The Han Chinese and Uighurs: Who Are They?
In Western China, there is a province that borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. This region is called Xinjiang and its status (whether it is an autonomous region or a part of China) has been hotly contested for decades. The discussion began in the 18th Century, when it officially came under Chinese rule. However, since the population is mostly Uighur Muslims who identify with central Asian cultures, there was a move for independence which they gained in 1949. However, independence did not last as once again they became part of Communist China. There was another push for independence in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union where many countries under communist influence were gaining autonomy. Yet, Beijing was not eager to lose such a significant portion of territory and violently repressed the movement.
Tensions Between the Two Groups
In recent years, there has been a mass migration of young Han Chinese people from the East to major Xinjiang cities due to economic developments and job opportunities caused by the mineral wealth in the region. The changing demographic has led to issues, as Han citizens get better employment and preferential treatment. Gradually there have been more and more restrictions on Uighur practices, economically and religiously. There are now fewer mosques and tight regulations on religious schools. They even restricted fasting, banning Muslim civil servants from participating in Ramadan. The official reasons for these restrictions is to “discourage religious extremism.” In 2009 there was a series of riots, protests, and what some are calling terrorist attacks in Xinjiang by Uighur citizens. They were protesting the repression of their culture, the main offences being: the detainment of Uighur men without trial, attempts to ban Uighur women from wearing black headscarves, and the redistribution of their farmland. In the 2009 violence over 200 people died, most of them Han Chinese. A following attack on a police station killed 96 people. Some Uighur Muslims have joined the Islamic State, but many say the violence stems not from religion, but from China’s oppressive policies.
Effects of the Terrorist Attacks
In the past two years, in response to the violence, the Chinese government has instituted a hard-line campaign of repression, with the centerpiece of the operation being “re-education centers.” The government claims that admission to these centers is voluntary, with the students there re-learning how to think. The goal is to persuade the Muslim students away from seperatist and extremist thinking. In classrooms, students are forced to learn Mandarin, pledge allegiance to the Communist party, and renounce Islam and their culture. The government says that these camps are for extremists, however many have been detained and admitted without trial. Offenses determined “extremist” include having any content relating Islam on a phone, downloading WhatsApp, or speaking verses from the Quran in public. However, many claim that their family members have violated no laws and have been detained for merely being Uighur. It is estimated that up to a million muslims are being held in these re-education centers.
Treatment Within the Camps
The Chinese government is keeping the insides of the facilities completely secret. Journalists attempting to investigate the disappearance of Uighurs were constantly pestered by police forces and turned away from the centers. However, there have been some who have fled the country and testified to the experiences within the camps. Their testimonies have been backed up by some 400 documents to Chinese authorities that were leaked. The documents outlined instructions for how to handle the “students” which included allowing absolutely no escapes, harsh punishments, and an emphasis on Chinese superiority. Reports claim that the centers are not “schools” at all but prisons, where they are subject to beatings, rape, and brainwashing. The detainees are forced to memorize and recite communist propaganda and laws, and failure to do so without error results in severe punishments. Upon detainment, many families are separated with no idea to their family members location. They receive little information, such as when they will be released, and are cut off from the outside. Their religion is completely forsaken and some reports claim that they were forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, both of which are haram in Islam.
Beijing’s Response to the Reports
China, of course denies all such treatment. They paint a very different picture, where the detainees are students and they are voluntarily attending re-education centers because their thoughts have “made ugly from bad influences.” They even released a video depicting the adult students in uniforms in a brightly lit room, all happily singing traditional Chinese songs and dancing. A teacher laughs when the center is referred to as a prison because “in prison you are not able to paint pictures.” It then cuts to a scene where many students are lined up behind canvases painting scenes of nature. The government claims that there is nothing wrong with rehabilitation and the only reason the US is condemning the centers is because the Chinese government is running them.
Many countries have condemned China’s actions in light of the new reports, but many more are offering their support, claiming China has every right to stand up to terrorism. The United States is considering imposing sanctions on key members running the concentration camps. The bill states that it is in response to the gross mistreatment of Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, citing instances where the government collected DNA samples from children, the use of QR codes outside of Uighur homes to monitor how often they pray each day, and facial recognition software to create a “predictive policing” database. These tactics are indicative of China’s desire to create a complete surveillance state where every move is monitored. In class we have discussed what happens when a state has weak state strength, but what happens when a state’s strength is too strong? Especially in an authoritarian government with a population it wants to oppress.
“China Sanctions: US House Passes Bill over Treatment of Uighurs.” BBC News. BBC, December 4, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-50653864.
“China’s Hidden Camps.” BBC News. BBC. Accessed December 10, 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/China_hidden_camps.
Hughes, Roland. “China Uighurs: All You Need to Know on Muslim ‘Crackdown’.” BBC News. BBC, November 8, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-45474279.
Sudworth, John. “Searching for Truth in China’s Uighur ‘Re-Education’ Camps.” BBC News. BBC, June 21, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-china-blog-48700786.
“Xinjiang Re-Education Camps.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, December 9, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xinjiang_re-education_camps#Treatment.