But this past week, senior Chinese officials were compelled to publicly account for what is taking place in Xinjiang. A Geneva-based panel of United Nations human-rights experts issued a report alleging that as many as 2 million people may have been forced into a vast network of detention camps there.
Xinjiang, the panel argued, has turned into “something resembling a massive internment camp, shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no-rights zone,” where Chinese authorities were seeking to “reeducate” its Muslim minorities. Those are chiefly Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority native to the region, but also ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and others.
The report suggested Beijing views Muslims in Xinjiang as suspect “enemies of the state,” bent on terror and insurgency. “Inside the camps, detainees are bombarded with propaganda, forced to recite slogans and sing songs in exchange for food, and pressured to renounce Muslim practices,” noted an editorial on Wednesday in The Washington Post. “A statement released by Chinese dissidents last week said torture in the centers is common, as are deaths. In all, the campaign is the largest and most brutal repression the regime has undertaken since the Cultural Revolution. It rivals the ethnic cleansing Myanmar has conducted against the Muslim Rohingya minority, which has received far more attention.”
The Chinese delegation sent to Geneva flatly rejected these claims. “The argument that 1 million Uighurs are detained in re-education centers is completely untrue,” said Chinese delegate Hu Lianhe, according to the Associated Press. He added, “there is no suppression of ethnic minorities or violations of their freedom of religious belief in the name of counterterrorism."
But not even Chinese officials can deny the scope of their efforts there, which it portrays as a response to a spate of terrorist violence and riots over the past decade. A few years ago, President Xi Jinping called for “nets spread from earth to sky” — that is, a vast surveillance apparatus — in the region. Now, those living in the region cope with checkpoints and police informants, strict online censorship and constant government snooping.
Suspected Islamists detained in these camps are seen as “infected by an ideological illness,” as a recent communique from Xinjiang’s Communist Party Youth League put it. In Geneva, Hu warned that “those who are deceived by religious extremism ... shall be assisted through resettlement and education.”
For China’s authoritarian leadership, the mantra of stability is paramount. When my colleague Emily Rauhala reported on the experiences of ethnic Kazakhs who had been swept into these camps, the Chinese foreign ministry insisted “the overall situation of Xinjiang society is stable, the momentum of its economic development is good and ethnic groups live in harmony.”
Xinjiang may be on China’s geographical margins, but it’s at the heart of a lot of history. It was the crucible of Turkic culture, the original homeland of languages and peoples that spread to the shores of the Mediterranean. Its dusty Silk Road caravan towns, ringed by desert and mountains, were for centuries literal crossroads of commerce and civilizations.
But the region has rarely sat easily within the borders of China (it was first seized by the Qing dynasty in the 18th century). Cities like the historic oasis of Kashgar once felt more culturally akin to Kabul or Baghdad to the west than Beijing to the east. In recent years, though, China has gone to great lengths to subdue any trace of Uighur separatism. It bulldozed large sections of Old Kashgar — an architectural gem at the center of Uighur identity — and suppressed native languages spoken by Uighurs, Kazakhs and others in favor of Chinese.
Rights groups have protested Beijing’s increasingly draconian rule in Xinjiang, which has grown alongside China’s 21st-century prowess in surveillance technologies. According to one estimate, though the region comprises just 2 percent of China’s population, it accounted for more than a fifth of all arrests carried out in the country last year. And the Chinese dragnet now extends across borders, with officials threatening the relatives of Uighurs living abroad and disappearing Uighur academics who return from overseas.
“Under a new party boss, Chen Quanguo, appointed in 2016, the provincial government has vastly increased the money and effort it puts into controlling the activities and patrolling the beliefs of the Uighur population,” noted the Economist earlier this year, describing what it called “apartheid” with Chinese characteristics. “Its regime is racist, uncaring and totalitarian, in the sense of aiming to affect every aspect of people’s lives. It has created a fully-fledged police state. And it is committing some of the most extensive, and neglected, human-rights violations in the world.”
“We are really talking here about a humanitarian emergency,” said Adrian Zenz, a specialist on Xinjiang who lectures at the European School of Culture and Theology in Berlin, to the New York Times. “This is a very targeted political re-education effort that is seeking to change the core identity and belief system of an entire people. On that scale it’s pretty unprecedented.”
But while the deprivations of the Uighurs and other minorities are comparable to those faced by the Rohingya of Myanmar, the plight of the former receives far less global attention. Even as the citizens of dozens of majority-Muslim countries clamor for the freedom of Palestinians or Kashmiris, significantly less noise is made about the situation in Xinjiang.
All the while, China seems to be weaponizing its own form of majoritarianism at a time of heightened nationalism around the world. “The C.C.P., once quite liberal in its approach to diversity, seems to be redefining Chinese identity in the image of the majority Han — its version, perhaps, of the nativism that appears to be sweeping other parts of the world,” wrote James Millward, a noted historian of Xinjiang. “With ethnic difference itself now defined as a threat to the Chinese state, local leaders like Chen feel empowered to target Uighurs and their culture wholesale.”
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