China’s Concentration Camps Need Global Attention

On December 31, 2015, the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, broadcasted to the nation expressing his hopes for the upcoming year. In his speech, he called “for confidence and hard work for a good beginning in the home stretch of building a ‘well-off society in an all-round way’” (Xinhua, 2015). The prosperity and well wishes were not directed at the millions of Uyghur Muslims living in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), an autonomous region within China. The Uyghur Muslim minority population is being religiously persecuted by the President himself and his administration. A “well-off society” is established at the expense of a whole ethnic group forcibly placed into “vocational training camps” as the Chinese government has coined it. Although some governments have passed legislation and brought some attention to the issue, world leaders have failed to take productive measures. The Chinese government’s despicable actions of establishing camps are inexcusable, but analyzing their intentions allows the general public to get a better foothold on the measures that need to be taken with regard to this issue.

The earliest reporting of these concentration camps date back to 2014 as China wanted to develop their own policies to combat terrorism. But, ethnic tensions within Xinjiang go back centuries in Asian history. Centuries of imperialism, invasion, and war are written all over our history books, which is evident in the history of the Xinjiang region. China believed that Xinjiang was the buffer zone that protected Central China, which meant it was crucial for them to control this region. But, the “justification for controlling Xinjiang to ensure national defense was legitimized in the 1900s as a result of two Uyghur-led independence movements” (Fuller, 2016, p. 12). The Qing Dynasty, which ruled from 1644 to 1912, wanted to assimilate Xinjiang but were unsuccessful as they realized the people of the region were deeply connected to their religion. The notion of religious persecution remains today with the establishment of “reeducation” camps that aim to assimilate the Uyghur population to the rest of Chinese society. Uyghur Muslims living in the Xinjiang region consider themselves to be part of Central Asia, but the influx of Han Chinese immigration and the Chinese government’s intervention has stripped away that identity. The Chinese government has imposed its power in this region by establishing surveilling and controlling their commercial activities. 

The power of the Chinese government and their intentions to create a homogenous society was made clear with the enactment of the first “Strike Hard” campaign in 1996, which sought to eliminate crimes and “illegal religious activity” (Boehm, 2009, p. 94). This campaign went through a series of phases in which each one accelerated the crackdown of Uyghur Muslims. This was especially seen under President Xi Jinping as he ordered the escalation of military presence in the region. There have been several accounts in which students studying abroad return home to find their relatives missing. Chinese authorities are ordered to express compassion and inform them that their relatives have been “ ‘infected’ by the ‘virus’ of Islamic radicalism and must be quarantined and cured” (Ramzy & Buckley, 2019, para. 26). The government’s tactics to “cure” their “religious disease” include physical and psychological torture. Uyghur Muslims are required to attend classes where the curriculum aims to eradicate Islamic teachings and replace them with Chinese communist ideologies. They are given scores as to how well they are mastering the information taught to them. The higher the score they receive, the higher the probability they will be released from the camps (Yeung et al., 2019, para. 2). This is not simply creating “model Chinese citizens” but practices aimed at religious cleansing. Frankly, these practices are deeply rooted in ethnocentrism as the Chinese government works toward maintaining geographical and political power. If this particular practice does not alarm other nations, we have failed to learn from history. 

In addition to the camps, the  American Press has reported the Chinese government’s birth control efforts in the Xinjiang region. In an attempt to control the Uyghur Muslim population, the government has forced women to obtain an intrauterine device (IUD) or sterilize them to prevent them from having children. The Chinese government ordered that women be penalized with a hefty fine for conceiving three or more children. For many families, their inability to pay these fines forces them into these dangerous concentration camps (The Associated Press, 2020, para. 4). Furthermore, there have been several sexual abuse and rape cases perpetrated by Chinese guards in these camps (Lynch, 2019, para. 5). Unfortunately, this is another indication of the Chinese government’s abuse of power and infringement upon the religious and bodily autonomy of the Uyghur people. The government’s justifications for their practices does not cover up the fact that this is a human rights violation. In fact, “a new report in Foreign Policy says that China’s suppression of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other chiefly Muslim ethnic minorities in northwest China now meets the United Nations definition of genocide, mass sterilization, forced abortions and mandatory birth control part of a campaign that has swept more than 1.5 million people…” (Simon, 2020). Identifying the wrongdoings of a government should not be the only step that we take. There needs to be accountability and reparations for the physical and psychological toll families have endured. 

To listen to a firsthand account of these camps, please listen to the podcast “The Daily” from the New York Times episode, “A Woman’s Journey Through China’s Detention Camps.”  

For more information on how you can take action, please visit the Uyghur Human Rights Project. 

In addition, please call on your elected officials and/or representatives in your country to take drastic measures, which includes placing sanctions on China. 

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