The Chinese government is currently operating prison camps holding almost millions of Muslims.
Over half of the population of Xinjiang, a province in Northwest China, is made up of the Muslim population and the majority of Muslims in this region are ethnic Uighurs according to The New York Times (NYT). Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that the Chinese government has tried to integrate this region for decades, but its efforts increased in the nineties after a previous period of lax government.
The state has increasingly moved Han Chinese, the majority ethnicity in China into Xinjiang and displaced Uighurs; HRW reports that in 1949, 75% of Xinjiang was Uighur and 7% Han, but now the province is 46% Uighur and 36% Han. The Chinese government has even gone as far as renaming the “Arabic sounding” Aiyi River, to the Mandarin, Diannong River, according to The Independent.
NYT reports that after a peak in anti-government violence in 2014, which killed hundreds, China instituted the “Strike Hard” plan.
Under this measure, the government has placed thousands of security personnel in the region, drastically increased surveillance and forced people to register if they want to attend mosques. The government has also imprisoned hundreds of thousands in what it calls “transformation through education.” The government also forced citizens in the capital district, of Xinjiang, Urumqi to install surveillance apps on their phones and if asked they have to hand them over to security personnel for inspection according to NYT.
The government has also confiscated the passports of many Muslims, and Muslims studying abroad were all forced to return to China in 2017 according to HRW. It goes on to report that in April 2017, China outlawed “abnormal” beards, veils and has banned parents from naming children Islamic names.
When the government arrests individuals under these new laws, if they are charged at all, conditions in the prison camps are torturous. NYT reports that prisoners are forced to renounce aspects of Islam, learn Chinese culture and in some cases are physically tortured. This mass imprisonment is depopulating small minority towns according to NYT.
NYT also interviewed a Muslim that the Chinese government had formerly imprisoned. The government arrested Abdusalam Muhemet for quoting a passage from the Quran at a funeral. He was thrown in a cell for seven months and spent a further two months in a re-education camp. He said that prisoners were forced to write “self-criticism essays” and had to sing patriotic songs with verses like “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.”
The mass imprisonment in the region is stark; although the Xinjiang has 1.5% of the population, 20% of the prisoners in China come from this region according to NYT. To afford the increase in prisons and surveillance, the government spent nearly $8.7 billion on security in Xinjiang in 2017 and doubling the previous year’s budget.
With this new budget, the government can afford to set up checkpoints throughout the province, search peoples homes for prayer mats and forbidden books and employ “Party Work Teams” according to NYT. These work teams move into villages and encourage neighbors to inform on each other.
In addition to the ‘Strike Hard Initiative’, the Chinese government has instituted “Physicals for All.” Under this plan implemented in Xinjiang, Chinese officials collect biometric data on all residents between the ages of 12 and 65, according to HRW. This biometric data includes pictures, fingerprints, iris scans, blood samples and DNA samples; “focus personnel,” people considered to be subversive, as well as their families all have to give biometric data regardless of age.
As of Nov. 1 2017, HRW reported that 18.8 million people in Xinjiang had their biometric data collected. Officials say that the initiative is in place to increase public health in the relatively impoverished region.
Despite reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, there has been relatively little international attention on this issue.
Vice President, Mike Pence, said in a speech that the Uighurs were being oppressed and noted that the behavior of the Chinese government is “abhorrent,” and the State Department has acknowledged that China is detaining “hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions [of muslims]” but the United States has taken no action according to NYT.
The only other significant international reactions to the ethnic cleansing, as reported by NYT, occurred on Aug. 10 when a United Nations panel asked Chinese diplomats about the abuse of Muslims within China. The officials said that the measures were in place to bring stability and unity to the region. This is the same government that HRW reports has endorsed the genocide of Rohingya in Burma as a firm response to “Islamic terrorists.”