The BBC report China’s Hidden Camps, published on October 24th this year, reveals evidence suggesting that China has rapidly expanded the number of security facilities in the Xinjiang province over the past two years. Located in the northwest of China, Xinjiang is home to around 8 million of the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority. The BBC reported that “There is unmistakable substance of a rapidly expanding network of mass confinement”. Estimates suggest that as many as one million Uighurs could be detained in these camps.
Chinese authorities deny allegations of mass-detentions of Uighur Muslims and call these facilities ‘vocational training camps’. Upon reaching the construction site of one of these facilities, the BBC reporters have been stopped by police and are then forced to leave the area. The reporter then questions what has also been echoed by Nury Turkel, chairman of the Uyghur Human Rights Project; if these sites are purely there for educational purposes, why are journalists and independent researchers continuously denied access to them?
Victor Gao, vice president for the Chinese think tank ‘Center for China and Globalisation’ claims that the government has a right to counter “the three evils” of terrorism, extremism and separatism
Regional security issues in Xinjiang have not been treated lightly by Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Previous attempts to ensure stability in the region included encouragement of mass-immigration of Han Chinese to the region and government investment in regional industry and infrastructure. Following terrorist attacks in 2013 and 2014 by Uighur separatist groups, tighter measures of control have been implemented.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Victor Gao, vice president for the Chinese think tank ‘Center for China and Globalisation’ claims that the government has a right to counter “the three evils” of terrorism, extremism and separatism. Uighur terrorism and separatist activity, Gao argues, is threatening to China’s national security. The current exercise of control through the ‘de-extremification measure’, however, contains legal penalties for customs of culture and identity. This includes banning the use of hijab, growth of long beards, and giving newborn children Islamic sounding names.
These policies indicate a significant shift in government strategy to tackling issues of regional security. The ‘de-extremification measure’ specifically targets Uighur identity. The BBC reports “separatism is no longer framed as a problem of a few isolated individuals but as a problem inherent in Uighur culture and Islam in general.”
China claims that the ‘vocational training centres’ in Xinjiang are educational facilities used to prevent the spread of terrorism and ensure regional stability. “We must hold onto our belief that keeping turmoil away from Xinjiang is the greatest human right” an editorial piece stated in Global Times, a pro-CCP newspaper. The BBC report showcases films created by Chinese authorities from inside the camps, depicting classrooms of Muslim adults voluntarily undergoing training and re-education. US journalist and Uighur rights activist Gulchehra Hoja argues that participation in these classes is far from voluntary. “Every Uighur has a friend or family member in the detention camps”, without knowing where they are, or how they are, Hoja says. The UN recently issued a report, voicing concern over the “detention of large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods”.
“Separatism is no longer framed as a problem of a few isolated individuals but as a problem inherent in Uighur culture and Islam in general.”
Numerous human rights groups, among them Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, condemn the mass-detention and discrimination of the Uighur minority. If the sites depicted in the satellite images from the BBC reports are in fact the construction of more camps, some of which experts say could hold up to 130000 people, the extent to which Chinese authorities will go to prevent separatist sentiments is evident. The question then becomes what the international community can or will do.
It is difficult to obtain proof of these allegations, as independent investigators are denied access, while there are also high stakes for regional and global actors in upsetting Chinese authorities. In the weeks that unfold, it seems the international community has been put to a test; supporting the rights of ethnic minorities or maintaining regional and global alliances.
Photograph: Gusjer via Flickr Creative Commons