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Behind Xi Jinping’s Great Wall of Iron

How China’s Uyghur population became the target of a merciless campaign of collective punishment.

By John Simpson

The 12 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China, are suffering one of the most intense policies of collective punishment since the end of the Second World War: a campaign designed to change them as a people, remould their beliefs, and limit their numbers. As far back as 2018 a United Nations committee cited reports that between one and two million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities had been incarcerated in political camps. A much larger number have been repressed and maltreated because of their religion, ethnicity and opinions. These are not just excesses committed by overenthusiastic local officials; they are key elements in a policy set out personally by President Xi Jinping

At first, Chinese officials blandly denied everything – a position repeated in October 2020 when Beijing’s UN ambassador issued a statement claiming that “China’s achievements in human rights development are widely recognised”. Then they fell back on the argument that the policy was justified.

There has indeed been a history of terrorism by Islamic and nationalist extremists among the Uyghurs. It is estimated as many as 5,000 went to join Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, making the Uyghurs one of the biggest contingents of foreign fighters within Isis. In 2009 rioting by Uyghurs in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, resulted in the deaths of nearly 200 people, most of them Han Chinese who were deliberately targeted and lynched by the mobs. After that, the terrorism started to spread beyond Xinjiang. On 1 March 2014 a Uyghur group attacked a railway station in the city of Kunming, in Yunnan province, killing 31 people and injuring 141. 

[See also: “My culture will survive”: the Uyghur poet Fatimah Abdulghafur Seyyah on her family’s devastating persecution]

The following month Xi visited Xinjiang. At a series of secret meetings with local party officials, he ordered them to use “the organs of dictatorship” to fight terrorism, infiltration and separatism. “We must be as harsh as them and show absolutely no mercy,” he said, and ­officials added this chilling quotation: ­“Freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’ in their thinking is eradicated.”

Xi’s exact words are known because in 2019 someone within the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy leaked them to the Western press: 403 pages of documents containing the president’s threats and injunctions. Clearly, not every official in China thinks mass repression is the right way to deal with terrorism, and some are prepared to take serious ­personal risks to undermine the government’s policy. Xi Jinping has huge powers, and can be president for life if he chooses. Yet there exists a definite and perhaps organised ­opposition to him within the party. 

Confirmation of what is happening in Xinjiang has come from many sources: the work of courageous correspondents such as the BBC’s John Sudworth or organisations including the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ); the shocking testimony of survivors; the visual evidence of satellite and drone footage; and a surprisingly large number of leaked official documents. It has proved impossible to keep the existence of so many camps across Xinjiang secret. The Chinese authorities, having originally claimed no such camps existed, now say they are part of a widespread vocational re-education programme intended to relieve poverty as well as prevent terrorism.

Satellite images examined by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which is part-funded by the Australian government, have identified at least 380 detention centres in Xinjiang province, ranging from low-security installations to fortified prisons complete with watchtowers, high walls and barbed wire. The ASPI noticed that many of the camps were located near industrial parks. There is no doubt that prisoners are used as forced labour in the clothing, textile, electronics and solar panels industries. According to the ASPI, 83 foreign and Chinese brands have allegedly benefited from the forced labour of Uyghur prisoners, and it named Apple, Amazon, Marks & Spencer, Nike and Adidas, among others. There have been repeated claims that much of China’s cotton, which is grown in Xinjiang, is produced by slave labour.

[See also: The Uyghurs’ plight shows the biggest threat to democracy is Western apathy]

Chinese officials say these accusations are part of a campaign of fake news and Western propaganda. Businessmen and academics from countries around the world, whose livelihoods depend on China’s largesse, dutifully re-broadcast the message. Yet when the ICIJ handed the BBC, the Guardian and other media outlets a file of leaked Chinese government papers, the documents were examined by a variety of experts and pronounced genuine. 

Signed by Zhu Hailun, the top security official in Xinjiang at the time, the documents set out the conditions under which any Uyghur suspected of terrorist sympathies (the definition is remarkably wide) should be held. Camp inmates must serve at least a year before being considered for release, and they can be held indefinitely. There is a points scheme, by which they can earn credits for ideological transformation and compliance with discipline. After this they are switched to a lower tier of camp where they face another three to six months of training in labour skills – meaning often that they learn to make things for famous global brands. The control over their lives is almost total.

The rape of female prisoners by officials and by anyone prepared to pay for access to them appears to be widespread. Other reports, equally credible, say local authorities are forcibly fitting women with birth control devices, in an effort to cut the Uyghur birth-rate and lower population numbers.

[See also: How Xinjiang became the gulag frontier]

In Hotan prefecture in Xinjiang, which is largely Uyghur, the education department issued a directive in 2017 prohibiting the use of the Uyghur language in schools and colleges. In the same year a new range of measures in Xinjiang banned the wearing of veils and beards that were too long.  It became an offence to refuse to watch or listen to state radio and television. There are frequent allegations that Uyghur prisoners are forced by their Han Chinese gaolers to eat pork and drink alcohol.

Merdan Ghappar, aged 31, was a successful model in Xinjiang who was swept up in the internment process. At one point, by mistake, the officials in his prison handed his possessions back to him, including his mobile phone. Ghappar used this unlooked-for opportunity to send his family a video of himself in prison, handcuffed to a bed, together with an account of the gross overcrowding, screaming and beatings that he observed around him. He described the so-called “four-piece suits” which the jailers forced on prisoners who did not cooperate: handcuffs, leg-shackles and a black cloth bag over the head. With ­extraordinary bravery he asked his family to make the video public. They did, and the pictures were shown around the world. 

Nothing has been heard of Merdan Ghappar since March 2020. The Great Wall of Iron which Xi Jinping said was required to “safeguard” Xinjiang has closed around him.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor

 This article appears in our series, The Silencing, on China and the Uyghurs

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War