On 24 January 2020, Chinese media confirmed the first two cases of coronavirus northwest of Xinjiang. This rapidly spreading epidemic has become the most deadly in recent history, reaching a global death toll of 1017 by 11 February 2020. The arrival of the virus in Xinjiang is particularly alarming due to the 465 ‘re-education centres’ in the region. Leaked documents have substantiated suspicions that these centres serve as detention camps. They are designed to suppress and indoctrinate ‘extreme’ ethnic, and religious minorities, most notably the Uighur population. Due to squalid conditions, their inmates are particularly vulnerable to the virus.
Ex-inmates have told how conditions in the camps are overcrowded and unsanitary. Sayragul Sauytbay, a Kazak escapee, recounts that “there were almost 20 people in a room of 16 square meters” with just a bucket for a toilet, and that “the hygiene was atrocious.” Dr Li Zhang from the Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan observed early on that the majority of coronavirus deaths were the “result of the weaker immune functions [in] these patients,” causing commentators to speculate about the potential devastation that the illness could wreck on the Xinjiang camps. James Millward, professor of Chinese history at Georgetown University, tweeted that the “cramped conditions, poor hygiene, cold [and] stressed immune systems” could lead to a “massive disaster.” Bill Bostock of Business Insider noted that filthy conditions “make the inmates sitting ducks.”
The detainment of Uighur citizens is part of the Chinese government’s attempt to consolidate power through enforced cultural uniformity. Thanks to their religion and Turkish ethnicity, Uighurs have traditionally been the targets of both Islamophobia and racism in China. This has led to friction with authorities and sporadic outbreaks of violence in Xinjiang. In 2014 under the “People’s War on Terror ”, Uighurs were officially classed as a threat to the Communist Party, justifying extreme repression and systematic human rights abuse.
Persecution of the Uighurs predates the Party’s official clamp-down on minority groups. Between 1946-1996, the Han (China’s ethnic majority) population in Xinjiang rose from 6.7% to 40% due to government-sponsored migration policies designed to dilute Uighur presence. Since then, the State has progressively employed invasive surveillance technology to monitor the Uighurs. QR codes stuck on the doors of Uighur homes give police information on their inhabitants and facial recognition cameras record movement. The UN has branded the region a “no-rights zone.”
An estimated one million Uighur prisoners are currently held in camps across Xinjiang. China has rejected all allegations of religious and ethnic persecution, claiming that the camps are “vocational training centres” emphasising “rehabilitation and redemption” in order to combat terrorism and religious extremism. Yet the leaked “China Cables” shows that the camps are high-security prisons, where “remedial Mandarin studies [are the] the top priority.” Use of indoctrination policies have been verified by former detainees, who claimed that they were made to study Mandarin and abandon Islamic practice. The Chinese government has refused to allow outsiders to inspect the camps and little is known about the reality inside them.
There have long been calls to put pressure on China to come clean about its treatment of the Uighurs. Due to escalating tensions between China and the West, it’s unlikely that the Chinese state will back down. In the context of the coronavirus epidemic, government secrecy is particularly worrying. Medical care provisions for the camps are unknown. Given the unsanitary conditions, many fear the worst, noting that prisoners will not be prioritised for treatment.
The most distressing possibility is that thousands of deaths could go unreported should coronavirus reach the camps. There is mounting evidence to suggest that the government initially censored, or at least downplayed, the severity of the virus from the rest of the world. The first doctor who tried to warn of its dangers was threatened by the police and just as recently as 10th February 2020, the state arrested whistle-blower Fang Bin who posted videos exposing the situation in Wuhan.
In light of the government’s policy of silencing citizens, the clandestine nature of the detention camps and growing international scrutiny towards China’s treatment of Uighurs, it’s unlikely that the Chinese government would willingly publicise any coronavirus related deaths in the camps. They have responded to Western criticism of the handling of the coronavirus outbreak and their policies in Xinjiang by branding it a racist attempt at power-grabbing. The Chinese ambassador to the U.K commented that “the West have been fiercely slandering and smearing China over Xinjiang in an attempt to create an excuse to interfere in China’s internal affairs [to] thwart China’s steady development.”
There is no denying that the situation in China is highly politicised. However, the impending collision of two humanitarian crises means that more pressure must be put towards opening up the camps for external inspection, allowing international bodies to step in if necessary. Otherwise, we risk systematic persecution escalating into tragedy and slipping under the radar.