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The UN says it is "deeply concerned" by numerous reports that China has turned the autonomous region of Xinjiang, homeland to the native Uighur population, into "something that resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy."

A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard as a Muslim Uighur family walks past him in the Uighur district of the city of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang region on July 14, 2009. (AFP Archive)

A UN human rights panel said on Friday that it had received many credible reports that 1 million ethnic Uighurs in China are held in what resembles a "massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy".  Gay McDougall, a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, cited estimates that 2 million Uighurs and Muslim minorities were forced into "political camps for indoctrination" in the western Xinjiang autonomous region.

"We are deeply concerned at the many numerous and credible reports that we have received that in the name of combating religious extremism and maintaining social stability (China) has changed the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internship camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of 'no rights zone'," she told the start of a two-day regular review of China's record, including Hong Kong and Macao.

China says Xinjiang faces a serious threat from militants and separatists who plot attacks and stir up tensions between the mostly Muslim Uighur minority who call the region home and the ethnic Han Chinese majority. A Chinese delegation of some 50 officials made no comment on her remarks at the Geneva session that continues on Monday.The allegations came from multiple sources, including activist group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, which said in a report last month that 21 percent of all arrests recorded in China in 2017 were in Xinjiang. 

Earlier, Yu Jianhua, China's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said it was working towards equality and solidarity among all ethnic groups. But McDougall said that members of the Uighur community and others Muslims were being treated as "enemies of the state" solely on the basis of their ethno-religious identity.

More than 100 Uighur students who returned to China from countries including Egypt and Turkey had been detained, with some dying in custody, she said. Fatima-Binta Dah, a panel member, referred to "arbitrary and mass detention of almost 1 million Uighurs" and asked the Chinese delegation:  "What is the level of religious freedom available now to Uighurs in China, what legal protection exists for them to practice their religion?"  Panelists also raised reports of mistreatment of Tibetans in the autonomous region, including inadequate use of the Tibetan language in the classroom and at court proceedings.   "The UN body maintained its integrity, the government got a very clear message," Golok Jigme, a Tibetan monk and former prisoner living in exile, told Reuters at the meeting.






New decree seeks to 'guide Islam', as crackdown against Muslims and Islamic symbols continues.


China is using western counter-terror strategies targeting Muslims as justification for its Uighur concentration camps


East Turkistan, also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, lies in the heart of Asia. The current territorial size of East Turkistan is 1,626,000 square kilometers (635,000 square miles), which is 4 times the size of California. According to official records in 1949, East Turkistan’s original territories contained 1,820,000 square kilometers of land. The Qinghai and Gansu provinces of China annexed part of the territory as a result of the Chinese communist invasion of 1949. East Turkistan has a diverse geography. It has grand deserts, magnificent mountains, and beautiful rivers, lakes, grasslands and forests.

A brief history of East Turkistan and its people

East Turkistan is the homeland of the Turkic speaking Uyghurs and other central Asian peoples such as Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Tatars, Uzbeks, and Tajiks. According to the latest Chinese census, the present population of these Muslims is slightly over 11 million; among these, the 8.68 million Uyghurs constitute the majority.  However, Uyghur sources indicate that Uyghur population in East Turkistan exceeds 15 million.

East Turkistan is located beyond a logical boundary of China, the Great Wall. Historically, East Turkistan is a part of Central Asia, not of China. East Turkistan's people are not Chinese; they are Turks of Central Asia.  Records show that the Uyghurs have a history of more than 4000 years in East Turkistan. Situated along a section of the legendary Silk Road, Uyghurs played an important role in cultural exchanges between the East and West and developed a unique culture and civilization of their own.

Uyghurs embraced Islam in A.D. 934 during the Karahanid Kingdom. Kashgar, the capital of the Kingdom, quickly became one of the major learning centers of Islam. Art, the sciences, music and literature flourished as Islamic religious institutions nurtured the pursuit of an advanced culture. In this period, hundreds of world-renowned Uyghur scholars emerged. Thousands of valuable books were written. Among these works, the Uyghur scholar Yusuf Has Hajip's book, Kutatku Bilig (The Knowledge for Happiness, 1069-1070) and Mahmud Kashgari's Divan-i Lugat-it Turk (a dictionary of Turk languages) are most influential.

East Turkistan was invaded by the Manchu Empire of China

The Islamic Uyghur Kingdom of East Turkestan maintained its independence and prosperity until the Manchu Empire invaded the nation in 1876. After eight years of bloody war, the Manchu Empire formally annexed East Turkistan into its territories and renamed it "Xinjiang" (meaning "New Territory" or "New Frontier") on November 18, 1884. Uyghur power, stature and culture went into a steep decline after the Manchu invasion.  After Chinese Nationalists overthrew the Manchu Empire in 1911, East Turkistan fell under the rule of the nationalist Chinese government. The Uyghurs, who wanted to free themselves from foreign domination, staged numerous uprisings against Nationalist Chinese rule and twice (once in 1933 and again in 1944) succeeded in setting up an independent East Turkistan Republic.

Political Background

Heavy-handed state repression of all activities associated by the Chinese government with "Separatism" has created a dire human rights enviornment for the Uyghur Muslim minority population of northwest China. Beijing has for more than a decade claimed to be confronted with "religious extremist forces" and "violent terrorists" in Xinjiang Province, a vast region one-sixth of China's land area.  Xinjiang is in fact a large, sparsely populated area that has been a site of heavy army and police concentrations since 1949, and is used as a base for nuclear testing, miliatry training, and prison labor facilities. The population of 18 million includes several Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic groups, of which the Uyghurs, numbering eight million, are the largest. The percentage of ethnic Han Chinese in Xinjiang has grown as a result of government policies from six percent in 1949 to 40 percent at present, and now numbers some 7.5 million people. Much like Tibetans, Uyghurs in Xinjiang have struggled for cultural survival in the face of a government-supported influx by Chinese migrants, as well as harsh repression of political dissent and any expression, however lawful or peaceful, of their distinct identity.

Reports from Xinjiang document a pattern of abuse, including political imprisonment, torture, and disappearance. Mosques are summarily closed and the Uyghur language is banned from use in universities. Uyghurs are subjected to compulsory unpaid labor in the construction of a pipeline planned to export local petroleum resources to other parts of China. Uyghurs also continue to be the only population in China consistently subjected to executions for political crimes, and these executions are often both summary and public.

A handful of small-scale explosions aimed at government targets over the past decade have been repeatedly invoked by the Chinese government, particularly since September 11, in support of its strike-hard campaign to crack down on separatism and terrorism. In policy pronouncements for both domestic and international audiences, the government has sought to establish that all separatism is tantamount to Islamic terrorism, and in fact uses the terms interchangeably. The state's efforts to extinguish the common desire among Uyghurs for autonomy or outright independence appear to have increased the alienation of the population and, some analysts speculation, the potential for future violent conflict.

Although human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International express concern over the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang, expertise on the region is so scarce that activists agree that without critical support from Uyghur-run human rights organizations, very little information from within Xinjiang will see the light of day. Some information collection and documentation has begun in a sporadic way in Uyghur communities across the diaspora, but the effect will be limited without the establishment the establishment of a human rights organization specifically focused on the Uyghur situation.

The world's next major human disaster is in the making in China. This time, we should act before it's too late.
Khaled A Beydoun
13 Sept 2018

Rwanda. East Timor. Myanmar. The world has a cruel habit of ignoring humanitarian disasters until it's too late. Old habits die hard, and the people targeted by state-led ethnic cleansing programs even harder. But the reports of mass concentration camps and the criminalisation of Islam inflicted upon China's Uighur Muslims should alarm anyone and everyone. Right now. 

In August, a United Nations human rights panel reported that up to one million Uighur Muslims were forced into grounds that resemble massive internment camps in Xinjiang - the autonomous region in western China home to approximately 10 million Uighur Muslims. Gay McDougall, who sits on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, claimed that up to two million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities were forced into "political camps for indoctrination".

Escape from Xinjiang: Muslim Uighurs speak of China persecution

The scale of China's internment is staggering, with at least one in every 10 Uighur Muslim living in Xinjiang "disappearing into internment camps". The figure is even more staggering for those that have family or friends locked away for no other crime but practising a faith - Islam - in a region where this religion is categorically associated with subversion, separatism and terrorism.

But the internment of one million people in Xinjiang is only the tip of the ominous state architecture of ethnic cleansing against Uighur Muslims. The very phrases "internment" and "concentration camps" instantly conjure up images of the Holocaust or the rounding up of Japanese Americans during World War II. Potent analogies that spurred the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Intercept to publish recent pieces documenting China's designation of Islam as a "mental illness," and its merciless objective to annihilate it by way of a sweeping system of ethnic cleansing, of which mass internment is only one part.

Yet, much of the world remains unaware of the horrors unfolding in Xinjiang. And even more, entirely unacquainted with a people trapped within the belly of a superpower bent on destroying them.

Who Are the Uighurs?
A portrait of Uighur Muslim history and identity highlights why China, a communist nation that enshrines atheism and privileges its majority-Han ethnic population, is committed to eliminating these people. The Uighurs are a stigmatised minority on two fronts: ethnicity and religion, and trapped within the precarious crosshairs of an Orwellian police state that views Islam as an affront to state-sponsored atheism and Uighur identity an obstacle to Han ethnic supremacy.

Uighur Muslims are indigenous to Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwest China that borders Mongolia to the northeast, and a myriad of Muslim-majority nations to its left. After briefly declaring independence in the early 20th century, Xinjiang - and a sizable population of Uighur Muslims - was annexed by communist China in 1949, and remains under its authoritarian control until this day.

In addition to religious affinity, Uighur ethnicity resembles and overlaps with that of its Central Asian neighbours, such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and other countries populated with predominantly Turkic peoples. The region is still called East Turkistan by Uighur Muslims. In line with this nationalist imagining, Uighur Muslims also have their own language, Uighur, formerly known as Eastern Turki, which is only spoken by the Uighur inhabitants of Xinjiang and populations in the diaspora. 

One million Muslim Uighurs held in secret China camps: UN panel

Elements within the Uighur population in China have sought to reclaim their independence, claiming indigenousness and persecution as bases for secession from China. In response, China promoted the mass movement of Han Chinese into the country's hinterland, including Xinjiang, which has effectively reduced Uighur Muslims into a minority on their native land, strategically preempting the possibility of independence.

The 9/11 terror attacks in the United States created new possibilities for China to suppress its Uighur Muslim population beyond demographic engineering. Lockstep, Beijing adopted the American Islamophobia enshrined by the Bush administration, and seized upon a "War on Terror" that conflated Islam with terrorism. With much of the world suspicious of Islam and the Global War on Terror fully deployed, China seized upon a ripe geopolitical landscape that enabled a relentless and robust crackdown on Uighur Muslims - honing in on Islam as the pathway to destroy a people refusing to trade in their faith, language and customs for the alternatives forced upon them by Beijing.

Criminalising Islam
Islam is central to Uighur identity, and religious expression intimately tied to language and culture. But the War on Terror enabled Beijing to target the religious identity of Uighur Muslims to not only stifle aspirations for independence, but push towards full-scale ethnic cleaning. The universal policing of Muslim expression, in Western and Eastern nations, allowed China to first "throw the Uighurs under the geopolitical bus." And in recent years, completely run them over with an interconnected set of policies that make American or French Islamophobia look pedestrian.

Yet, understanding the broad scale and depth of China's persecution of Uighur Muslims is fully revealed by its genuine objective: which is transformation and annihilation, not ferreting out terrorists. Criminalising and closely policing Islam, the most conspicuous and sacred identifier of Uighur identity, is how Beijing seeks to bring about that goal. In 2015, China restricted Uighur Muslim students, teachers and other civil servants in Xinjiang from observing the fast during the month of Ramadan, which extended beyond the public sphere by way of police intimidation and surveillance within households during the holy month. This ban was accompanied, according to Human Rights Watch, by routine state vetting of Uighur imams, close surveillance of mosques, the removal of religious teachers and students from schools, restrictions placed on Uighur Muslims to communicate with family or friends living overseas, and the screening of literature assigned to students in schools in Xinjiang. 

While Xinjiang has rapidly devolved into an open-air prison for Uighur Muslims in recent years, the open observance of Islam would lead one directly to the most vile type of Chinese prison: an internment camp designed to "cure" one from Islam and crush the Uighur people.

Internment and the architecture of ethnic cleansing
Suppressing the observance of Ramadan sent a clear message to Uighurs during the most emblematic period of Muslim life: that expression of Islam will be punished with impunity. In turn, the state ban on Ramadan bludgeoned a cornerstone of Uighur culture and life, and beyond the holy month, pushed forward the state view that Islam is "an ideological illness" that must be more than just criminally prosecuted, but pathologically cured.

Internment camps, called "re-education centres" by the state, grew in size and number beginning in 2013. Within these overpopulated camps, state agents are commissioned to heal the illness (Islam) through a litany of horrors, including forcing Uighur Muslims toeat pork and drink alcohol (both of which are restricted by Islam), memorise and recite Communist Party songs, forced into gruelling work, enroll in Mandarin language courses and comprehensive trainings devised to extract their religion and culture from out of them. 

Locked up, uprooted far from home and family, 10-20 percent of the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang are currently experiencing or have endured the horrors of the largest network of internment camps since World War II. Those who resist while inside are tortured, and reports of deaths from family members and outright disappearances are widely documented. The majority of those interned have been men, and the Chinese authorities have supplemented the disproportionate incarceration of men with a policyforcing Uighur Muslim women to marry (non-Muslim) Han men. Further diluting the Uighur Muslim population and entrenching Han hegemony.

The threat of internment is a fear that hovers over Xinjiang like a black cloud and looms heavy in the mind of every Uighur Muslim. Indeed, "the detentions and the fear of detention have become an unavoidable fact of daily life." This fear is a weapon that the Chinese government has wielded to deter and intimidate Uighurs from exercising their faith, enforced by way of ubiquitous police in Uighur Muslim communities, tapping the neighbours, classmates and colleagues of Uighurs to serve as data gatherers and spies, and perhaps most nefariously, deputising Uighur children to monitor and implicate their own parents. Big Brother would be a severe understatement, as Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have enlisted virtually anybody and everybody inside of Uighur Muslim communities to partake in the project of uprooting Islam.

The crux of ethnic cleaning: Brainwashing children
Last week in The Atlantic, Sigal Samuel wrote, "China's crackdown has some Uighurs in Xinjiang worried that their own children will incriminate them, whether accidentally or because teachers urge kids to spy on their parents." Samuel's work helped spur discussion about the horrors taking place in Xinjiang beyond the internment camps, which created an entryway to learn about the other tentacles of China's ethnic cleansing programme; particularly those targeting Uighur children.

China's project of breaking up the family unit, the building block of Uighur Muslim society in Xinjiang, is achieved through the routine programme of marshalling children to report on the religious activities of their parents to (state-controlled) teachers. But also the formal institution of state-run orphanages, where the sons and daughters of interned Uighurs undergo a programme of cultural brainwashing and assimilation tailored for children. 

Within the walls of these orphanages, where "[children] between the ages of six months and 12 years are locked up like farm animals," Chinese authorities carry out what is perhaps the crux of their ethnic cleansing program: engineering an entire generation of Uighur Muslims to turn their back on their parents, religion and culture, in favour of the atheism, Mandarin language and Han customs privileged by Beijing. In turn, stripping the Uighur people from its very lifeline, its children, and paving a pathway towards the utter decimation of 10 million Uighur Muslims, and a nation that existed before the creation of the modern Chinese state.

Waiting for the world
On Tuesday, September 4, I released a tweet about the internment of one million Uighur Muslims that went viral, but more importantly, caught the attention of Uighur Muslims in the diaspora. A Uighur graduate student (whose name I will not share for fear of China seeking retribution against him or his family) in England contacted me, sharing intimate stories about the trials his family members and friends endured in the internment camps. Like so many, I took to the crisis because of the string of headlines documenting the internment of one million Uighur Muslims, alarmed by how scant coverage of it was in the mainstream media - and how the world was not only idle to respond, but largely unaware.

"We are waiting for the world," the student told me on Twitter, prefacing a statement that would reveal the gravity of the state violence unleashed on his people: "We are waiting for the world to know who we are," he finished. A basic plea that China efficiently seeks to keep concealed while systematically policing and punishing every trace of Uighur Muslim life. In order to comprehend the design of extermination China has placed upon Uighur Muslims, we must first know who they are as a people. They are a proud people, whose only crimes are living on a land that has always been their own and expressing a faith and culture rooted deep in that soil.

Acknowledging their existence, as a global community, thwarts the very essence of China's ethnic cleansing program: to reject Uighur Muslim identity, and remove them from memory. It is still not too late for us, all of us, to know who the Uighur are, and next, help to prevent the world's next human disaster. 


IN an interview with a Turkish television channel, Prime Minister Imran Khan completely sidestepped a question about the condition of Uighur Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang province. He admitted that he knew little about the issue, and, instead, preferred to focus on and highlight Chinese financial assistance and investment in Pakistan.

China is under stiff criticism for its alleged persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, especially Uighur Muslims. Freedom House’s 2018 country report on China classified it as ‘religiously-not-free’ on its freedom index. China is seriously concerned about this growing perception that hurts its efforts to promote a ‘soft image’ of China for a successful execution of its Belt and Road Initiative and other global commercial and strategic projects. Last week, China said that it welcomed UN officials to visit Xinjiang provided that they stay out of its internal affairs.

Pakistan usually avoids commenting on China’s internal affairs. But many Pakistani men, married to Chinese Uighur women, claim their spouses are being held in so-called re-education camps and are demanding their release. The issue has put Pakistan in a difficult position, mainly due to China’s huge investment in the country, as well as the extreme sensitivity of Chinese authorities to discussions on the subject.

Mystery continues to shroud China’s re-education camps, with authorities least interested in opening them up to independent observers. However, Chinese scholars claim that they are a part of the country’s countering violent extremism strategy, which was not built in isolation from rest of the world. They assert that China has designed its re-education strategy after carefully examining CVE approaches in practice in the West and Muslim world, which also employ similar community engagement programmes. Though they tend to justify their muscular approach by quoting examples from the Gulf, and South and Southeast Asian Muslim nations, the Chinese CVE strategy still appears highly politicised and opaque to Western practitioners and policymakers.

Much of the information about China’s re-education centres comes from West. Though the criticism has forced Chinese authorities to ‘release’ some information, it is insufficient to make a proper assessment. Last year, a state-run news agency published an interview of Shohrat Zakir, the Xinjiang governor, describing the camps as “professional vocational training institutions” for people influenced by terrorism and extremism who have not committed an offence warranting criminal punishment.

Similarly, in a seminar in China last November, local scholars explained China’s CVE approaches. Alluding to diverse and disparate CVE practices in different countries, they tended to conclude that no uniform or global CVE programme exists. One Chinese scholar presented a four-layered model based on the four principles of breaking, establishing, preventing and developing. ‘Breaking’ referred to isolating individuals from an extremist environment; ‘establishing’ meant introducing them to the true spiritual values of religion; ‘preventing’ was seen as educating; and ‘developing’ was interpreted as a skill development programme.

However, one of the best works available on the subject of China’s CVE strategy is by Zunyou Zhou, a Germany-based Chinese scholar. In a paper published in the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence in 2017, he noted that the Chinese CVE strategy is based on multiple approaches and, interestingly, that they consulted Western CVE and deradicalisation approaches extensively and then built their own, more muscular model. The approaches include ‘five keys’, ‘four prongs’, ‘three contingents’, ‘two hands’ and ‘one rule’. Viewed together, these approaches point to legal, religious, cultural, ideological, and scientific aspects of the deradicalisation effort, implemented by governmental agencies, public institutions and non-governmental organisations in the region.

The Xinjiang government has developed several programmes to target different groups of people, including those who are ‘radicalised’ as well as those who are not but considered vulnerable to recruitment. The ‘five keys’ — ideological, cultural, customary, religious and legal — give a long-sustaining solution to terrorism. The ‘four prongs’ refer to a combination of four methods: ‘squeezing by correct faith’; ‘counteracting by culture’; ‘controlling by law’; and ‘popularising science’. ‘Squeezing by correct faith’ refers to clarifying people’s understanding of Islam while ‘counteracting by culture’ means seeking effective and practical solutions to thwart extremism and guiding people towards secularisation and modernisation. The ‘three contingents’ refer to the policy of reinforcing three main groups of people the government can count on to maintain stability and security. The ‘two hands’ refer to the one ‘firm hand’ that cracks down on terrorists, and the other ‘firm hand’ that educates and guides Uighur people, and the ‘one rule’ means the policy of ruling Xinjiang according to the law.

The author also provides historical background on the evolution of the Chinese CVE strategy and mentions that it materialised in a policy document entitled Several Guiding Opinions on Further Suppressing Illegal Religious Activities and Combating the Infiltration of Religious Extremism in Accordance with Law, issued by Xinjiang’s CCP Committee in May 2013. The policy document was also referred to as ‘No. 11 Document’, and described the borders between ethnic customs, normal religious practices and extremist manifestations.

For the CVE strategy’s smooth implementation, the Xinjiang authorities have introduced new legal regimes, and the latest amendment (titled ‘Regulation on Anti-Extremism’) was introduced in April 2017 to ban a wide range of extremist behaviours. Under the new legal framework, authorities have launched many programmes including deradicalisation for prisoners, and social programmes for those who have engaged in terrorism or extremism but do not deserve criminal punishment.

The re-education camps — or ‘rehabilitation centres’ — have been created as a part of China’s social programming. These centres run through civil society groups in Xinjiang or through ‘Fang Hui Ju’ working groups, dispatched by the regional government, comprising practitioners tasked with winning the hearts and minds of the people.

For CVE practitioners, the Chinese model may have a lot of substance to learn from. But the Uighur problem is more complex than religious extremism, as it has added dimensions of ethnic, cultural and political rights. For Pakistan, the Chinese CVE model offers nothing to learn from except to find a way of resolving the issue of Pakistani citizens’ spouses held in these camps.


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