Millions Already in Re-education Camps, and Millions More to Come

Yuying Wang ‘23

Uyghurs: a predominantly Turkic-speaking ethnic group primarily from China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. Since April of 2017, China has established hundreds of re-education camps to detain Uyghurs, in addition to other Muslims, including Kazakhs and Uzbeks. Camps have an estimated number of more than eight hundred thousand to two million individuals of these origins. People in these camps are not directly linked to any illegal records, but the government has found them contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, attending services at mosques, and sending texts containing Quranic verses. Human rights groups put their crime as just being Muslim, and the Chinese government is intending to change this aspect of their lives “for the better of their nation.”


From a different perspective, the reason behind the detainment of Uyghurs is the constant fear that they hold extremist and separatist ideas of any sort that may threaten China’s territorial integrity, government, and population. Freedom of religion has long been a struggle in China; although five relgions are recognized—Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism—the Chinese majorly fear that foreigners could possibly use these religious practices to provoke separatism. In 2014, President Xi Jinping was quick to address the warning of the “toxicity of religious extremism” to the Chinese Communist Party. He also advocated for using means of “dictatorship” to attempt to elliminate Islamist extremism. Ever since that point on, security has been dramatically intensified in Xinjiang, specifically under the supervision of Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s Communist Party secretary. In further efforts to eliminate extremism, Xinjiang’s government passed an anti-extremism law that prohibits any religious cultures. Advancing in their paranoia connecting between extremism and religion, Uyghurs have served as the scapegoat. They have been continuously blamed for a multitude of random terrorist attacks at local government offices and breakout riots out on the streets. 


Now that a majority of the Uyghur population is located in Xinjiang, it is known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Although it is considered part of China, taking up one-sixth of its landmass, Uyghurs refer to the region as East Turkestan. Because its population is dominantly made up of Uyghurs, they have repeatedly tried to argue that it should be independent from China as a whole. But, China seems to have declined this request. At first, government officials of China even denied that camps such as these existed within their borders. However, starting from October 2018, Chen Quanguo and his government officials have started calling them centers for “vocational education and training programs.” Then, changing in March 2019, they were just known as just vocational training centers, and Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang’s governor describes them as being boarding schools that provide job skills to trainees who are voluntarily admitted and allowed to leave the camps, two conditions that have been proven to be false. The camps have two main purposes: to teach the proper Chinese order such as language, laws and vocational skills, and to prevent their own citizens from becoming influenced by extremist ideas. Just last year, documents from within the government were leaked, showing how officials oppressed Uyghurs’ freedoms, locked them in camps, and prevented them from ever leaving. This is the exact opposite of what the Chinese announced prior to this mishap. But, nothing can get in their way as they have increased funding in these facilities by more than 20 billion yuan (around $2.96 billion) from 2017. But, at the moment, by all the criticism that they have received, chinese officials have supposedly started opening up the doors of the detainment camps, and letting a steady stream of people out, or that’s what they claimed to be doing, there has not been an apparent effect.


Outside of these camps, on the streets of Xinjiang, conditions have gotten more severe as well. In an effort to keep an eye on every citizen, they have increased their security by regularly scanning identification cards, taking their photographs and fingerprints, and searching their private cell phones. In other cities, police checkpoints are found every one hundred yards or so, and facial-recognition cameras are located in close proximity to basically every city. But that’s not all they have done. As for the religious component of the scenario, officials have destroyed mosques, claiming that the buildings were unsafe for worshippers. Also, certain names such as Mohammed and Medina were strictly prohibited. Even more so, Halal food have been banned, making it harder for Muslims to practice their religion.


On another note, just recently, as the coronavirus becomes a serious topic of discussion in China, where it originated, the virus imposes a colossal threat to the camps. The Uyghur camps are cramped places with poor sanitation and living conditions. Even in the United States, advocates such as James Millward, professor of Chinese History in Georgetown University in Washington hypothesize that if the internees are kept in the camps for much longer, it is possible that the coronavirus may spread at the spread of lightning, having the ability to wipe out a majority of the population there. To overcome this challenge, many are urging the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to send people currently living in the camps back to where they came from, lowering the risk from an epidemic.


The global response to these actions have been unanimous. Human rights organizations have urged China to immediately shut down the camps and answer the questions about the significant decrease in the population of Uyghurs. The UN officials have demanded access to the camps to know what goes inside the walls. Even the European Union has called on China to respect religious freedom and change its policies in Xinjiang. However, Muslim nations have kept silent about the human rights abuses. Moreover, more than three dozen states, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, have signed their own letter praising China’s remarkable achievements in human rights and its counterterrorism efforts in Xinjiang. As of 2019, Turkey has become the only Muslim-majority country to actually voice concerns about their own people, but still just calling on China to ensure “the full protection of the cultural identities of Uyghurs and other Muslims” during a UN Human Rights Council session. In fact, after China received backfiring from crowds of people, more than 37 countries came to defend what China has done. Nearly half of these countries were Muslim-majority nations including, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Nonetheless, the US and other countries have become activists in this cause by publicly challenging President Xi and granting asylum to Uyghurs who have fled the harsh conditions of Xinjiang.


Now that this topic has become a serious issue that is continuing to worsen at exponential levels, the people from various places in the world have their heads turned, observing what China will do next about these camps. Many organizations have been more unified to stop this action, and larger scale associations have also taken steps to prevent these camps from functioning any longer. As for China, as they are criticised more and more each day, the pressure to release people from its camps will accumulate rapidly. Now, it’s only up to China to decide what will happen next, and where all these people will end up.