Content warnings: ethnic cleansing, violence, internment camps, islamophobia, torture
Please be aware that in compiling this resource we are relying heavily on 'foreign affairs' journalism and navigating both pro-China propaganda and Western propaganda. As such, we acknowledge the potential limitations of this resource, and welcome feedback and critique at email@example.com.
Poster in Xinjiang that reads "stability is a blessing, instability is a calamity".
In the north-western region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), satellite images have shown the building of several prison-like structures with watchtowers, razor wire fences and surveillance systems. Communist China’s leaders call them educational and vocational training centres which are helping to alleviate poverty and combat religious extremism in the XUAR, but evidence proves a much grimmer reality. Over one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and members of other Muslim ethnic groups have been imprisoned without trial, and accounts from the camps suggest that forced labour, overcrowding, being forced to renounce Islam and pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), violence, and torture are commonplace.
Outside of the camps in Xinjiang’s once bustling and energetic towns, civilians live in fear for their missing loved ones and that they, too, could be detained at any moment. Every family is believed to have one or more member in one of the camps. The capital city Urumqi has been described as ‘China’s Surveillance State’, with surveillance cameras and police checkpoints at every corner and facial recognition technology. Violence and policing of ethnic and religious expression has increased significantly in recent years, sending chilling reminders of the treatment of China’s Muslim populations during Mao’s Cultural Revolution - prison sentences for outward expressions of Islam, the cancelling of Eid and Nawruz celebrations, forcing Muslims to eat pork and raise pigs as livestock, and controlled Han influx into the region (Han populations have increased from 6.7% to 40% since 1949).
As we condemn human rights abuses in Xinjiang, we must reflect on the continuities between anti-Muslim state violence in the PRC, and the regime of surveillance and detention that exists here in the UK.
Securitisation and Mass Detention in Xinjiang, by Professor Rachel Harris
A recent history to the region
China’s Hidden Camps, BBC
An in-depth, visual overview of the rapidly-expanding detention centres in Xinjiang
China’s brutal crackdown on the Uighur Muslim minority explained, New Internationalist
Informative short video on the situation in Xinjiang
For more in-depth information and resources, continue reading below:
In recent years, the Chinese state has unleashed a wave of repression in Xinjiang, imposing religious restrictions so severe as to effectively outlaw Islam. They seek to justify this as a counter-extremism measure - part of the "People's War on Terror" or what they call "de-extremification". However, this "de-extremification" extends to the criminalisation of everyday religious practices such as daily prayer, fasting and keeping halal, as well as wearing veils and growing beards. Those who do not comply are forced into "re-education centres" where they mustundergo anti-Muslim "political education" and Chinese language instruction, and celebrate Han Chinese culture and the Communist Party. Even outside detention, Uyghurs are regularly mobilised to participate in mass activities: celebrations of Han Chinese culture, singing revolutionary songs and dancing to counter-extremism.
These "de-extremification" practices rely on a conception of Islam as inherently extremist, and of Muslim practices as backwards, or "medieval", as some Chinese state media suggests. This framing of Islam should be familiar to us in the UK, and is used here as in China to justify state violence towards Muslims. Of course, the situation in Xinjiang is extreme, but the surveillance and stifling of free expression of Muslim people through the UK government's Prevent programme, and the citizenship-stripping and extradition of Muslim British nationals suspected of terror or other violent crimes can be seen as continuous with the criminalising of Islamic religious expression, and the surveillance and detention without trial of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
The following articles provide some insight into the cultural aspects of the repression in Xinjiang:
- Cultural Genocide in Xinjiang: How China Targets Uyghur Artists, Academics, and Writers, Globe Post
This article details how Uyghur cultural leaders, especially those with connections abroad, are being explicitly targeted for detention and disappearance.
Sanubar Tursun, an Uyghur singer and dutar player, whose whereabouts are presently unknown
“China depicts [repressive] measures as necessary to counter Islamic extremism, but the huge numbers involved, and the detention of many Uyghur cultural leaders – writers and poets, academics and publishers, singers and comedians – suggest that the camps are designed to eradicate local languages and cultures to remold the region’s peoples as secular and patriotic Chinese citizens. Uyghurs in exile are now calling the situation a case of cultural genocide.”
- ‘Now We Don’t Talk Anymore’: Inside the ‘Cleansing’ of Xinjiang, China File
In this article, the author recounts her visits to Urumqi and Kashgar (major cities in Xinjiang), where de-sanctified mosques have been abandoned or transformed into tourist attractions, situating this as part of a process of extreme forced assimilation and cultural erasure. She also explore how the Chinese government frames its intervention in Xinjiang as a liberalising and modernising influence on "medieval" communities afflicted by religious indoctrination.
"The internment camps and the threat of being disappeared into them are not about “thought liberation.” They are about intimidation—keeping Uighurs in a state of fear. They are an enactment of Han Chinese control and dominance, an aggressive intrusion on the powerless, and a violent destabilisation of personhood. In the final analysis, they are intended to break the will of the Uighur nation.”
‘As If You’ve Spent Your Whole Life In Prison’: Starving And Subdued In Xinjiang Detention Centers, supchina
This article explores the experience of Gulbahar Jelil, an ethnic Uyghur woman born and raised in Kazakhstan, who was detained for over a year after arriving in Urumqi on business.
“They punished us by giving us only steamed buns and water for one week. No soup. And then they accused us of speaking Uyghur. For one month they punished us by giving us only water and steamed buns. They also punished other cells, not just ours for this. They said, ‘You are forbidden to speak Uyghur, only speak Chinese.’ They would feed us only if we spoke Chinese. ‘Xiexie! Xiexie!’ I said. [Xiexie is Chinese for 'thank you.']"
The Future Of Uyghur Cultural — And Halal — Life In The Year Of The Pig, supchina
This article explores how celebrations surrounding the year of the pig were used to encourage pork-consumption amongst Uyghurs. It also explores how Chinese state cultural media is increasingly pushing Uyghur performers to enact Han cultural expressions.
Tumaris said, “They asked many Uyghur families, including my grandpa, to take care of pigs, to sleep in the same pen as the pigs. They made them refer to pigs as ‘political animals’ (Uy: siyasi haywan) that would teach them how to be ‘red.’ When I was a kid, many people told me stories of Uyghurs being forced to eat pork during those years, and subsequently how they went crazy.” Now, it appears as though history is repeating itself. In October 2018, images of a Uyghur farmer raising pigs as part of a state-mandated poverty alleviation project circulated widely in the Uyghur community. Tumaris and many other Uyghurs I spoke with fear that 2019 will bring even more of this symbolic violence.
Surveillance and Detention
In Xinjiang, surveillance cameras are mounted over villages, street corners, mosques and schools. Uyghurs must go through security checkpoints between all towns and villages, where they must show ID cards, and undergo full body scans and phone checks. Meanwhile, Han Chinese are simply waved through such checkpoints. Last year Xinjiang residents were reportedly ordered to download an app that scans for specific content. According to a report last year by Human Rights Watch, many Uyghur families have QR codes fixed to their homes so local police can scan them for the family’s details.
It is worth noting that facial recognition technology, widely used in Xinjiang, is currently being rolled out in England and Wales. Further, there is mass surveillance in the UK simply through different means - by monitoring our phone and computer activity.
Although the Chinese state denies that arrests are arbitrary and insists that Uyghurs are voluntarily entering re-education camps, this directly contradicts the testimonies of those on the ground. Estimates of the numbers of people detained is speculative, but the available evidence suggests that more than 10% of Xinjiang’s Muslim minority population – Uyghur, Kazakhs and others – a total of over one million people, have been interned in political re-education facilities.
Increasing numbers of international foreign journalists reporting critically on the situation in Xinjiang have had their visa renewal applications denied by the Chinese government. The state has allowed for some media outlets to show selective images of the ‘re-education camps’; however, access to information remains scarce.
The following articles provide some details about surveillance in Xinjiang, and the brutality of so-called "re-education" centres:
"Life Inside China's Total Surveillance State", Wall Street Journal
Exposed database on Xinjiang using facial recognition tech shows depth of China's surveillance state, The Japan Times
This article details the extent of the surveillance apparatus in Xinjiang, as gleaned from an unprotected database discovered by Dutch cybersecurity researcher Victor Gevers. It is revealed that the database appeared to track peoples' movement using facial recognition technology, logging more than 6.7 million coordinates in a span of 24 hours.
"The Chinese database Victor Gevers found online was not just a collection of old personal details. It was a compilation of real-time data on more than 2.5 million people in western China, updated constantly with GPS coordinates of their precise whereabouts. Alongside their names, birth dates and places of employment, there were notes on the places that they had most recently visited — mosque, hotel, restaurant. [...] The database Gevers found appears to have been recording people’s movements tracked by facial recognition technology, he said, logging more than 6.7 million coordinates in a span of 24 hours. It illustrates how far China has taken facial recognition — in ways that would raise alarms about privacy concerns in many other countries — and serves as a reminder of how easily technology companies can leave supposedly private records exposed to global snoopers."
This Is What A 21st-Century Police State Really Looks Like, Buzzfeed
This article provides an overview of the surveillance and policing technologies that have been used by the Chinese state to suppress Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It specifically looks at the ways in which this violence has been enacted by state institutions as well as private security firms.
"Security has become a big business opportunity for hundreds of companies, mostly Chinese, seeking to profit from the demand for surveillance equipment in Xinjiang. Researchers have found that China is pouring money into its budget for surveillance. Zenz, who has closely watched Xinjiang’s government spending on security personnel and systems, said its investment in information technology transfer, computer services, and software will quintuple this year from 2013. The growth in the security industry there reflects the state-backed surveillance boom, he said."
Uyghur Dispersion and Detention – Worse Than We Thought Bitter Winter
This article details how the logistical challenges of detaining Uyghurs have forced the Chinese government to house them in renovated prisons beyond Xinjiang. It contains testimonies from construction workers and prison guards about the conditions within such prisons.
One prison guard said spontaneously, “It seems that the Communist Party wants to wipe out this (ethnic) group.” Another source lamented, “Given the current detention methods and secrecy measures, all these prisoners could be executed and no one would know. This is even worse than the concentration camps in Xinjiang. Perhaps the Party will simply ‘get rid’ of this generation of Uyghurs and then ‘transform’ the next generation? I don’t dare to think about it.”
Exposed: China's surveillance of Muslim Uighurs, Al Jazeera
This article looks at the experience of an Uyghur man who claims he was forced to infiltrate and spy on Uyghur communities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey; and contains testimony from Uyghur detainees about the brutal and abusive environment within detention centres.
"I've seen many people being beaten in interrogations inside. At times they used bare electrical cords - which inflict pain beyond what you can imagine. Those who were beaten made horrible shrieks, especially the young ladies my age. What I can't forget is the blood - human blood on the floor, on the walls, everywhere, afterwards."
China's Belt and Road Initiative is a multi-billion pound state-backed project for global dominance - a 'Silk Road' of overland 'belts' and maritime 'roads' stretching across 71 countries. Urumqi in Xinjiang is a key logistics hub in the overland corridor - in 2018, 3,600 tonnes of cargo were handled there each day. As such, China has a strong interest in quashing any Uyghur separatist movements and maintaining control of the region.
The following articles provide some insight into the economic context of the repression in Xinjiang:
“Without the economic context, it’s impossible to unpack the complex situation. Xinjiang is China’s largest province, the region is essential to China’s strategic and economic foreign goals – it is a key oil and resource-rich historic hub along the modern day “Silk Road” that China is trying to create through “peaceful” commercial partnerships with various countries in Eurasia (referred to as the Belt and Road Initiative). In other words, losing Xinjiang to an Uyghur separatist movement might interfere with China’s quest for economic dominance in Asia. Many have attributed the upsurge in hostility to Chen Quanguo, the Party secretary of the region. Chen Quanguo’s CV is a little chilling – he seems to be called in whenever a sizeable ethnic minority in China needs “handling”. He first tried his hand at this in Tibet in 2011, where he was able to quieten the violence that had been erupting in the region since 2008 “through the construction of a sophisticated network of surveillance and control”. He was transferred to Xinjiang in August 2016, where he applied the same securitisation strategy as in Tibet – but this time, more ruthlessly efficient. Under Quanguo, thought policing in Xinjiang has reached new heights.”
“Xinjiang sits at the geographic heart of Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. It’s a trillion-dollar plan to finance new highways, ports and other modern infrastructure projects in developing countries that will connect them to China’s markets—and, skeptics say, put them in China’s debt for decades to come. [...] The government has spent vast sums building up cities in Xinjiang to attract companies and fuel growth in the relatively poor region. Concerns about lawlessness in Xinjiang could chill investment. China's campaign against the Uighurs is aimed in part at reassuring wary investors that Xinjiang is a safe place to live and work. The Alaska-sized region borders eight countries and serves as a crossroads for a railway link to London and a route to the Arabian Sea through Pakistan, where China is financing a $62 billion port and transportation corridor.”
Some people to follow
Uyghur Human Rights Project @uyghurproject
(Please note this organisation receives funding from the National Endowment for Democracy)
Rushan Abbas @Rushan614
American Uyghur activist whose sister has been detained
Rahima Mahmut @MahmutRahima
British Uyghur Activist
Rachel Harris @Rachel_A_Harris
Reader in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, specialising in Uyghur cultural heritage
Darren Byler @dtbyler
Lecturer in Anthropology at University of Washington, specialising in Uyghur dispossession
Megha Rajagopalan @meghara
Previous China bureau chief at Buzzfeed, whose application for a renewal of her journalist visa was refused. It is thought that this refusal is a result of Rajagopalan’s reports exposing the human rights abuses in Xinjiang.