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Despite ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and enshrining freedom of religion in article 36 of the Chinese constitution, reports submitted to a UN human rights panel on August 10th demonstrate that freedom is anything but guaranteed by the Chinese government for over a million Uyghurs currently detained in the country’s counter-terrorism centres.
Involving a combination of incarceration in re-education camps and mandatory re-education sessions, China’s counter-terrorism program has been operating since April of 2017. However, based on data received from activist organisations like the Chinese Human Rights Defender (CHRD) and the Equal Rights Initiative, detainment has risen exponentially, reaching as many as 2-3 million imprisoned by June 2018. These re-education centres not only restrict the liberties of China’s persecuted minorities, but also operate outside the rule of law, without trials or judicial review. According to Human Rights Watch China Director, Sophie Richardson, detainment is not at all based on legitimate crimes, but rather whether individuals are deemed ‘politically unreliable’. Arbitrary detainment has occurred so widely across the Xinjiang province that ‘entire villages in Southern Xinjiang have been emptied of young and middle aged people,’ as reported in interviews conducted by CHRD.
Due to a lengthy history of separatist movements, economic grievances, and external influences from its eight neighbouring countries, China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has long been a site of mass surveillance and heavy security. In May 2014, President Xi Jingping announced a ‘battle against violent terrorist activities’ using what he deems to be the three evils: separatism, terrorism, and extremism.
These security measures are not entirely baseless. Xinjiang has consistently experienced ethnic riots and conflicts since it came under Chinese control in 1949, witnessing large scale riots in 2009 resulting in 200 deaths, and in 2014 where 31 were killed from explosives and two cars driving through a market. Tensions between Uyghurs and the state authorities were further inflamed by ISIS’ support for a independent East Turkestan state, and growing recruitment of Uyghur militants.
In response, Beijing imposed widespread restrictions on ‘extremist’ behaviours encompassing public prayers, civil servants, completing Ramadan fasting, growing ‘abnormally long beards’, and wearing veils, in conjunction with numerous other guidelines. Subject to routine security checks on phones for ‘religious content’ and even the recall of Uyghur passports, Uyghurs are no strangers to increasingly circumscribed liberties. Indefinite detainment in re-education centres are undoubtedly an escalation in China’s unyielding security regime. Forced to recite slogans, watch propaganda videos, and pledge their loyalty to the CCP, these centres bear a sinister resemblance to previous state-enforced mass indoctrination throughout the Cultural Revolution. China’s so-called autonomous region is fast becoming what Gay McDougall, a member of a UN human rights committee, aptly describes as a ‘no rights zone.’
It is crucial that terrorism is not wielded as a nebulous justification for persecuting the Uyghur community because of their ethno-religious identity. Rather than arbitrary suppression of Uyghur identity and religious activity, security measures must differentiate between religious extremists carrying out acts of terror from civilians who should not be denied their basic liberties. The detainment of over a million in re-education centres incisively demonstrates that the country has failed to balance its citizens’ physical security with their human rights. It is crucial that the government reconsiders the ultimate effectiveness of these ‘counter-terrorism’ centres that will most likely do more harm than good in the long run.