The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China can’t prettify the human rights catastrophe in Xinjiang

Omer Bekali, a Uighur Muslim and former camp prisoner, speaks during a news conference in Berlin on March 11 about re-education camps in China.
Omer Bekali, a Uighur Muslim and former camp prisoner, speaks during a news conference in Berlin on March 11 about re-education camps in China. (Felipe Trueba/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

THAT WAS quite a bacchanalia of spin that Chinese officials offered this month in Beijing: a two-hour press conference in the Xinjiang room of the Great Hall of the People, set against a floor-to-ceiling painting of a snowy mountain scene from the region in China’s northwest. The chairman of the Xinjiang government, Shohrat Zakir, insisted reports that China has built concentration camps to reeducate ethnic Uighurs and others “are pure lies.” He added, “In fact, our centers are like boarding schools where the students eat and live for free.”

A sizable body of evidence, including statements from those who managed to flee, suggests the 1 million or more detainees are not free in any sense and are paying a dear price. By these accounts, the camps are a brazen attempt by China to commit cultural genocide against the Turkic Muslim minority in the region, including ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others, stamping them into the mold of the majority Han Chinese.

Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the European School of Culture and Theology in Germany, who helped expose the camps and earlier estimated more than a million had been detained, said March 13 that he has updated the total internment figure to up to 1.5 million people. He said, “There is virtually no Uighur family without one or more members in such detention.”

Boarding schools? The just-released annual human rights report by the State Department says Uighurs in the region “reported systematic torture and other degrading treatment by law enforcement officers and officials working within the penal system and the internment camps. Survivors stated authorities subjected individuals in custody to electrocution, waterboarding, beatings, stress positions, injection of unknown substances, and cold cells.”

In a series of interviews with Simon Denyer of The Post and with the Associated Press, former prisoners in the camps described mind-numbing drills in which they were forced to denounce their Uighur culture as backward, to repudiate their Muslim beliefs and to apologize for wearing long clothes, praying, teaching the Koran to their children and asking imams to name their children. Inmates in the camps also are coerced into singing songs and repeating slogans hailing the Communist Party while condemning the “three evil forces” of separatism, extremism and terrorism. Photographs from one classroom in an internment camp showed surveillance cameras and microphones; Xinjiang has become a laboratory for Chinese authorities studying how to use digital technology for political control.

This human rights catastrophe for a Muslim population has drawn near-silence from Islamic brethren elsewhere. Turkey has spoken up, but foreign ministers from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation could not find the courage. In a resolution this month expressing concern for Muslim minorities around the globe, the ministers praised “the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens.”

China’s public-relations strategy is to cover up the Xinjiang disaster. No amount of press conferences can prettify concentration camps aimed at extermination of a people’s language, culture and traditions.

Read more:

The Post’s View: China has turned Xinjiang into a zone of repression — and a frightening window into the future

The Post’s View: China is brainwashing more than a million Uighurs. The world must demand justice.

Anne Applebaum: ‘Never again?’ It’s already happening.

The Post’s View: China has launched a massive campaign of cultural extermination against the Uighurs

Josh Rogin: Ethnic cleansing makes a comeback — in China