Why you should care
Because China may be practicing ethnic cleansing.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? A Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, Uighurs have long been the odd ones out in China — despite official ideology casting them as equal citizens. Their homeland in the western Xinjiang province is a strategic, resource-rich region to which Han Chinese have been increasingly attracted in recent years. That’s sparked ethnic tensions, which the government has routinely blamed on the Uighurs and used as justification to create a massive surveillance state. It has allegedly put as many as 1 million Uighurs, one-tenth of the group’s Chinese population, in detention.
Why does it matter? Uighurs report being forced to recant their religious beliefs and even tortured in the camps, to which one can allegedly be sent for offenses like holding strong religious beliefs, planning trips abroad or observing Uighur funeral customs. And while China denies that it’s curtailing religious freedom or reeducating anyone, U.S. officials are starting to take notice: Sen. Marco Rubio has called for action, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the U.N. have both criticized China’s conduct. So far, though, neither the U.N. nor the U.S. has taken any concrete actions to attempt to put an end to the reported human rights abuses.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Big Brother is watching. Regular checkpoints — sometimes four or five per kilometer — have become part of daily life in Xinjiang, as have policies that place an official with a (normally Uighur) family as a live-in cop for short periods. Cameras everywhere and mandatory spyware apps on every phone, as well as a biometric program requiring everyone to give DNA samples, have made Xinjiang one of the most-policed regions on Earth, with a recently doubled security budget of $11.98 billion. That money’s been a boon to the Chinese companies that win those lucrative security contracts, and which are beginning to export the technology to other countries like Kenya and Pakistan via China’s “Safe Cities” initiative.
Beyond borders. The government’s campaign against Uighurs isn’t restricted to China either. Beijing is allegedly building a global database of émigrés aimed at monitoring and hassling them even after they’ve fled Xinjiang. Whether they live in the U.S., Europe or the Middle East, eyewitnesses have reported being threatened by the government with retaliation against their relatives back in China. While observers praised the United Nations for taking Chinese officials to task this week over reports Beijing has interned some 1 million Uighurs, they say more meaningful action — either from the Trump administration or Congress — is sorely needed.
Under pressure. China frequently asks countries in Southeast Asia to deport Uighurs who are caught passing through on their way to Turkey. Currently Malaysia is being asked to deport 11 Uighurs who escaped from a Thai jail, and Thailand still has 62 men and women in detention after more than 350 Uighurs were arrested in 2014. A 2015 bomb blast at a shrine in Bangkok that left 20 dead was blamed on those upset over deportations of Uighurs to China.
What reeducation camps? China denies suppressing rights in Xinjiang and blames accusations on “anti-China forces” it says have been fueled by the U.N. report, going so far as to deny the existence of reeducation centers altogether. An editorial in the state-run Global Times said the government’s actions have kept Xinjiang from becoming terror-ridden. About 200 people were killed in 2009 when riots broke out during Uighur protests against discrimination, and China blamed what it characterized as violent separatists. In recent years, China has claimed that 1,500 Uighurs have fought alongside the Islamic State group, and characterized its security measures as necessary to fight terror.
WHAT TO READ
Is the White House in Any Position to Help Chinese Muslims? by Massoud Hayoun in Pacific Standard
“The question becomes whether Washington is prepared to act in their defense at a time when the White House has come under fire for policies that many say are hostile to Muslims in the U.S.”
China’s Campaign Against Uighur Diaspora Ramps Up, by Martin De Bourmont at Foreign Policy
“With Xinjiang locked down, China is now looking to rein in the Uighur diaspora, often outspoken in its opposition to Beijing’s rule.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Inside Xinjiang at BBC
“I can’t bear my mother and wife being abused to death by the Chinese government. Just shoot them. I’ll pay for the bullet.”
Watch on the BBC on YouTube:
China Sending Muslims to Internment Camps
“Uighurs have spent 40 years watching their religion be suffocated, their identity be eradicated. And that’s understandably contributed to enormous resentment on the part of Uighurs.”
Watch on Associated Press on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATER COOLER
Remember Tibet. China’s strategy in dealing with another ethnic and religious group, Tibetan Buddhists, seems remarkably similar. Tibet, annexed in 1950 by China, has heavy police surveillance and frequent raids on suspected opposition — and a national campaign this year to crack down on organized crime has been used by Chinese officials to break up local social groups on the ground in both Tibet and Xinjiang. The official put in charge of Xinjiang in 2016, Chen Quanguo, was previously tasked with controlling Tibet.