Ethnocide in Xinjiang, China's 'open air prison'

Detainees listening to speeches in a re-education camp in Lop County, Xinjiang, April 2017.

Anders Corr 
March 12, 2019

Estimates of one to three million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in detention for “re-education” in China today are evidenced by extensive satellite imagery, more than 1,000 first and second-hand testimonies, dozens of Chinese government work reports, one camp employee and one security official, both of whom fled China and are now in Kazakhstan.

Uyghur intellectual, religious and political leaders are particularly targeted, with five already having died in the camps or shortly after release. Since at least October 2018, China has covertly started an operation to transfer up to 500,000 internees to camps in Inner Mongolia and Sichuan, including more than 200 elderly Uyghurs aged 60-80.

The 1.5 million Kazakhs in Xinjiang are not immune to detention for re-education, with more than 10,000 cases documented.

Many Turkic Muslims are in traditional prisons in Xinjiang. Criminal arrests in the province increased by 200,000 between 2016 and 2017, accounting for 21 percent of total arrests in China in 2017 compared with only 1.5 percent of the population.

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The remainder of the 12 million Turkic Muslims, not yet behind barbed wire, live in what researchers are now calling an “open air prison.” Passports are confiscated. Checkpoints stop pedestrians every 50 to 100 meters. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials use dehumanizing language. That alarms historians who think the re-education camps will harden detainees against the CCP and could lead to permanent detention or even genocide.

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Like Tibetans and Falun Gong elsewhere in China, Xinjiang’s 10 million Turkic Muslims survive under conditions of torture, forced labor, body searches, lack of legal representation or due process, severe restrictions on religion and language, and strictures on not only international but also domestic travel.

They are subject to mass collection of biodata, use of QR codes to count the number of times an individual prays, required checks of mobile devices to find forbidden political or religious content and ensure spyware is installed, facial and voice recognition surveillance technology, and predictive policing that combines 5G technologies with a social credit score and big data analytics.

In addition, Turkic Muslim families in Xinjiang must host CCP officials in overnight “home stays,” enduring forced consumption of pork and liquor alongside political indoctrination.

Children of many detained families are put into newly constructed “orphanages” surrounded by barbed wire. In one county alone, almost 2,000 children were deprived of their parents in these “Loving Heart” schools. There teachers force them to wear Chinese clothes, speak Chinese and eat pork. Speaking their native languages and practicing Islam is forbidden.

In Xinjiang, observant Muslims are forced to shave their beards, forgo headscarves and celebrate Chinese New Year. Chinese festivals involve polytheism and Buddhism, which puts Muslims who honor the festivals at risk of committing the sin of espousing multiple gods. Chinese “community workers” who deliver free pork and alcohol to Muslim households, and paste Lunar New Year festival posters on the walls of Muslim homes, threaten to send Muslims to detention camps if they don’t break with their religion, eat pork, drink alcohol and celebrate.

Ethnocide of Turkic Muslims

Ethnocide is the “deliberate and systematic destruction of the culture of an ethnic group,” according to the Oxford Living Dictionary. It should be considered a crime against humanity and, sadly, the CCP’s actions in Xinjiang fit the definition perfectly.

Turkic Muslims are the most likely inhabitants of the Xinjiang region to be detained. Activities increasing the likelihood of a Muslim getting detained, according to researchers Rian Thum and Darren Byler, include having traveled or sought to travel to a foreign country, failing to watch state television, failing to greet officials on the street, giving up smoking, failing to eat liquor or pork, using foreign social media, regular mosque attendance, attending sermons with “extremist” or unauthorized preachers (even years ago), or being born in the 1980s or 1990s. Including additional offenses, the entire Muslim population of Xinjiang could be imprisoned in these already overcrowded camps.

In some areas of Xinjiang, authorities are given quotas of up to 40 percent of the Muslim population that must be detained, though the norm is currently around 12 percent of the adult Muslim population aged 20-79.

Once in detention, prisoners are subjected to a shocking array of human rights abuses, including forced Confucian and communist propaganda, sleep deprivation, shackling, hanging from ceilings, beatings, malnutrition, forced use of psychologically dulling drugs, and sexual abuse against both men and women, reportedly including gang rape. Inmates are forbidden from speaking their native languages or conducting Muslim religious practices, and are told that Islam is a form of crime or mental illness.

Government home stays

The Chinese state has adopted a form of surveillance in Xinjiang that is personal, in the home and arguably more psychologically invasive than any other form of state control in history.

By September 2018, about 1.1 million mostly Han government workers conducted overnight home stays in 1.7 million Uyghur family homes. Uyghur households are required to invite these CCP “relatives” in for at least five days every two months to “form large-scale, full coverage and multi-level exchanges between the different ethnic groups to achieve ‘national unity’ and bring the progress in Xinjiang to a new level.”

By the end of last December, 57 million home visits and more than 13 million events had included activities under the theme of “national unity and family.” China’s state media has called the home stays a “united as one family” program.

The program started in 2014 with 200,000 CCP members staying long-term in villages to “Visit the People, Benefit the People and Bring Together the Hearts of the People.” In 2016, 110,000 civil servants were placed as “relatives” in weakened Uyghur homes, chosen because they had lost a family member due to death or imprisonment at the hands of the police.

According to anthropologist Darren Byler, CCP home stay officials “ranged from civilian surveillance workers who performed these visits themselves to friends and family members of these surveillance workers.”

They terrify Turkic families by instructing their hosts on CCP ideology, taking notes, reporting violations witnessed during their stay, and ultimately assessing whether or not they should be sent into the mass re-education camp system. Infractions as minor as failing to imbibe alcohol and pork, given as tests to the Muslim devout by CCP officials, are reported to the police on a web form, as is failure to watch state television.

The home visits sometimes include intimate activities such as feeding children and sharing beds. According to Byler, the home stay officers conduct tests to detect attempts to hide extremism. “One could offer a host a cigarette or a sip of beer; a hand could be extended in greeting to a little sibling of the opposite gender, staying alert for signs of flinching. Or one could go out to the market for some freshly ground meat and propose that the family make dumplings. And then wait and watch to see if the Uyghurs would ask what kind of meat was in the bag.”

Home stays are a violation of Islamic codes, including halal space and the Islamic female modesty code. Other practices are similarly violations of these Islamic rules. There are a limited number of reports of forced sterilization and abortions imposed on Uyghur women. Reports and rumors are circulating among the Uyghur diaspora of the camps mostly detaining Uyghur men. This would leave Uyghur women vulnerable to acknowledged state programs that provide financial incentives for inter-ethnic marriages.

There are also rumors that Han men are forcing Uyghur women into marriage through offers to free family members from the camps or to look the other way when violations are witnessed during home stays. This is hard for journalists to verify and therefore infrequently reported other than on social media.

Uyghur reaction to the home stay program has been a mix of contempt, fear and terror. According to Dr. Joanne Smith Finley at Newcastle University, “householders have been forced to remove religious items such as Qurans, prayer mats, religious books and so on, and destroy them, because if such items are found in their homes, they will be considered to have been infected by the virus of Islamic ideology and may be taken away for re-education.”

She added that a CCP home stay is “mainly considered a humiliation, but it is also one of the greatest sources of terror for the Uyghur community as it is currently one of the most likely routes to being extrajudicially detained or disappeared.”

Risk of genocide

The CCP is not just arresting the average potential terrorist, if such an “average” exists outside CCP and other theories of predictive policing. The CCP is arresting hundreds of the most prominent Uyghurs, including those previously seen as CCP collaborators. Researchers are starting to call this a form of eliticide. They are certainly part of an ethnocide.

While China seeks to justify its arrests of Uyghurs as counterterrorism, there is unfortunately no good counterterrorism explanation for arresting the leading CCP collaborators of a minority ethnic group. A better counterterrorism strategy is to leave such collaborators in place and use them to pacify the population. Their arrest creates a question that leads some to conclude that the detention centers actually seek assimilation or ethnic cleansing, not counterterrorism.

Officials in Xinjiang have used dehumanizing political rhetoric such as “eradicating tumors” and using chemical spray to kill “weeds.” There are credible reports of mass shootings in Hanerik (2013), Siriqbuya (2013) and Alaqagha (2014) as well as extrajudicial killings.

Some academics and journalists are sensitive to the possibility that the camps will fail in their ostensible goal of re-education, thus leading to a group of Uyghurs whose time in detention hardens their anger against the CCP. This could over time lead the CCP to conclude that detainees should be permanently detained, used for organ harvesting or, in the worst-case scenario, exterminated.

The ethnocide and mass detentions in Xinjiang, a continuation of a history of brutal Chinese colonialism in Turkic Muslim regions, are the most sophisticated in world history. Given that they are accompanied by dehumanizing rhetoric that compares Turkic Muslims to vermin or disease, the international community should take measures to mitigate the risk that ethnocide and ethnic cleansing could turn into genocide.

International leaders must redouble their efforts to publicize the plight of China’s Turkic Muslims, call for unfettered international observers in Xinjiang and take stronger action against the growing power of the CCP.

This is the sixth article in a nine-part series on Xinjiang by Anders Corr, who holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian, including on China and Central Asia. The first five articles can be found by clicking here.

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