US lawmakers are pushing the Trump administration to sanction Chinese officials for human rights abuses against the Uighur community, an ethnic Muslim minority that’s facing a ruthless crackdown from the government in Beijing.
A letter sent by a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday urges targeting specific officials and companies with sanctions for their role in carrying out or assisting the Chinese government in its campaign against the Uighur community.
“Muslim ethnic minorities are being subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture, and a digitized surveillance system so pervasive that every aspect of daily life is monitored,” the letter read.
A United Nations panel estimated earlier this month that China has detained as many as 1 million Uighurs in internment camps and “reeducation” programs.
This includes programs that focus on psychological indoctrination — like studying communist propaganda and giving thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping — as well as reports of waterboarding and other forms of torture.
The Chinese government’s repression of ethnic Uighurs, most of whom are Sunni Muslim, has intensified in recent years amid what it calls an “anti-extremism initiative.”
“[I]n the name of combating religious extremism and maintaining social stability,” China has turned the Xinjiang region “into something that resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of ‘no rights zone’,” Gay McDougall, a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, said in Geneva earlier this month.
The Chinese government has pushed back on the allegations. Hu Lianhe, a senior official with the Chinese government agency that oversees ethnic and religious affairs in the country, told the UN panel on August 13 that “there is no arbitrary detention” of the Uighur minority and that “there are no such things as reeducation centers.”
But Hu did say that convicted “criminals charged with minor offenses” were sent to “vocational education and employment training centers” to help them reintegrate. He declined to say how many people were being held in these centers.
This confrontation between the UN panel and China is a culmination of a human rights situation in the Xinjiang region that has become increasingly precarious, according to human rights organizations, advocacy groups, and journalists, who have tried to document the situation despite China’s tight media control.
Here’s what’s going on, and why the UN is finally confronting Beijing on its brutal policies against, and detainment of, the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities within China’s borders.
The Uighurs: China’s minority Muslim group that’s increasingly the target of repressive policies
Xinjiang, where about 10 million Uighurs and some other Muslim minorities live, is an autonomous region in China’s northwest that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. It has been under Chinese control since 1949, when the communist People’s Republic of China was established.
Uighurs speak their own language — an Asian Turkic language similar to Uzbek — and most practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam. Some activists, including those who seek independence from China, refer to the region as East Turkestan.
Once situated along the ancient Silk Road trading route, Xinjiang is oil- and resource-rich. As it developed along with the rest of China, the region attracted more Han Chinese, a migration encouraged by the Chinese government.
But that demographic shift inflamed ethnic tensions, especially within some of the larger cities. In 2009, for example, riots broke out in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang autonomous region, after Uighurs protested their treatment by the government and the Han majority. About 200 people were killed and hundreds injured during the unrest.
The Chinese government, however, blamed the protests on violent separatist groups — a tactic it would continue using against the Uighurs and other religious and ethnic minorities across China.
Xinjiang is also a major logistics hub of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure project along the old Silk Road meant to boost China’s economic and political influence around the world. Xinjiang’s increasing importance to China’s global aspirations is likely a major reason Beijing is tightening its grip.
All of which means China has increasingly tried to draw Xinjiang into its orbit, starting with a crackdown in 2009 following riots in the region and leading up to the implementation of repressive policies in 2016 and 2017 that have curbed religious freedom and increased surveillance of the minority population, often under the guise of combating terrorism and extremism.
The Chinese government justifies its clampdown on the Uighurs and Muslim minorities by saying it’s trying to eradicate extremism and separatist groups. But while attacks, some violent, by Uighur separatists have occurred in recent years, there’s little evidence of any cohesive separatist movement — with jihadist roots or otherwise — that could challenge the Chinese government, experts tell me.
China’s “de-extremification” policies against the Uighurs
China’s crackdown on the Uighurs is part of a policy of “de-extremification.” It’s generated extreme policies, from the banning of certain Muslim names for babies to chilling reports of torture and political indoctrination in so-called “reeducation” camps where hundreds of thousands have been detained.
Communist China has a dark history with reeducation camps, combining hard labor with indoctrination to the party line. According to research by Adrian Zenz, a leading scholar on China’s policies toward the Uighurs, Chinese officials began using dedicated camps in Xinjiang around 2014 — around the same time that China blamed a series of terrorist attacks on radical Uighur separatists.
China escalated pressure on Muslim minorities through 2017, slowly chipping away at their rights with the passage of religious regulations and a counterterrorism law, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a pro-Uighur group based in in Washington, DC.
In 2016, Xinjiang also got a new leader: a powerful Communist Party boss named Chen Quanguo, whose previous job was restoring order and control to the restive region of Tibet. Chen has a reputation as a strongman and is something of a specialist in ethnic crackdowns.
Increased surveillance and police presence accompanied his move to Xinjiang, including his “grid management” policing system. As the Economist reported, “authorities divide each city into squares, with about 500 people. Every square has a police station that keeps tabs on the inhabitants. So, in rural areas, does every village.”
Security checkpoints where residents must scan identification cards were set up at train stations and on roads into and out of towns. Authorities have reportedly used facial recognition technology to track residents’ movements. Police confiscate phones to download the information contained on them to scan through later. Police have also confiscated passports to prevent Uighurs from traveling abroad.
Some of the government more targeted “de-extremification” restrictions gained coverage in the West, including a ban on certain Muslim names for babies and another on long beards and veils. The government also made it illegal to not watch state television and to not send children to government schools. The government reportedly tried to promote drinking and smoking, because people who didn’t drink or smoke — such as devout Muslims — were deemed suspicious.
Chinese officials have justified these policies as necessary to counter religious radicalization and extremism, but critics say they are meant to curtail Islamic traditions and practices.
The Chinese government is “trying to expunge ethnonational characteristics from the people,” James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University, told me. “They’re not trying to drive them out of the country; they’re trying to hold them in.”
“The ultimate goal, the ultimate issue that the Chinese state is targeting [is] the cultural practices and beliefs of Muslim groups,” he added.
What we know, and don’t know, about the detention camps
“Reeducation camps” — or training camps, as the Chinese have called them — are perhaps the most sinister pillar of this de-extremification policy. Experts estimate as many as 2 million people have disappeared into these camps at some point, with about 1 million currently being held.
The Chinese government has denied these camps exist. When confronted about them at the United Nations this week, officials claimed they were for the “assistance and education” of minor criminals. China’s state-run media has dismissed the reports of detention camps as Western media “baselessly criticizing China’s human rights.”
This misinformation on the part of the Chinese government makes it difficult to find out what’s really going on, but leaked documents and firsthand accounts from people detained at the camps have helped paint a disturbing picture of what amount to modern-day concentration camps.
Millward said the Chinese authorities see the camps as “a kind of conversion therapy, and they talk about it that way.”
Or, as a source told told Radio Free Asia, a Chinese official referred to the “reeducation” as “like spraying chemicals on the crops. That is why it is general reeducation, not limited to a few people.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin and Clément Bürge, who documented the increasingly oppressive state surveillance in Xinjiang in a December 2017 report, described one of these detention centers:
One new compound sits a half-hour drive south of Kashgar, a Uighur-dominated city near the border with Kyrgyzstan. It is surrounded by imposing walls topped with razor wire, with watchtowers at two corners. A slogan painted on the wall reads: “All ethnic groups should be like the pods of a pomegranate, tightly wrapped together.”
Those detained in the camps are often accused of having “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas, according to Radio Free Asia. But Zenz, the researcher, said people are detained for all sorts of reasons.
“Those where any religious (even non-extremist) or other content deemed problematic by the state was found on their mobile phones. Those aged 18 to 40. Those who openly engage in religious practices,” Zenz said of the detainees. “But many Uighur-majority regions have been ordered to detain a certain percentage of the adult population even if no fault was found. Detentions frequently occur for no discernible reasons.”
Inside these camps, detainees are subjected to bizarre exercises aimed at “brainwashing” them as well as physical torture and deprivation.
Kayrat Samarkand, who was detained in one of the camps for three months, described his experience to the Washington Post:
The 30-year-old stayed in a dormitory with 14 other men. After the room was searched every morning, he said, the day began with two hours of study on subjects including “the spirit of the 19th Party Congress,” where Xi expounded his political dogma in a three-hour speech, and China’s policies on minorities and religion. Inmates would sing communist songs, chant “Long live Xi Jinping” and do military-style training in the afternoon before writing accounts of their day, he said.
“Those who disobeyed the rules, refused to be on duty, engaged in fights or were late for studies were placed in handcuffs and ankle cuffs for up to 12 hours,” he told the Post.
At a July hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China — a special committee set up by Congress to monitor human rights in China — Jessica Batke, a former research analyst at the State Department, testified that “in at least some of these facilities, detainees are subject to waterboarding, being kept in isolation without food and water, and being prevented from sleeping.”
“They are interrogated about their religious practices and about having made trips abroad,” Batke continued. “They are forced to apologize for the clothes they wore or for praying in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
A lot of criticism but very little action
The UN human rights panel harshly criticized China over its detainment of the Uighurs. But China has continued to deny the harshest of the claims. “People of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang cherish the current situation of living and working in peace and happiness,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said in a statement in August.
But whether or how the pushback from the UN will alter China’s policies toward the Uighurs is unclear. Zenz said it might prompt China to disguise the reeducation regime a bit more, or possibly tone down its policies. “But China’s stance at the moment is more one of justification, distraction, and defiance,” he wrote.
But now some lawmakers in the United States are trying to draw attention to the plight of the Uighurs — and the bipartisan letter sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin this week may intensify pressure on the White House to act.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), who co-chair the Congressional Executive Commission on China, which sent the letter, called on the US government to sanction Chen, the strongman leader of Xinjiang, and other officials and businesses complicit in the detention and surveillance of citizens.
It’s worth noting that the State Department, including Pompeo, has also criticized China for detaining Uighurs and other minorities based on religion.
A State Department official confirmed to ABC News that it had received the letter, but the official would not say whether sanctions would be imposed. They did state that the administration was “deeply troubled by the Chinese government’s worsening crackdown on Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslims.”