China is pursuing an extraordinary and outrageous policy in its far western province of Xinjiang. Beijing has been cracking down on the nation’s Uighur population there, a mostly Muslim group that until recently constituted a majority of people living in the province. It is estimated that as many as 1 million Uighurs have been relocated to camps where they receive “anti-extremist ideological education.” This program is Orwellian in its design and scope. The world must protest and demand that Beijing end this horrific practice.
China’s west has long been restive. Xinjiang province, a sprawling area that stretches 1.6 million square kilometers, is China’s largest administrative region and one of its least populated, with nearly 22 million residents, about 10 million of them Uighurs. It borders Central Asia and its residents share a religious and ethnic background foreign to that of the Han ethnic group that makes up an overwhelming majority of Chinese citizens elsewhere in the country. That difference and the distance from the capital have prompted fears of ethnic separatism in the region — a concern that was briefly made real during the Japanese occupation of China over 70 years ago.
There has been unrest in the region — riots in 2009 and sporadic outbreaks of violence since — but Chinese authorities have confused cause and effect. If the Muslim community is aggrieved, it is because of assimilation policies pushed by the government in Beijing and its local representatives, along with programs to resettle “reliable” Han in the region, which has fueled complaints as they displace native residents in the local economy.
Beijing is convinced, however, that those grievances are sparked by separatism and extremism, and has cracked down to protect security and territorial integrity. Over a year ago, the government began a massive surveillance program that is rivaled only by that of North Korea, but far more sophisticated. Iris scanners, closed-circuit TV and computer networks have been combined with old-fashioned block informers and a repressive police presence. Certain Muslim names for babies have been banned, along with the wearing of long beards and veils.
In recent months, satellite photos have revealed a growing network of education camps — human rights groups say there could be as many as 2,000 — where an estimated 1 million people are being held. In August, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reported that Uighurs and other Muslims were held for long periods of time without charge or trial “under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.” The conditions for detention are unknown: It is thought that having contacts with family overseas or even praying daily is enough to warrant arrest. Ominously, China has also reportedly engaged in a crash program to build orphanages for children of those detained, implying that family separations will last for some time.
China has begun to push back against the reports. First, it denied that camps existed. Then it quickly passed legislation earlier this month legalizing “vocational skill education training centers” and then launched a two-pronged diplomatic campaign insisting that the effort is needed to make the region safe and that camp residents are happy and content.
Shohrat Zakir, a senior Xinjiang government official, has been quoted by Chinese media as saying that China is fighting terrorism and extremism and that Xinjiang is “safe and stable. … People are no longer afraid of going out, shopping, dining and traveling.” But, he warned, “There is still a long way to go … to eradicate the environment and soil of terrorism and religious extremism.”
At the same time, official media portray the detention facilities as virtual holiday camps, where residents enjoy dancing, pingpong, free meals, TV and air conditioning. They receive legal education and job training, and, as a result, said Zakir, “They have realized that life can be so colorful.” He added that they now realize that “they are firstly citizens of the nation.” A Chinese TV documentary showed a detained person who enthused that “my brain is rich now. My life is rich as well.”
That is a sharp contrast to first-hand reports by former detainees who say they have been forced to undergo indoctrination, brainwashing and torture. Human rights groups assert that China is trying to stamp out the Muslim faith in the country.
China is hoping that Xinjiang is too far from prying eyes or that the threat of Islamic extremism will provide a suitable cover for its policies. That must not be allowed. As he tries to build a positive and forward-looking relationship with China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must protest on behalf of the Uighur population. Japan must back international efforts to investigate this situation: the U.N. Human Rights Council will hold a session on the detention of Uighurs early next month. Japan, and other defenders of human rights, must not be silent.