China has been accused of putting 1,000,000 Muslims in prison camps
China has long been known as a country whose governance borders on the tyrannical. Stories of corruption, police brutality and mass surveillance have made headlines recently. However, the Chinese government now stands accused of imprisoning a million Muslims in a state-sponsored brainwashing programme.
Furthermore, many of the newsworthy security measures - such as facial recognition cameras, collecting biometric data and intercepting text messages - have been deployed in this same province of Xinjiang. But most concerning are the “re-education” camps where Human Rights Watch have documented ill treatment and torture.
With mounting pressure to explain what is happening, the government has launched a campaign that has dubbed the buildings “vocational schools” which combat “terrorism and religious extremism”. In a video, it is explained that they help Muslims - who are "destitute people" and "easily led astray" - into the "modern, civilized" world. However, a BBC investigation found them to be closer to prison camps than schools.
The inmates, supposedly there by choice, are conditioned into compliance having been stripped of headscarves or other religious items. They then receive education on language and culture - to help them integrate with the rest of the Chinese population. Around a million people have been arbitrarily detained in these mass internment camps, according to UN estimates.
“There was a special room to punish those who didn't run fast enough,” former inmate Ablet Tursun Tohti told BBC. “There were two men there, one to beat with a belt, the other just to kick.” Tohti was at one of the dozens of facilities which have popped up over Xinjiang. On Google Earth, the data is often months out of date. But looking at the European Space Agency's Sentinel database, it’s clear that these sites are being constructed at a rate of knots.
“We sang the song called ‘Without the Communist Party There Can Be No New China,’” Tohti explains. His testimony, concerningly, matches up with that of others involved in the investigation. “And they taught us laws,” he adds. “If you couldn't recite them in the correct way, you'd be beaten.”
Those in the surrounding towns and villages know of the facilities - and of the language which they need to use to speak about them. “It's a re-education school,” a local hotelier explained. “Yes, that's a re-education school,” a shopkeeper agreed. “There are tens of thousands of people there now. They have some problems with their thoughts.”
The programme targets Uighurs who speak a Turkic language and more closely resemble people from Central Asia rather than China's majority population - the Han Chinese. They make up around one half of the population in Xinjiang. However, 90 per cent of the Han Chinese live in the north of the province. In the south, the city of Kashgar is both physically and culturally closer to Baghdad than Beijing.
However, this resource-rich region has seen huge Han Chinese migration and the persecuted Uighurs have, in many ways, not been in control of their fate. Tension has steadily risen and, as the Uighurs have seen this influx of unyielding and often openly racist arrivals, so too have there been a number of attacks.
In October 2013, for example, an attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square left two people dead. Thought to have been carried out by Uighurs, this felt like a symbolic stab at the heart of the Han Chinese’s homeland. The following year, an attack in Kunming, killed 31 people.
Rather than consider culturally sensitive policies to help Uighurs integrate, the Chinese government banned headscarves and “abnormal” beards in both Beijing and across Xinjiang. However, in Xinjiang, religious names are now banned too.
Across the country, Uighur government officials are prohibited from practising Islam including attending mosques and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. The marginalisation of Muslims has created a separatist society and, visibly and audibly different, Uighurs make for an easy target.
It’s thought that hundreds have gone to fight in various militias in Syria and the government is concerned about disloyalty among Uighurs. This is an issue, one must presume, which they hope to beat out of the culprits.
Open hostility towards Muslims has caused a sharp decline in those publically practising their faith. In many towns and cities, Mosques are largely empty. They are there more as a reminder of another culture rather than the centre of a community.
Those who have moved out of Xinjiang have unusual insight into sudden disappearances. However, as to their relatives' whereabouts or whether they are coming back, there are no answers. “In the middle of the night, after my other children have gone to bed, I cry a lot,” says Bilkiz Hibibullah, whose husband and child disappeared from Xinjiang province. “There is nothing more miserable than not knowing where your daughter is, if she is alive or dead,” Hibibullah, who now lives in Turkey, explains. “If she could hear me now, I'd say nothing but sorry.”
In 2002, Reyila Abulaiti left Xinjiang in order to study in the UK. Her mother, Xiamuxinuer Pida, flew over to see her in London earlier this year, before returning on June 2. Reyila didn’t hear from her mother so called to check she had got back OK. “She told me that the police were searching the house,” Reyila explains.
They wanted proof of Reyila’s UK address, her university course, a copy of her passport and a number of other documents. “Don't call me again,” her mother then said. “Don't call me ever.” Reyila believes that her mother has been held in one of the internment camps ever since. “My mum has been detained for no reason,” she says. “As far as I know, the Chinese government wants to delete Uighur identity from the world.”
By population, China is the largest country in the world. The government has attempted to keep the country united with a strong sense of nationalism. However, as the tentacles of communist control have spread from Bejing and taken resources from the south, so too have the Uighurs felt increasingly victimised. Ultimately, extremist attacks like those in Beijing and Kunming are as much an effect of hostile race relations as they are a cause.