By Alyxandria Hoge
In the vast deserts of the far-western reaches of China, a harrowing scene has unfolded in recent years. A massive system of internment camps into which more than 1 million members of the region’s ethnic and religious minorities have disappeared. Outside the high walls of these purpose-built detention facilities, residents face the most sophisticated and oppressive surveillance network in the world. This is Xinjiang, a landlocked region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), four times the size of California, bordering eight countries, and home to approximately 20 million people.
As increasing evidence emerged detailing the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) repression campaign against millions of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, Hui Muslims, and other minority groups, the Department of State worked closely with a diverse group of concerned nations to press Beijing to end these abuses. This effort includes multilateral and bilateral diplomatic engagement, close coordination with victims and concerned NGOs, and efforts to raise public awareness about the systematic repression taking place.
The Chinese government claims that the camps are part of a counterterrorism “re-education” effort meant to cure minority populations that have been “infected” with so-called extremism. According to official propaganda, happy minorities in the “vocational training centers” enjoy free Mandarin Chinese language classes, cultural enrichment, and basic job skill development. Glossy state-run news features and carefully scripted tours reinforce this propaganda, showing pleasant classrooms with smiling Uighur students, thankful to CCP and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The stories told by survivors, however, paint a much different picture. Former detainees speak of being locked away for months in cells crowded to the point of standing-room only, taking turns to lie on the floor to sleep, and sharing a single bucket because there are no restrooms. These survivors describe being beaten and tortured. They say they were forced to chant patriotic CCP slogans thousands of times to receive a meager portion of food. Many survivors report being injected with unknown substances and forced to take pills and having their blood forcibly drawn.
These brainwashing tactics of chanting and physical deprivation serve the larger goal of this campaign: total elimination of Uighur culture from the hearts and minds of a people. Despite claims that this system is meant to be vocational training for minorities at risk, many of those targeted are scholars and intellectuals, who often receive far more severe punishments. From university presidents, to teachers of the Uighur language and religious leaders, people who are cultural touchstones are routinely sentenced to decades in prison if not sentenced to death.
Stripping Uighur children of their ethnic identity is part of the CCP game plan. When parents disappear into detention and forced labor facilities, Uighur children vanish into brightly colored school buildings, surrounded by guard posts and razor wire. Here, they are subjected to Mandarin Chinese language education, fully removed from their families and traditions, and taught how minorities must be loyal to the CCP above all.
Leaked internal Chinese government documents indicate the allegedly “extremist” activities of those detained are as innocent as applying for a passport, contacting friends and family abroad, as well as basic Islamic practices like wearing a veil or growing a beard, abstaining from pork, or visiting a mosque. Even upon so-called “graduation” from these camps—the term used by CCP officials—many detainees are not released. Rather, they are sent to undertake forced labor in factories in Xinjiang and throughout the PRC. Recent NGO and media reports noted that these factories produce goods exported to U.S. markets, including shoes, clothing, and consumer electronics, often under major name brands.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called China’s treatment of the Uighurs “one of the worst human rights crises of our time,” and raised Xinjiang regularly both in public and private. In October 2019, the Department imposed U.S. visa restrictions on Chinese officials complicit in abuses in Xinjiang, and also worked closely with the Department of Commerce to impose export restrictions through its Entity List on 28 Chinese government and commercial entities implicated in Xinjiang abuses.
Protecting human rights around the world, including religious freedom, is a top priority for the United States, and no situation is more urgent than that in Xinjiang. At the annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July 2019, the Department of State was proud to invite Jewher Ilham to address ministers from around the world regarding the unjust imprisonment of her father, noted Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti.
Xinjiang’s police-state transformation and the plight of its residents have captured the attention of the world. The United States is working closely to address the human rights crisis with a coalition of partners at the United Nations (U.N.), including partners in the General Assembly and Geneva. The United States was proud to join a cross-regional group of 23 nations in signing an unprecedented joint statement on Xinjiang, which was delivered by the United Kingdom in October during the U.N. General Assembly’s Third Committee. The month prior, the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.K. co-sponsored a panel discussion on the human rights crisis in Xinjiang during U.N. General Assembly High Level Week. Hosted by former deputy secretary of state, Ambassador John J. Sullivan, this panel discussion featured remarks from the U.N. Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect Karen Smith. In March 2019, the same countries hosted an event at the U.N. in Geneva on protecting fundamental freedoms in Xinjiang.This event featured a panel of experts, which included the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed and a camp survivor.
There have long been concerns about the use of forced labor in Xinjiang, especially in the cotton and textile industry. As it has become clear through several recent reports by media, think tanks, NGOs, and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, this abusive practice has not been limited to one industry or even one region. There is a growing body of credible evidence that CCP is actively facilitating forced labor arrangements for tens of thousands of individuals in factories throughout China, making goods bound for the United States and other foreign markets. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has been leading outreach efforts to the private sector to raise awareness of the issue and try to ensure that U.S. businesses are not complicit in these abuses.
In the meantime, Department officials maintain contact with survivors and the families of those who have been detained, to better advocate on their behalf. In March 2019, Pompeo hosted several members of the Uighur community, including Mihrigul Tursun, a survivor of the camps who has testified to Congress about the horrific abuses she and her children endured at the hands of Chinese authorities. Pompeo also met with Gulchehra Hoja, a reporter with Radio Free Asia whose work has led to the detention of many of her family members; Ferkat Jawdat, whose mother has been detained and forced to appear in CCP propaganda pieces criticizing her son; and Alfred Erkin, a student whose father has been sentenced to prison and whose mother has disappeared into a camp. More recently, Pompeo and other top Department officials met with ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang at a roundtable in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. Pompeo honored Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh from Xinjiang, with the International Women of Courage Award for her testimony that helped to bring the CCP’s repressive policy in the camps to the attention of the broader international community.
Despite the progress to date, there remains much more to do to compel China to end what Pompeo has called “the stain of the century.” This will require Department employees to redouble their efforts to work together with partners around the world to bring the CCP’s abhorrent policies in Xinjiang to an end.
Alyxandria Hoge is an intern with the Office of East Asia and the Pacific in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.