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China’s repression of ethnic minorities

Sophia Yan, BeijingThursday 13 February 2020

Pic: Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, 4 September 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

While the authorities in Beijing refer to ‘re-education’ and countering terrorism, the growing suppression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang province mirrors a troubling country-wide assault on human rights.

Life used to be far more colourful and bustling in Kashgar, an oasis city in Xinjiang, the landlocked western province in China. On Friday at noon – an important prayer time for Muslims – thousands would once gather at one of China’s largest mosques, the Id Kah Mosque, streaming past tall and heavy doors in a yellow-and-white entrance archway.

These days, few dare to pray at home or at a mosque – many have been closed. The mosques that do remain open have lost key architectural features, such as the Islamic star and crescent, and have gained new, non-traditional ones, such as security cameras.

Much of Xinjiang is now dotted with surveillance cameras, some of which are equipped with facial recognition. Large, busy intersections of main avenues can have a few dozen. Even small, tucked-away rural villages, with just a handful of residents, have had several cameras installed.

Residents are also under human surveillance from Chinese government officials assigned to monitor households, and sometimes even their own children, who are being taught state-approved curriculums in government schools.

People no longer dare utter the traditional Islamic greeting ‘as-salaam alaikum’.

Even fasting is banned, with restaurants forced to stay open during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Government officials will invite public servants for lunch during this time as a way to test whether certain people are secretly fasting. Men are forbidden from growing beards, and women from wearing headscarves. Authorities consider all the above behaviours as signs that a person is overly religious.

This is all part of a growing suppression in the region, home to China’s Turkic-based, mostly Muslim, ethnic minorities, including the Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

For years China has engaged in a widespread crackdown in this resource-rich region as part of a wider campaign against religion across the country of 1.4 billion. This campaign has also affected Christians and Buddhists.

In Xinjiang, millions of people are estimated by the United States and the United Nations to have been detained in chilling ‘re-education’ camps, where they’re made to renounce the Islamic faith and pledge loyalty to China’s ruling Communist Party.

The Chinese government has described these programmes as ‘re-education’ and ‘vocational’ training, better to equip and assimilate Uighurs in Xinjiang by giving them skills to support themselves. The executive also says this is all part of broader efforts to combat terrorism.

Beijing vehemently denied that the camps existed for about a year, despite growing evidence to the contrary. Then, in October 2018, the government legalised the programme in the first official recognition of the centres.

A range of behaviours appear to earmark people for detention, including reading the Koran, praying at home or a mosque, and keeping halal

The new law allowed for ‘vocational skills education training centres’ to ‘carry out anti-extremist ideological education’.

It also stated clear goals: to implement ‘psychological behavioural correction to promote thought transformation of trainees, and help them to return to society and family’, and to ensure that all those being ‘educated and converted’ learned the national language of Mandarin Chinese.

Since then, China – in official language, and also in state media – has described the camps as ‘law-based vocational education and training centres’.

State media reports say regional government officials tout the programmes for having ‘effectively eliminated the breeding ground for extremism and ensured the basic human rights of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang, including the right to life, health and development’.

China has continually defended its camps, including last year at a regular human rights review at the UN. Le Yucheng, head of the Chinese delegation, reiterated the government’s stance that the camps were vocational training schools which have been successful in halting the spread of Islamic extremism.

‘This protects the human rights of the vast majority, while also saving these people,’ said Le. ‘It’s another important contribution from China to the global counterterror field.’

Despite growing international condemnation, the Chinese government has begun urging other nations to adopt its model of eradicating terrorism, describing its efforts as successfully ‘safeguarding people’s lives and safety, and ensuring that the people can live in a peaceful social environment,’ according to Xinhua, a Chinese state media outlet.

Inside the camps

A range of behaviours appear to earmark people for detention, including reading the Koran, praying at home or a mosque, and keeping halal.

Former detainees have also said they were detained for living abroad, for using messaging apps (including WhatsApp) and for having relatives overseas. This suggests the Chinese government is concerned about what it would label as undue foreign influence.

Inside the camps, former detainees have recounted gruelling conditions, stuffed into cramped cells holding 16 to 20 people with only one small window, made to sing songs that praise the Party, served food so poor that many suffered from malnutrition, and given only a few minutes to use the bathroom at designated times.

When being moved to different parts of the facility, or transferred to another detention centre or prison, former detainees have also said they were shackled and sometimes hooded, making it difficult to know exactly where they were being taken.

Women have reported younger cellmates disappearing in the middle of night, only to return visibly shaken and in poor physical condition the next morning.

Others have said they were subjected to body cavity searches, sometimes done by guards of the opposite sex, and forced to take pills or given injections without being told what they were for.

Some received lessons directly in their cells about the greatness of China, the prominence of the ruling Party and the Mandarin language, forbidden from moving an inch while sitting on small stools. Others were forced to watch state-approved programs about Party leader Xi Jinping.

Related assignments would be scratched out with pen and paper, though people were usually given only the ink reservoir tube. Anyone deemed out of line by the guards would be sent to solitary confinement, electrocuted with cattle prods or tortured by being locked into steel ‘tiger’ chairs.

Detainees have also been forced to work in factories for little-to-no money as part of their ‘rehabilitation’ into society.

Freedom remains elusive even for those released from the camps, as they are forced to check in regularly with officials to ensure good behaviour. Detainees on occasion are also released for a specific period of time, sometimes to handle personal affairs, and are held to account with ‘guarantors’ – family or friends that officials threaten to imprison if they don’t return to the detention centre on time.

Uighurs receiving passports to travel abroad have also had such ‘guarantors’, meant to be a way to ensure their return to the country.

Former detainees have recounted gruelling conditions, stuffed into cramped cells holding 16 to 20 people… served food so poor many suffered malnutrition

Those able to escape abroad upon release have begun telling their stories, adding to a growing body of testimony about life inside the camps.

Based on conversations between officials overheard by former detainees, it appears local governments have been under pressure to fulfil quotas in the detention camps, which may contribute to the variety of reasons that seem to lead to detention.

In some cases, no explanation is ever given.

Missing relatives

Many in China, and abroad, haven’t heard from their relatives in Xinjiang for years, presumed to be disappeared into the camps, at times for unknown reasons or ‘crimes’.

Duisenbek Nursidik, a Kazakh, 45, hasn’t heard from his wife, a Uighur, for over two years. After moving with their two children to Kazakhstan in 2013, the couple returned to China to visit family and settle affairs – Nursidik and his children had received Kazakh citizenship, and his wife had obtained a residency permit.

Upon arriving in Xinjiang, authorities collected biometric data from Nursidik and his wife, and stalled his request to cancel their Chinese household registration – one of the last steps to finalise their move. Two security officials then said they needed to interrogate his wife, Muktar Bakhargul.

‘I asked why,’ he says. ‘They just said they would contact me later, and forced my wife into a car, and left.’

That was May 2017. Since then, Chinese authorities have said only that she was under investigation and that they have transferred Bakhargul to a prison without saying why.

Appeals to the government in his newly adopted country, Kazakhstan, haven’t been successful; leaders there are challenged by a resident population much affected by detained relatives in China, and trying to maintain a cordial relationship with Beijing, its next-door neighbour.

For musician Akikat Kaliolla, the date 12 March 2018 will be forever seared into his memory as the last time he spoke from Kazakhstan by phone with his elderly father living just across the border in China. A few days later, his father, mother and two brothers disappeared.

In January, Chinese authorities said his father, a retired public servant and self-taught legal advocate who helped villagers make appeals, would serve a 20-year sentence for obstructing government administration. It’s unclear if a trial took place.

REUTERS/Thomas Peter

A security guard stands at the gates of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, 3 September 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter


A year of radio silence has weighed on Kaliolla, 34, an ethnic Kazakh who immigrated to Kazakhstan after getting married in 2014.

‘I get the feeling my father might be dead,’ he says. ‘They won’t even let me hear his voice… I really don’t know if my father is alive.’

The outspoken Kaliolla, who plinks out jazzy keyboard tunes between bouts of sadness and anger, has posted on Twitter an open letter to US President Donald Trump about the detentions.

He dreams of telling his parents about their new grandchild, born about a year ago. And he continues making appeals even though officials shoo him away, telling him not to make trouble, especially when he starts asking about his father.

‘What crime did my father commit? Why can’t I ask? He didn’t kill or rape – why is he tortured like this?’ he asks. ‘I still haven’t figured out why the Chinese government would do this to Muslims.’

Sophia Yan is China Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph