Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir announced in a statement on Monday that all those held at vocational centres in the region have “graduated” and now have jobs and improved living standards. Despite these claims, many in the Xinjiang province say their family members remain detained in camps, of which the Council on Foreign Relations estimates there are hundreds. In his statement, Shohrat Zakir declared that the people at these vocational schools receive education in “the national common language, knowledge of law, vocational skills and deradicalization.”
According to The Associated Press, former detainees shared “that the centres for ‘re-education’ were essentially prisons where they were forced to renounce Islam and express gratitude to the ruling Communist Party,” while being “subject to indoctrination and torture.” There are numerous reports of sexual abuse, forced abortions and contraceptive implantation. Estimates place the number of Uighurs and other minorities detained in these camps at one to two million, a figure Zakir vehemently denied. On 3 December, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill condemning the detention and human rights abuses. If passed, the bill requires government agencies to monitor and report to Congress on the situation in the region, requiring President Trump to impose sanctions upon the Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo if the situation worsens. Zakir condemned this, claiming that “[w]hen the lives of people of all ethnic groups in the Xinjiang were seriously threatened by terrorism, the U.S. turned a deaf ear,” but “now that Xinjiang society is steadily developing and people of all ethnicities are living and working in peace, the U.S. feels uneasy, and attacks and smears Xinjiang.”
The House’s monitoring of China’s actions in the region is promising if passed and enforced. The discrepancies between official statements on the nature of these centres and the stories shared by those who are released are alarming. As the Chinese government continues to make arbitrary claims about the conditions of these centres, their purpose, and how many people are there, the situation becomes an increasingly immediate crisis. They refuse journalists and foreign investigators access to these facilities, so no one can be certain of the extent of the abuses taking place there. The approach of diplomatic and economic sanctions is laudable. In the twenty-first century, war is an outdated and costly method of enforcing human rights. Sanctions have proven effective and would be persuasive in the detriment it would cause to the Chinese economy if the United States disrupted trade. Even the threat of such an action might cause panic in Beijing, which may explain Zakir’s quick, defensive press conference.
The Uighurs are a predominantly Turkish-speaking people that come from the Xinjiang region in northwest China. China overtook Xinjiang when the Communist Party came into power in 1949. Many Uighurs call the region East Turkestan, maintaining its independence from China. Strategically, the region of Xinjiang is pivotal as it encompasses one-sixth of China’s land and shares a border with eight other countries. Consequently, China has a vested interest in retaining Xinjiang. However, the Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist, leading to direct conflict with the practicing Muslim Uighurs. For decades, Uighurs have suffered under the hand of Chinese authorities, serving as scapegoats and targets of persecution. In 2009, a Uighur protest against Chinese efforts to incentivize ethnically Chinese citizens to move into Xinjiang turned deadly. With a death toll of over two hundred, this bloody incident marked a turning point in Xinjiang’s relationship with Beijing, leading to these detainments beginning in April 2017. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, while most of the people in these camps “have never been charged with crimes,” it does appear as if the Chinese government is targeting specific subgroups, including those “traveling to or contacting people from” one of the twenty-six countries China lists as “sensitive,” as well as those found “attending services at mosques” or “sending texts containing Quranic verses.”
These imprisonments are an alarming development and one that comes as an escalation of decades-long, systematic persecution. From those who survived these reeducation camps, the world is learning about the human rights violations taking place, as well as the disparity between statements of the Chinese government and the reality of the situation. It will not take war to stop these atrocities, but rather exerting a more strategic pressure on the Chinese, doing so through economic and diplomatic sanctions. Condemnation from numerous world leaders and demands to see the camps from the United Nations and the European Union have placed pressure on China and the threat of economic sanctions from a trading partner such as the United States will hopefully be effective in forcing Beijing to close these camps and end their persecution of the Uighurs in a peaceful manner.