First-time visitors to the booming cities of Eastern China invariably marvel at everything new — the gleaming airports, super-fast trains, luxury emporia and glamorous rich. But in Western China, where foreigners are forbidden to look too closely, the ruling Communist Party remains as brutal and totalitarian as ever.
An estimated 1 million people, perhaps more, are imprisoned in concentration camps in Xinjiang province. New camps are going up at a furious pace, signaling even more widespread repression ahead. After many months of flat denials, the government in Beijing has finally admitted to the mass roundup of Turkic Muslims, primarily ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs. The explanation is straight out of Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution of a half-century ago: “to cure ideological diseases,” as one party official put it.
The primary disease, in this case, is religious freedom and cultural identity. A campaign begun in the 1950s and accelerated in 1999 to conquer Xinjiang by filling the region with Han Chinese settlers only embittered the native populations. So in 2014, under the guise of fighting Islamist terrorism, communist authorities began herding Xinjiang’s Muslims — men and women, young and elderly — into so-called reeducation facilities ringed with guard towers and barbed wire.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping sped the crackdown in 2016 by assigning a favorite henchman to serve as provincial party secretary. Chen Quanguo had proved his mettle as party secretary for Tibet, where he pioneered mass surveillance tactics and cut off communication with Bhuddist exiles led by the Dalai Lama.
Under Chen, Xinjiang province has become a police state where people can be detained simply for buying a tent, abstaining from alcohol or giving up cigarettes — supposed telltale signs of a faithful Muslim. Formal written permission from authorities is required simply to travel from one village to another. Vast detention facilities have spread like chokeweed. An examination of satellite images by the BBC found that one camp, about an hour from the provincial capital of Urumqi, roughly quadrupled in size between April and October of this year. The U.S. Congressional-Executive Committee on China has called Chen’s escalating repression “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”
Chinese authorities describe the purpose of the camps as educational or therapeutic. “Members of the public who have been chosen for reeducation have been infected by an ideological illness,” residents of the province were told via state-approved social media. “They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient.”
But reporters for Agence France-Presse recently unearthed government records that suggest the true nature of these supposed schools and hospitals. The documents show massive orders for equipment such as electric prods, police batons, handcuffs and spiked clubs known as “wolf’s teeth.” At least one camp has installed a “tiger chair,” the metal contraption favored by Chinese interrogators in which immobilized prisoners are sometimes confined for days at a time.
Prisoners spend their days learning Mandarin, absorbing propaganda and renouncing the faith of their forebears. Some have been released from captivity after proving themselves to be fully indoctrinated with the Communist Party line. Others may be held indefinitely, perhaps as hostages to lure family members who have fled China to return to be punished or brainwashed.
The brutality in Xinjiang is no sideshow for Beijing. China’s economic future and political ambitions are wrapped up in the proposed transportation network of new ports and depots known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Central to the BRI is a modern version of the ancient Silk Road linking China to Europe by way of Central Asia. This route passes directly through Xinjiang; therefore the population must be brought to heel.
Some have compared what is going on to the oppression of Native Americans during the westward expansion of the United States. When Chen’s deputy Shohrat Zakir recently spoke through state-run media of the “vocational education and training program” underway in the camps, there were indeed echoes of the language used to defend the reservations and so-called Indian schools for Native Americans established more than a century ago.
But the mistakes of the American past don’t justify present and future human rights violations in China or anywhere else. Beijing seeks to help lead the world in the 21st century, not the 19th century. In Xinjiang, China is headed in the wrong direction.
A survey by the Pew Research Center asked people around the globe whether they prefer the United States or China to have the upper hand in coming years. By a wide margin, the United States was the favorite. The world is leery of China and will continue to be no matter how many ultra-modern cities it builds. For even the most expensive wristwatch, the most glittering of bracelets and rings, cannot disguise the fist of tyranny.
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