China’s Hidden Camps: The Plight of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang

In the Western province of Xinjiang in China, Uighur Muslims are being rounded up and sent to what the Chinese government are calling ‘re-education camps’. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of the ethnic minority are being detained in such camps arbitrarily where they are kept in poor living conditions and with no legal representation. According to a Human Rights Watch report on Monday, former detainees described being denied food, being shackled or forced to stand for 24 hours, and being subjected to solitary confinement and sleep deprivation.

The camps resemble what can only be described as pop-up prisons, of basic construction and heavily trimmed with barbed wire fencing. Satellite images have confirmed that not only do these camps exist, but they have been expanding in recent months. NGO reports from witnesses and detainees describe that Uighur Muslims are subject to Chinese indoctrination and even torture. Omer Kanat of the Uighur Human Rights Project has labelled them concentration camps, echoing the harrowing racial and religious oppression of the Jews, or more recently the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.

The Muslim community, which is concentrated in Xinjiang, has long caused concern for the Chinese government and there has been long standing tension between the two groups. Uighurs consider themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations and have struggled for individual rights and freedom in the country. The Uighurs briefly declared independence in the early part of the 20th Century but was brought under complete control of communist China in 1949.  The government has used their separatist ambitions to legitimate their suppression ever since.  

Some members of US congress have called for sanctions on the Asian powerhouse in response to the camps. Beijing has retorted, stating that minorities in China have freedom of religion and that any criticism from the US is unfounded and hypocritical. Full propaganda promotions have been made on Chinese tv, portraying the ‘schools’ as blissful environments where its ‘students’ are grateful to be there and diligently submit themselves to study. In reality, Uighur identity is being erased to conform with Chinese nationalism. Human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have submitted reports to the UN committee documenting claims of mass imprisonment, in camps where inmates are forced to swear loyalty to China’s President Xi Jinping. The World Uyghur Congress said in its report that detainees are held indefinitely without charge and forced to shout Communist Party slogans.

The surveillance tendencies of the state have long been felt by the Uighurs. Since 2014, authorities in Xinjiang province have initiated campaigns such as the “Becoming Family” and the longer winded “Visit the People, Benefit the People, and Get Together the Hearts of the People”. Government officials have been sent to stay with Muslim families surveying and recording their daily practices as well as making them sing the Chinese national anthem raising the national flag. Such assimilation practices do not appear to be voluntary and are likely to foster deep resentment in the region. These drives are aimed at promoting ethnic unity, not through tolerance of each other, but rather through a mandatory homogenisation of people’s way of life and identity.

In the past year, Xinjiang authorities have expanded efforts at forced assimilation and at severing any foreign ties Muslim residents may have. These include: restricting foreign travel by recalling passportsforcing those living abroad to return, imprisoning those with foreign connections, strengthening the use of Mandarin language in education, targeting minority officials suspected of disloyalty. Xinjiang authorities have also heightened surveillance efforts, including instituting mass collection of DNA and voice biometrics from individuals between ages 12 and 65, routinely inspecting smartphones for ‘subversive’ content and creating numerous checkpoints on roads and train stations

China’s reputation as an oppressive state that fiercely holds loyalty to the regime above all else contradicts the rhetoric coming out of China regarding the existence of these camps. Whilst they maintain that the re-education programmes are proving successful in countering terrorism, all evidence points to the ethnic discrimination of Uighurs with no end in sight for the gross mistreatment of the minority group.  It is not difficult to predict that this is turning in to one of the most worrying human rights abuses of recent years.




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