IN AN attempt to defend the gulag in which it has imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region, China has tried to rebrand concentration camps as centers for “vocational training.” The goal, as a state television broadcast put it, is to “rescue ignorant, backward and poor rural minorities.” That description encapsulates the gross bigotry with which Chinese authorities view the Uighurs, against whom they have launched a massive campaign of cultural extermination.
But accept for a moment Beijing’s description of the camps’ purpose. How, then, to explain the fact that not just “ignorant” peasants but also scores of the most prominent Uighur intellectuals have been sent to them? Are poets, professors, scientists and journalists living in Xinjiang also in need of vocational training?
According to a report in the New York Times, Uighur exiles have compiled a list of 159 intellectuals who have been detained over the past year. They are the propagators, curators and defenders of a culture that the regime of Xi Jinping appears determined to eradicate. “Break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins,” concluded a state news commentary cited by the Times. It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.
Chinese spokesmen sometimes describe Uighur detainees as actual or potential terrorists. But the intellectuals the Chinese government has swept up include figures who openly supported the communist regime, such as Abdulqadir Jalaleddin, an expert on medieval poetry at Xinjiang Normal University. Like other scholars, he wrote an open letter declaring his loyalty to the state but was detained anyway.
Up to 1.1 million people, or 11.5 percent of the Uighur population between the ages of 20 and 79, are believed to be held in the camps. There they are forced to renounce the Muslim religion and Uighur language, and memorize and recite Chinese characters and propaganda songs. The “vocational training” is actually forced labor. Torture and deaths are common. Thousands of children have been separated from their parents and placed in a separate network of orphanages.
A Canadian parliamentary report issued last month echoed others in saying that “what is happening to Turkic Muslims is unprecedented in its scale, technological sophistication and in the level of economic resources attributed by the state to the project.” Yet thanks to China’s growing power, global reaction has been muted. Muslim nations have been shamefully silent, and while some Western democracies have spoken up, the Trump administration has also largely ignored the issue.
The vacuum in Washington should be filled by Congress. Bipartisan legislation that would create a special coordinator to respond to the Xinjiang crisis and prepare the ground for sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the repression failed to pass the last Congress. It should be promptly taken up this year.