Explainer: China’s Uyghur camps

Sally Dobie

In December 2019 the European Parliament awarded Ilham Tohti, an economics scholar and activist, the Sakharov Prize for free speech. Tohti is currently serving time in a Chinese detention centre on charges of separatism.

“My father, like most Uyghurs, has been labelled a violent extremist, with a disease that needs to be cured and a mind that needs to be washed,” said Tohti’s daughter, Jewher Tohti, while collecting the award on his behalf.

“It is under this false label of extremism that the government has put one million people – probably more – into “concentration camps” where Uyghurs are forced to give up their religion, language and culture, where people are tortured and some have died.”

Tohti is an advocate for the rights of Turkic Uyghurs living in China’s Xinjiang Province. The province shares a border with Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan among others.

Uyghurs are a minority population of Muslims living in the province, and in recent years have been placed in so-called “re-education camps”, where according to one BBC source, they would have their “thoughts transformed”.

In December, just a few days before the European Parliament debate, The Irish Times reported two camps had shut down because “all the students had graduated”.

In these camps, the “students” learn Chinese, cleanse themselves from “unhealthy thoughts”, and are under round-the-clock surveillance in a facility with guard towers and alarms.

The camps first opened almost three years ago, and Tohti was first detained in January of 2014. His family hasn’t seen him since 2017, which is against the once-a-month visitation rights laid down in Chinese law. His family do not know his current whereabouts.

When the China Cables documents were released on the 24th of November 2019, the Uyghurs camps were once again brought to the fore of the media. First released to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the documents supposedly came from a Chinese government source, and described the constant video surveillance, biometric security and “ideological transformation” the Uyghurs in the camps were faced with.

Another worrying statement from the document states not to allow “abnormal deaths”, which many believe suggests the practice of torture within the camps.

Phil Bennion, Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament and member of the subcommittee for human rights, called the camps “probably the most serious human rights violation taking place in the world right now” during the debate in December.

Bennion said “We’re going down a very dirty and awful path…we don’t think anyone is being killed in these camps but this is a forced removal of people’s identity, and being forced into homogenisation.”

He also mentioned the import of certain brands of Christmas cards, believed to be a product of forced labour in the camps, was halted last month. This comes after the committee decided to stop trade with China.

Vice-chair of the European Parliament Subcommittee of Human Rights, Irina Von Wiese, said journalists played a role in the uncovering of the facts, “particularly some really brave undercover journalists…who have put their lives at risk to see the real situation.”

Independents 4 Change members Clare Daly and Mick Wallace were also at the debate in December, and put forward the argument that the recent interest in the camps may be due to “geopolitical reasons”.

“The defence of human rights around the world as a weapon to undermine particular states is not the way forward,” said Wallace, suggesting Xinjiang had become a focus of America in their attempt to destabilise the region and stop the Belt and Road initiative.

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” said Bennion, “I don’t think it’s got anything to do with geopolitical reasons, I think if this was happening in any country in the world this would be a huge issue.”

When speaking in January, Bennion said Wallace sometimes “over-interprets”.

The Belt and Road initiative (BRI), also known as One Belt, One Road, was a plan announced by President Xi Jinping to connect almost half the world in a “belt” of land roads and a “road” of maritime shipping paths, and, according to the Guardian, is estimated to cost around £760bn.

Initially, Trump seemed on board with the BRI, however later in 2017, he expressed his disapproval in a Pacific Rim leaders’ summit in Vietnam. He called the BRI and others like it “state-directed initiatives that come with many strings attached”.

The US went on to set up an alternative in the form of an “infrastructure development programme for the Indo-Pacific region and a revamp of a finance agency to strengthen its financial support”. The project was worth $113 million, reported the South China Morning Post.

Clare Daly suggested during the debate that the China Cables documents could be fake, and that it may be more than a coincidence that they were released not long after the Iran Cables, detailing Iran’s actions in Iraq; and soon after followed the death of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

“Human rights violations and terrible things are happening all over the world, but human rights has kind of become politicised it’s being used as a stick to beat certain countries with and then ignoring severe violations in other countries, and we’re getting a bit sick of it.”

Speaking to Daly in January, she said it’s “doubtful” that the documents leaked from an alleged Chinese government source really exist, pointing out the timing and that they were leaked in English.

On Daly’s comments about the documents being suspicious since they were leaked in English, Bennion said “It’s not unusual that things get leaked in English because basically it is the global lingua franca.”

An Amnesty International article published earlier in February spoke of the Uyghurs outside of China also receiving threats and being intimidated by the Chinese government, often to stop them speaking out or occasionally to recruit them as informants.

With the publication of these latest reports, it seems that although the Uyghurs are no longer making as many front-page headlines, their plight is far from over.

Sally Dobie 

Image Credit: Flickr