China’s efforts to quash what it says is separatism and religious extremism among its ethnic Muslim population have turned the far western region of Xinjiang into one of the world’s most heavily policed areas. Multiple accounts have emerged of secretive “re-education camps” that, according to a United Nations committee’s assessment, have detained tens of thousands to “upwards of 1 million” Uighurs. As its mosques are shuttered and travel across its borders restricted, Xinjiang — once at the intersection of ancient Silk Road trade routes — threatens to become a black hole in President Xi Jinping’s effort to build new ones. The international community is taking note, with U.S. lawmakers calling for sanctions.
1. Who are the Uighurs?
The Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) are a Turkic-speaking Chinese ethnic minority of mostly Sunni Muslims. They comprise some 10 million of the 22 million people who populate Alaska-sized Xinjiang. Uighurs have close ethnic and cultural ties to Central Asia and some refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan.
2. What triggered China’s crackdown?
Maintaining its grip on far-off Xinjiang has long challenged China and its leaders say the campaign is subduing “separatist forces” that reject their rule and foment unrest. Violence in the region has spiked as Xi has vowed to resist attempts to split territory from China. Ethnic riots erupted in the capital Urumqi in 2009, killing almost 200 people. Police then connected Uighurs to an attack near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 2013, in which a sports-utility vehicle rammed a crowd, killing two tourists. In 2014, police sentenced four people they said had “Uighur names” — three received the death penalty — after a terror attack in the city of Kunming. The spread of violence, rights groups say, intensified the crackdown on Uighurs’ speech, movement and culture.
3. How is the government clamping down?
Through a widespread network of security cameras, police stations and checkpoints. Residents have been ordered to install satellite-tracking systems in their vehicles, submit to facial scans when entering markets or fuel stations and are generally forbidden from traveling abroad. Xinjiang, with just 1.5 percent of China’s population, last year accounted for one-fifth of all criminal arrests. The region is, as Bloomberg News reported, a test site for China’s powerful state surveillance apparatus, including new facial-recognition technology. The Associated Press says a culture of fear has been instilled: One major town had police depots every 500 meters (1,600 feet), with armed motorcades patrolling streets and checking phones for religious material.
4. How does China justify its campaign?
By calling it “counterterrorism.” Xi has ordered authorities to “strike first” against Islamist extremism, amid reports that as many as 5,000 Uighurs were fighting alongside terror groups in Syria. Beijing authorities have described the re-education camps as providing “vocational training,” according to the AP. A government spokesman said the UN estimates for detainees at the camps were based on “unverified and irresponsible information that has no factual basis at all.” The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid run by the ruling Communist Party, asserted in an August editorial that authorities had helped salvage Xinjiang from turmoil and prevented it from becoming another Syria. “It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or China’s Libya,”’ the paper said.
5. How is the world reacting?
The UN and European Union have expressed concern, but the most serious reaction to date has come from a group of U.S. lawmakers led by Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith. In an Aug. 28 letter to Trump administration officials, they proposed using the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 — previously deployed to sanction Russian oligarchs and Turkish officials — to freeze the travel and assets of officials including Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo. The governments of Muslim-majority nations, meanwhile, have largely remained silent, refraining from public statements. Their reasons are threefold: Most enjoy a friendly relationship with China, a major trade partner and aid donor. The police state in Xinjiang has made it nearly impossible for outsiders to gather first-hand information about alleged abuses that might be taking place there. And the Beijing government’s policy of not inserting itself into other nations’ foreign policy might now be paying dividends.
6. What about China’s neighbors?
The crackdown is taking place in the heart of the Belt and Road, Xi’s global flagship trade and infrastructure initiative. Xinjiang is positioned at the imagined crossroads of possible new economic routes to and from Central Asia. And China’s treatment of Muslims has gained attention in at least one neighbor central to those ambitions. An undocumented ethnic-Kazakh Chinese citizen recently testified that she had been forced to teach in a camp before escaping. Kazakhstan authorities didn’t deport her.