to unravel at the ethnic seams as the U.S.S.R. did,” he said the possibility feeds “Beijing’s existential anxiety.”
Another reason is Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s obsession with control. Compared to his predecessors, Xi moved unusually fast to consolidate power. He appointed himself head of numerous “small leading groups” in government. He promoted loyal military officers. He pursued a ruthless anti-corruption drive that conveniently toppled key rivals.
Richard McGregor, senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and author of a book on China’s leaders, added that “officials on the ground tend to implement with zealotry what they think are Xi’s policies, preferring to exceed their mandate rather than risk falling short.”
Officials are also eyeing the countdown to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. When the capital last hosted the Games, the 2008 Summer Olympics, ethnic unrest exploded in Tibet, another minority area. Authorities scrambled to avert a PR disaster.
With the 2022 event looming, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., this month condemned the Xinjiang crackdowns and urged the International Olympic Committee to review China’s hosting of the games. He also proposed that an imprisoned Uighur academic, Ilham Tohti, be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
'A convenient cudgel to whack China'
Paradoxically, the high-tech nature of China’s surveillance system may be fueling paranoia at the top. Maochun Yu, a professor of East Asia and military history at the U.S. Naval Academy, described Xinjiang’s domestic intelligence network as a “draconian high-tech, all-weather, round-the-clock total electronic surveillance dragnet.”
Across a population of more than 1.3 billion, China’s nationwide monitoring systems must be detecting countless embryonic threats. The effect on Chinese officials could be “not to reassure them, but in fact to freak them out,” says Lowy’s McGregor.
It might explain why Xinjiang’s camps appear designed to nip “pre-criminal” tendencies in the bud. While prisons are for convicted criminals, these “de-radicalization facilities” try to indoctrinate wayward but unconvicted Muslims into ethnic Chinese society. Omurbek Eli, an ethnic Uighur, told Radio Free Asia that he learned Mandarin Chinese, sang patriotic songs, studied Communist Party laws and regulations, and took weekly exams.
“Sleeping hours were from 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. In the morning, all beds had to be made in military style,” Eli recalled. “If one failed to do so, it was considered an ideological failure."
“Instructors informed you of trials and sentences, and what offenses they were related to. This was to create fear," he said. "I now suffer from post-traumatic disorder and can no longer sleep properly.”
Can this sort of indoctrination — and the new strategy to legitimize it — work? One risk for Beijing is that harsh treatment to Sinicize ethnic Uighurs could fuel the anti-government sentiment that it is intended to suppress. And now that Xinjiang is being talked about more, it may become the thin end of a wedge prying Washington and Beijing further apart — something China’s critics would welcome.
“Xinjiang is an important wedge issue, which is ironic given some U.S. policies toward the Muslim world,” Leibold said. “We’re seeing the re-emergence of human rights as a China issue. Xinjiang is a convenient cudgel to whack China over the head with.”
Within the Trump administration, critics of China are on the ascent, agrees McGregor, while those who supported engagement with Beijing "are very isolated right now.”
For Chinese authorities, however, maintaining control at home is always more important than winning friends overseas.