Uyghur Concentration Camps In Xinjiang: What's Really Going On In China?

This week, there’s been a lot of debate between the political Left and Right about who is on the “right side of history.” And part of that debate concerns China and the Uyghur concentration camps.

By Freya India4 min read
Uyghur Concentration Camps In Xinjiang: What's Really Going On In China?

All I know is, anyone who opposes what’s going on in China right now — the human rights abuses, mass re-education camps, organ-harvesting, eugenics, and forced sterilization — is standing firmly on the side of morality. 

Last week, the Official Chinese Embassy posted this on Twitter:

The tweet was met with outrage online and was later removed by Twitter. But what’s the context behind it? 

The Xinjiang Re-Education Camps

What’s going on in China is said to be “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today” and “one of the worst mass atrocities of this century.”

It’s estimated there are over 1,000 internment camps in Xinjiang, with 1 in 6 Uyghurs thought to be detained.

Known by the Chinese government as Vocational Education and Training Centers, re-education camps in the Xinjiang province of China were established under Xi Jinping’s administration. According to Human Rights Watch, they have been used to indoctrinate Uyghurs (those native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China) and other Muslims since 2017. Their stated purpose is to counter extremism and foster social integration.

In 2019, it was estimated that the number of internment camps built in Xinjiang is over 1,000 (with 1 in 6 Uyghurs thought to be detained). Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China Studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, believes as many as 1.5 million people are, or have been, interned in these camps. 

Why Are People Being Detained?

“His wife wore veils.” “He has one more child than allowed by the family planning policy.” “He prayed after each meal.” 

According to Human Rights Watch, these are just a few of the reasons why ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are being detained in these “political education” camps. The prisoners’ religious and cultural differences are, allegedly, evidence of their disloyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. 

The prisoners’ religious and cultural differences are “evidence” of their disloyalty to the CCP. 

Other transgressions that can see you sentenced to these camps include “being born after the 1980s,” “speaking to a sibling living abroad,” or being “generally untrustworthy.” The state broadcaster CCTV’s documentary about Xinjiang's camps even reveals that “not crying at funerals” and “not laughing at weddings” is seen as a sign of radicalization and justifies re-education. 

Operating outside of the legal system, the Chinese authorities are detaining tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of Muslims without trial, with no charges levied against them. The innocent people sent to these centers claim that they “were not presented with a warrant, evidence of a crime, or any other documentation.” 

A database by Human Rights Watch reveals that Xinjiang authorities operate a vast network of “predictive policing,” in which they track the “personal networks, online activity, and daily life” of individuals. The database includes personal information “ranging from people’s physical characteristics to the color of their car and their personal preference of using the front or back door to enter their house, as well as software they use online and their regular contacts.” 

Xinjiang authorities track the “personal networks, online activity, and daily life” of individuals. 

For example, one detainee on the report, known as Ms. T, was flagged for “links to sensitive countries,” after it was recorded that she received four calls from her sister who lived overseas. 

What’s Happening inside the Camps?

Inside the camps, there’s evidence of serious human rights violations. For example, anonymous drone footage posted to YouTube in 2019 shows kneeling prisoners, blindfolded, and shackled together. Researchers believe it was shot at a train station in south-east Xinjiang. 

Many prisoners have been subjected to “forced live organ harvesting.” An international tribunal in London concluded that “more than 1.5 million detainees in Chinese prison camps are being killed for their organs to serve a booming transplant trade that is worth some $1 billion a year.”

Prisoners also undergo physical and mental torture in order to alter their religious beliefs and “give thanks to the ruling Communist Party.” 

Prisoners undergo physical and mental torture to alter their religious beliefs and “give thanks to the ruling Communist Party.”

For example, after his arrest, Kazakh Muslim Omir Bekali was held in a cell and strapped to a “tiger chair” (a device that clamps down on your wrists and ankles). He was then interrogated about his work with a tourist agency inviting Chinese people to apply for Kazakh tourist visas, which the authorities claimed was a way for him to help Chinese Muslims escape. Bekali pleaded with them, insisting that he hadn’t committed any crimes. 

He was then sent to a 10x10-meter prison cell with 17 others, and after seven months, redirected to a re-education camp.

Inside the camp, Bekali claims detainees were forced to sing the Chinese national anthem and raise the Chinese flag at 7:30 a.m each day. In large classrooms, they’re made to sing “red songs,” including “Without the Communist Party, there is no New China,” and to chant “Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland! Thank President Xi!”

When Bekali refused to follow orders by authorities, he was made to stand against a wall for five hours. He was later sent to solitary confinement and denied food for 24 hours. “The psychological pressure is enormous,” he revealed after his release, “when you have to criticize yourself, denounce your thinking — your own ethnic group.”

Forced Sterilizations

The Chinese Embassy’s recent tweet, celebrating Uyghur women no longer being “baby-making machines,” is particularly disturbing given the reports of forced sterilizations in the Xinjiang province. 

One teacher forced to give classes at Xinjiang camps, Qelbinur Sidik, claims she underwent forced sterilization at age 50, due to the government’s campaign to suppress the birth rates of Muslim minority women. She received messages from the local authorities stating that women between 19 and 59 were expected to have intrauterine devices (IUDs) fitted or to undergo sterilization.

Having too many children is very often a ticket to detention camps.

Sidik told The Guardian that, “she knew what happened to people from Muslim minorities who resisted the government.” She received these Uyghur-language text messages from local authorities: 

“If anything happens, who will take responsibility for you? Do not gamble with your life, don’t even try. These things are not about you. You have to think about your family members and your relatives around you.”

“If you fight with us at your door and refuse to collaborate with us, you will go to the police station and sit on the metal chair!”

Several investigations reveal the extent of the forced sterilizations, pregnancy checks, forced IUDs, and even abortions in China — what many are calling part of a “demographic genocide.” Having too many children is very often a ticket to detention camps, with parents’ houses raided as police hunt for hidden children and rip families of three or more away from one another. 

As a result, in the mostly Uyghur regions of Hotan and Kashgar, births fell by “more than 60% between 2015 and 2018, the last year for which government data was available...Nationwide over the same period, births fell only 4.2%.”

It’s not easy to just leave China, either. When Sidik’s husband applied for a permit to do so, authorities told him, “Don’t even dream about it.”

Why the Silence?

Anyone who is familiar with the horrors of 20th-century history will be deeply disturbed by these stories. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, criminals, “political prisoners,” “kulaks” (rich peasants), and members of certain ethnic groups were arrested in eerily similar ways. Innocent people were incarcerated simply to fill “quotas,” with many detained for reasons as nonsensical as telling a joke about Stalin. They were then tortured and interrogated until they confessed to their alleged crimes, before being sent to forced labor camps. 

Anyone who cares about being on the “right side of history” can no longer afford to be silent. 

Yet, despite the dark warnings of history, many are still saying silent on this issue. Hollywood stars and progressive politicians who loudly protest Islamophobia, white supremacy in the West, and institutional racism remain mute over these concentration camps. 

Perhaps many on the far-Left simply don’t want to find common ground with Republicans and moderates over this issue — or they’re unwilling to denounce a Communist regime. Some on the conspiratorial Left even remain convinced these crimes are just Western propaganda. 

Closing Thoughts 

No matter your political beliefs, it’s clear that the mass detentions, torture, indoctrination, and surveillance of innocent people must come to an end. Here’s a list of just six things anyone can do to help Uyghur Muslims right now. 

But, in order to really make a change, it’s going to take both the political Right and Left, celebrities and businesses, to tackle this issue. Anyone who cares about being on the “right side of history” can no longer afford to be silent.