“The greatest human right is the people’s right to a happy life […] Chinese people are willing to work with people from every country to establish a global human rights governance that is fairer, more reasonable, and more inclusive.” Xi Jinping, in a 10 December 2018 letter commemorating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Xinhua/CCDI.
Would the people of Xinjiang consider themselves to be leading a happy life? Are the people of Xinjiang able to exercise such a right to do so? Throughout that vast province in the far West of China, thousands upon thousands of Uighurs and Muslims are being interned in reeducation camps with the specific intention of eradicating their religious and cultural identities. There are numerous reports of arbitrary detention; of mistreatment; and of torture. Inmates are brainwashed with Communist propaganda, and force-fed pork and alcohol. They are in cramped, humiliating condtions. Some attempt suicide. Many others die from unendurable suffering. The right to a happy life is something that has long been absent from Xinjiang.
It is 70 years now since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the dawn that broke slowly after the long, dark night of the Second World War, the signatories to the Declaration sought to protect individual dignity and freedoms from the abuses and crimes the World had just witnessed. Life in Xinjiang bears no resemblance to those ideals. Instead, the most technologically advanced and pervasive police state in history exerts almost total dominion over the people of Xinjiang.
The provenance of the Xinjiang reeducation camps can be seen in the Urumqi riots of July 2009, andcentral government reaction to them. Reeducation camps have long been used by the Communist Party to intern political and other prisoners, who are subjected to forced labour and other forms of mistreatment. Using the 2009 Urumqi Riots – themselves a response to cultural and religious oppression, as well as an exertion of Xinjiang identity – as the basis for an increased crackdown on separatisits and ‘extremists’, the regional government under Zhang Chunxian began in 2011 to propagandise the concept of Xinjiang being developed through the adoption of “modern culture”. A euphemism for the Han Chinese culture and language, modern culture denotes the specific exclusion of Uigher and Muslim cultures from any relation to the development of Xinjiang.
Under the guise of “de-extremification”, Zhang began to focus on the banning of specific Islamic practices. Restrictions were placed on beards of “abnormal” length; the wearing of veils in public was forbidden; certain Muslim names ad words were banned from use; and mosques could not longer have domes. This was broadened by the 2014 “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism”, a multifacted campaign against Uighurs and Muslims in Xinjiang, introduced in the name of national security. With support from prosecutors across the province, the local government targeted mobile and computer communications for surveillance; collected biometric data en masse; subjected Uighurs to profiling at pedestrian and ethnic checkpoints; and confiscated religious materials. Arrests of Uighurs increased significantly throughout 2014, rising 95% on the previous year – a prelude to the mass incarcerations that were to follow with the appointment of Chen Quanguo as Party Secretary of Xinjiang in 2016.
Chen Quanguo had risen to prominence in China for his subjugation of Tibet, where he had energetically implemented a system of “grid management” for control and policing of the region whilst Party Secretary. Coupled with technological advances such as big data analytics, the grid mangement system and Chen’s new network of police stations gave the Chinese authorities an unfettered ability to monitor and control ethnic Tibetans, and no major security incidents were reported in the restive province during his tenure. To the surveillance mechanisms that already existed in Xinjiang when he arrived – Urumqi alone was already surveilled by over 40,000 security cameras – Chen, much as he had done in Tibet, looked to add vast numbers of new police recruits and new security checkpoints throughout the Province. Over 90,000 new police were recruited over the course of 2 years, and 7,000 new check points – or “convenience police stations” – with up to 30 informal police were installed. Chen also enforced further regulations curtailing religious and cultural expression, encompassing not only Uighurs and Muslims but also Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other ethnic minorities. Uighurs were often forced to return to their home towns and villages, or chose instead to work as the low level, informal police manning the convenience police stations.
Under Chen’s leadership, the intensified security, de-extremification campaigns, and practices of “re-education” began to coagulate. Internment camps, in both converted public buildings and newly-built facilities, were used to summarily detain Uighers and other minorities with the aim of “transforming through education”. The camps began to spread throughout the province. The number of camps is difficult to estimate: numbers range from 30 to over 70, with the number of Uighurs, Muslims and other detainees being held ranging from the hundreds of thousands to 2 million. The Chinese authorities, whilst allowing the media to celebrate the apparent success of anti-terror and re-education campaigns in Xinjiang, do not make data relating to the camps public. What is known, however, is that detainees are met with armed guards, fences, watch towers, and a sophisticated surveillance apparatus. The detainees endure cramped conditions, mistreatment, and abuse. They are forced into haram activities and humiliated. They are steadily indoctrinated with propaganda and Communist songs, which they must sing at the risk of physical abuse. Some detainees tortured with waterboarding or force-fed unidentified medicines. Detainees do not face trial, however, because they have committed no crime.
The great irony of Chen’s police state is that it is accomplishing something that the insurgents of Xinjiang were unable to do: drive Han Chinese from the province. The implementation of such far-reaching security measures has seen the economy contract, as the draconian laws and grid management system introduced by successive Party Secretaries prevent even the Han Chinese from living their lives in relative freedom. Some choose to leave, if the hukou system allows, whilst others simply seek to migrate overseas. The campaigns of “de-extremification” in Xinjiang, which manifested themselves in the network of camps and the attempted eradication of Uighur and Muslim identities, are also driven, in part, by economic factors. Firstly, the employing of numerous local workers as informal police officers served to not only augment the surveillance state, but also to tackle widespread unemployment. Selection criteria for these positions were lower than elsewhere in China, and this allowed the local government to address both economic and security concerns at once. Secondly, Xinjiang is to a play a key role in Xi Jingping’s “one belt, one road” project. A place of great strategic significance, Xinjiang borders seven countries and is already a major transportation and logistics hub. Cargo trains heading to and from Central Asia and Europe are expected to pass through Xinjiang in ever greater numbers. To the central government, security is therefore paramount, as any restive activitiy or security incidents could threaten Xi’s great project.
Despite the infrastructure and other development in Xinjiang – and the central government has invested heavily in the province – the people of Xinjiang continue to pay an unaffordable price. Much as with other instances of colonization, the people of Xinjiang are excluded from most of the increased development. They are not able to enjoy the benefits of their rich resources, which are instead taken to be used in the development of other areas of China. The Chinese language and cultural systems were forcibly introduced into the province, and the people of Xinjiang must learn and speak Chinese, and observe Islam ‘with Chinese characteristics’. It is ultimately the sinicization of the province – to which the central government falsely claims a Han Chinese birth-right – that has precipitated the existence of the network of camps. It may be underscored by economic concerns, but, as in Tibet, sinicization is a brutal process, and makes a mockery of any attempt by the Chinese leadership to align themselves with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.