For Uighur Muslims in China, Life Keeps Getting Harder
Concentration camps, surveillance, and spies keep the community under tight control.
Over the past several years, Chinese repression of ethnic Uighurs has become increasingly harsh. From sending them to detention camps in remote places to tracking the activities of their global diaspora, Beijing is making it more and more difficult for members of the predominantly Muslim minority to simply exist. With the plight of Uighurs again in the news after a member of the community, Ilham Tohti, won the European Parliament’s top human rights prize for his activism, Foreign Policy has collected its top reads on the subject.
At the beginning of the year, news that four Chinese provinces had removed their halal food standards dominated headlines on the subject. It was “a move heralded by government officials as fighting a fictional pan-halal trend under which Muslim influence was supposedly spreading into secular life,” wrote Foreign Policy’s James Palmer in January. The decision came as China also closed several mosques across the country, sparking protests.
This campaign against the Uighurs, explained an academic writing under the pseudonym Liwei Wu, is part of an effort to Sinicize not just the Uighur community, but other Muslim groups as well. In January, the author wrote, China even released an explicit five-year plan for doing so amid other efforts to limit religious freedoms across the country, including through “re-education camps for as many as a million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, demolition threats for a Hui Muslim mosque in Ningxia, and the closing of Protestant ‘mega-house churches’ in Beijing, Chengdu, and Guangzhou.”
For a long time, China denied that the reeducation camps even existed (according to some estimates, they house 1.5 million detainees). In the last few years, though, it has started to publicly defend them. As Nur Iman, a Uighur whose family was detained in one camp, wrote, China describes them “as ‘reeducation’ camps focused on potential terrorists or job training and takes carefully selected groups on Potemkin tours to visit them,” although the jailed Uighurs’ connection to terrorism is dubious.
After acknowledging the camps’ existence last fall, China also started letting some detainees out of them. But “this so-called ‘letting out’ has rarely meant real freedom, however,” noted writer Gene Bunin, “with the ex-detainees typically being shunted into other forms of the carceral network that China has built to contain the people of Xinjiang.” Indeed, “for most of the released, the freedom obtained is only partial at best. While a large number have been placed under what appears to be surveilled house arrest, some of the documented releases were let out only to be transferred to factories or other compulsory labor.”
For her part, Iman is still waiting for news of her family. “In July,” she noted, “an official claimed that ‘most people’ had been released from the camps.” But, she continues, “if most people have been released, then I would like to ask China this question: Where are my parents?”
Iman lives in the United States, but Uighurs in China are starting to raise similar questions—a very dangerous proposition. Over the summer, Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon described one such act of defiance, in which social-media users post videos to the app Douyin: “A young woman in pink lipstick leans in to adjust the camera, but as she gives a nervous smile, a tear rolls down her cheek. Behind her is a photograph of two men, thought to be relatives who have disappeared into the vast system of internment camps in China’s Xinjiang region. While she doesn’t say a word in the 15-second video clip, it is a powerful statement of defiance in one of the most heavily surveilled places on Earth.”
For some Uighurs, the pressure is too much. According to the journalist Simina Mistreanu, “in the past few years, more and more Uighurs, a minority who speak a Turkic language and call Xinjiang home, have moved to Turkey as they flee an assimilation campaign led by Beijing.” In Turkey, they are working to preserve their culture as best they can: “In Zeytinburnu, Uighurs have rebuilt some of what has been erased from Xinjiang. Uighur restaurants serve slippery noodles in rooms adorned with symbols of their ancient culture, such as wall carpets depicting the now silent Id Kah Mosque or a famous painting of a Uighur musical ensemble. Women wearing headscarves shop at fragrant fruit and vegetable stands wrapped around street corners, while children play football in the cobblestone streets.” But the threat of spies reporting their activity back to China still looms large in the minds of many of immigrants.
Throughout it all, the rest of the world has largely looked on. This fall, the U.S. Senate did pass a bill to urge U.S. President Donald Trump to respond to the repression. But, as Wilson Center fellow Bradley Jardine argued, the act “is a positive step, but it won’t reverse decades of inconsistent U.S. policy in Central Asia.” In fact, after 9/11, the United States generally accepted the idea that Uighurs were terrorists. It even held 22 at Guantánamo Bay—a move, Jardine wrote, that is “now widely seen as a mistake.”
Muslim leaders around the world are doing no better when it comes to the plight of the Uighurs. For example, “when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the self-styled defender of Muslims worldwide, visited China” in July, writes research professor Azeem Ibrahim, “state media reported that he said all the people in Xinjiang were ‘living happily’ there, thanks to China’s general upward economic trajectory.” Similar sentiments prevail, he said, in Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and others. Ironically, he concluded, it may be that “Trump’s administration has been the most robust in its censure of Beijing over its treatment of the Uighurs.”
For Uighurs around the world, there is little recourse. In a profile of four brothers stranded in Kazakhstan, Nathan Thompson put the plight of these Muslim minorities into sharp relief. “The four of them are staying with distant relatives, a couple and their three children, in little more than a hovel on the edge of Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan. They have a single stove to heat the place during winter when temperatures drop to minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit.” Their parents disappeared in China, and they have no idea where they are. “‘It’s difficult to be a Kazakh in China,’ [the oldest] started before falling silent, staring at his hands, pressed tightly together. I asked if he wanted to continue. He inhaled deeply and then said: ‘I’m afraid for my parents who are still in China … but I still want this article to be written because the situation over there is getting worse and worse.’”