The Ethnocide of Xinjiang

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Illustration by Guido de Boer
Words by Iris Du

Xinjiang, a northwesterly region in China, has been the site of a long and complex controversy. Bordering Turkic countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Xinjiang is home to an ethnic group known as the Uyghurs. Uyghurs practice Islam, a religion considered markedly foreign and often “extremist” in China. 

Uyghurs made up approximately 75% of the population when it was appropriated by the Chinese government in 1949. Since Xinjiang has become a contested and covert battleground for ethnocide: the deliberate act of liquifying an ethnic group.

According to Chinese officials, Muslim Uyghurs, among other minorities, are being enrolled in “vocational training centres” and education programs to better assimilate them into Chinese culture. Shohrat Zakir, the Uyghur governor of Xinjiang, spoke highly of the system, claiming, “more than 90 percent of graduates have found satisfactory jobs with good incomes." 

However, sources have reported that the reality is much darker. Many believe that Turkic residents of Xinjiang are actually being imprisoned by the Communist Party of China in internment camps, undergoing harsh and brutal re-education as a means to stop them practising their own culture.

For Uyghurs who aren’t physically admitted into these centres, conditions are still harsh, with researchers calling their situation an “open-air prison.” There are strict punishments, ruthless regulations, and the abolishment of standard rights such as owning a passport. Behind the ever-intensifying surveillance and control is the omnipresence of technology and data, controlling what, where, and how these minorities are able to move through their own lives.

They are subject to mass collection of biodata, use of QR codes to count the number of times an individual prays, required checks of mobile devices to find forbidden political or religious content and ensure spyware is installed, facial and voice recognition surveillance technology, and predictive policing that combines 5G technologies with a social credit score and big data analytics.
— Anders Corr, Researcher and Publisher of the Journal of Political Risk

The exact number of detained Uyghurs is unclear. Reports have ranged from 1 to 1.5 million. The Turkish Foreign Ministry has admonished China for operating the “concentration camps [of] the 21st century.” Many compare the Uyghur experience in Xinjiang to that of Tibet.

As more and more countries turn their eyes to Xinjiang, Chinese officials claim that most of the detainees have been released. Yet, family members and friends waiting to be reunited with the imprisoned often hear nothing.

All we know in their wake is the subtle and stringent ways a culture can be whisked into obscurity. With enough violence, power, and technology, the individuality of communities can be pocketed by another; personal history can be wiped clean in an instant. And some call the future progression.

Keep reading:

The Conversation’s Explainer: ‘Who are the Uyghurs…?’ link
How Uyghurs became quarantined from the outside world link
Closing Camps Does not Solve the Problem in Xinjiang – or the World link

Human Rights, RacismNiccolo Gorfer