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Arbitrary despotism: How China’s Uyghur Muslims are being locked up for their beliefs

It was supposed to be about terrorism.

In the wake of the May 2014 Ürümqi suicide attacks, which reportedly left 43 dead and scores injured in the capital of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed “absolutely no mercy” in his response to violent extremism in the country. 

First troops were deployed. A system of mass surveillance was instituted. Checkpoints were set up on every corner. Mass arrests followed and, since 2017, a sprawling network of internment camps has been put in place.

Beijing has claimed these “training centers” were for “voluntary” re-education purposes — stopping terrorism through better jobs, better skills, better lives.

Then, a November 2019 leak of official documents revealed that these facilities were essentially “brainwashing” camps modeled after high-security prisons.

Anywhere from 1-3 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have since been put into these “concentration camps.” Reports of torture surfaced, as well as a raft of unexplained deaths

And now, amid growing fears “filthy” camp conditions could turn the Xinjiang internment network into a veritable incubator for the new coronavirus, it has been revealed that many of those locked up were not suspected of being extremists at all.

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According to the latest leaks, detailing the lives of more than 300 people in Xinjiang’s Karakax County, as well as 1,800-plus family members caught up in the surveillance net, authorities are actively criminalizing modest expressions of the Islamic faith.

AP, for example, documents the case of Memtimin Emer, an imam and community leader who had preached peace and provided free medical care to those in need. Despite being in his 80s, he was imprisoned for “stirring up terrorism,” functioning as a “wild” imam, following Wahhabism, and engaging in illegal religious teachings.

Those who knew him called the allegations ridiculous. Then his three sons were locked up as well, on charges ranging from having too many children to going on the Hajj pilgrimage to the city of Mecca that is required of every able-bodied (and financially able) Muslim.

Emer, at least, had a problematic history with the state, albeit not one of extremism. Rather, he had previously defied authorities by refusing to teach communist propaganda, even while complying with their demand he deliver state-approved sermons.

Remaining apolitical, however, is not enough.

This photo taken on Sept. 11, 2019 shows a woman walking in an ethnic Uyghur neighborhood in Aksu in the region of Xinjiang. (Photo by Hector Retamal/AFP)

Others who had never taken any such stand against the Chinese Communist Party have also found themselves swept up in the camp system.

One couple was interned for what are moderate expressions of belief. The husband had grown a beard. The wife covered her face with a veil. They prayed at home and sometimes attended mosque. The couple were ultimately accused of having “too many” children and being “infected with religious and extremist ideas,” according to DW.

Then there is the case of Ruzunsa Memettohti outlined in the Financial Times.  Memettohti, a Turkish-based Uyghur woman, saw several members of her family disappear in the camp system following an innocuous phone call regarding a package of clothing.

One of her sister’s was found guilty of having a passport — both were accused of having too many children.

Their cases track with hundreds of others whom have been detained for their religious beliefs, or otherwise innocuous offenses, like going abroad, installing foreign software on their computers, having a passport, or calling someone who is overseas. Often, just being the family member of an interned person was reason enough to deprive a citizen of their freedom.

“The Chinese government is trying to present it as a policy to curb ‘religious extremism’,” Patrick Poon, a researcher for Amnesty International, East Asia Regional, told LiCAS.news.

Poon argues, however, that the government is trying to “distort” the understanding of extremism to include cultural symbols and traditions.

This distortion has led to cornerstones of Uyghur culture systematically being razed in the name of security.

This photo taken on June 3, 2019 shows police officers patrolling in the old city area in Kashgar, in China’s western Xinjiang region. (Greg Baker/AFP)

Culture wars

In January, reports of the so-called “Sanxin Huodong“ or Three News campaign surfaced, in which Uyghurs and other Muslims were being pressured to abandon traditional rugs, pillows, sofas, beds, desks, and other household items and replace them with more Chinese furnishings. That followed campaign follows a 4 billion-yuan ($575 million) effort to “modernize” the region by eliminating other aspects of Uyghur architecture and design.

In May 2019, a joint investigation by the Guardian and Bellingcat revealed that over two dozen mosques had been destroyed in Xinjiang over a two-year span.

Even party officials are not spared the dragnet. In January, information surfaced that two ethnically Uyghur communist party cadres had been sentenced to seven years in prison for failing to seize a book which outlined the protocols for making the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. That book was deemed extremist, even though the hajj was legal at the time of the initial check.

These actions are viewed as part of an ongoing process to bring ethnic and religious minorities under the influence of Chinese culture and the Communist Party, otherwise known as “sinicization”.

“The wide-ranging policy to ‘sinicize’ every aspect in the region and the internment camps are the measures the Chinese government is taking to pressure the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups to accept that they are ‘Chinese’ and they are under the Communist Chinese regime’s control,” Poon said.

“The purpose of the Chinese government is clear. By diluting their [culture], Uyghurs and other ethnic groups will become more ‘Chinese’ and thus more willing to accept the communist’s rule.”

Ticking time bomb

Adrian Zenz, a China expert at the non-profit Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, told FT the goal of this campaign is “to eliminate risk by achieving complete state control over individuals, families, communities, and regions.”

Some analysts argue the government is going so far as to reduce the perceived threat by culling the population.

For example, the accusation of having too many children was the most common violation resulting in internment revealed in the leaks. Men were locked up far more often on the charge than women, prompting speculation that Beijing is attempting to “diminish the Uyghur population as a way of reducing the threat perception,” Xinjiang expert Darren Byler of the University of Colorado told DW.

And it appears to not just be men, but millennial men, as more than 60 percent of internees are aged between 20-40.

“This has major implications for demographics and the birth rate,” Rian Thum, an expert on China’s Uyghur policy at the University of Nottingham, told DW. “If you take a portion — or even the entirety — of a village’s youth, you basically put a pause” on the community’s growth.

This photo taken on June 4, 2019 shows the Chinese flag flying over the Juma mosque in the restored old city area of Kashgar, in China’s western Xinjiang region. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)

The statistics appear to back up that argument.

FT, citing official data, reported birth rates in Hotan, the region of southern Xinjiang that includes Karakax, have dropped from more than 20 per 1,000 inhabitants in 2016 to under 9 per 1,000 in 2018. The government chalked this up to “maximally strict family planning policies.”

Some rights groups claim these actions are tantamount to genocide.

However, Beijing’s policy towards Xinjiang is described, Poon, argues that attempting to gain security through wholesale oppression is destined to backfire.

“[By] cracking down on cultural and ethnic traditions, the government has gone too far … It will not help improve the security in the region but instead create more ethnic hatred between Uyghurs and Han Chinese,” he said.  

“It’s a time bomb to see how ethnic resistance will happen in the region if the Chinese government doesn’t stop sending people to the camps for ridiculous reasons.”

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