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Uyghur detention camps: a special report on China and a culture under attack

From Xinjiang’s network of detention centres to the suppression of tradition, writers report on China’s relentless campaign against the Uyghurs – and what will be lost if it succeeds.

By Katie Stallard

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 16 February 2022 and has been updated in light of recent events. On 31 August, the United Nations’ human rights office released a long-delayed report on China’s detention of Uyghurs, accusing the country of human rights violations that may constitute “crimes against humanity”. The report was released just minutes before the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, was scheduled to leave her role. 

Though the 48-page document did not use the word “genocide”, international human rights groups have welcomed its publication, calling the report “ground-breaking”. 

It is no longer credible to say we don’t know what is happening to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. You can say you don’t care, as the billionaire venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya did in January when he said the plight of the Uyghurs was “below my line”. But we can no longer pretend the atrocities aren’t well documented.

The combined weight of satellite imagery, official documents and survivor testimony that has accumulated over the last five years sets out the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang in devastating and undeniable detail. The UK parliament, although so far not Boris Johnson’s government, has declared the situation genocide. 

International attention on this issue tends to focus on the sprawling network of internment camps and prisons where between one and three million people have been confined. Rightly so. These mass detentions are shameful and those responsible must be held to account. Reports of forced sterilisation, systematic torture and rape must be urgently investigated. The severity of these alleged abuses cannot simply be shrugged off or deemed to be below some arbitrary line that might warrant concern.   

But the horrors of Xinjiang are not confined to the high concrete walls of the camps. The entire region has been transformed into what amounts to an open-air prison for the Uyghurs and people from other ethnic minorities. Checkpoints and surveillance cameras blanket the cities. Facial recognition technology and mandatory location-tracking apps on mobile phones allow constant, real-time monitoring of the cities’ inhabitants. Party cadres from China’s ethnic majority Han population are encouraged to stay overnight with Uyghur families, who are predominantly Muslim, and monitor them for signs of “extremism”, which might include praying or declining to eat pork or drink alcohol.   

[See also: Why China and India are sending troops to Russia]

China’s constitution guarantees its citizens “freedom of religious belief” but this right exists in name alone, something the country’s Christians can also attest. In Xinjiang displaying any outward sign of religious faith now renders one subject to suspicion and an indeterminate period of detention. Under Xi Jinping, the president, only worship of the party and his leadership is allowed. Thousands of mosques and shrines dating back to the 10th century have been bulldozed, although officials deny they are destroying these sites, insisting they are merely working “to protect them”.     

Beijing claims to be fighting a “war on terror” in Xinjiang, pointing to the region’s borders with Afghanistan and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and the number of Uyghurs who have joined groups such as Islamic State or carried out attacks in China. Yet the campaign the authorities have waged in the years since Xi came to power goes far beyond any plausible counterterrorism campaign. As well as the detentions and the relentless surveillance and harassment, the government has embarked on a programme of forced assimilation that seems intended to destroy the Uyghurs’ identity. 

Given the extent to which Xi has personalised power in China, it is inconceivable that he does not know what is happening in Xinjiang. He could halt these policies immediately if he wanted to. Instead, as detailed in leaked documents, he has urged officials to show “absolutely no mercy” in what he characterises as a “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism”. 

This is not happening in isolation. Xi has presided over a broad crackdown on human rights and individual freedoms across China, as well as the destruction of civil society in Hong Kong. If the UK government resumes trade talks in pursuit of stronger economic ties with China despite all of this, as the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has urged, this will send the unfortunate message that post-Brexit Britain is more interested in attracting Chinese investment than it is in human rights. Sunak has insisted it is possible to do both, to speak up for human rights while increasing trade, but Beijing respects actions more than it does words. 

The Uyghurs’ story goes far beyond their present victimhood. The New Statesman’s series of essays set out not just the Chinese authorities’ relentless campaign against the Uyghurs, but what will be lost if they succeed: the unique history, culture and heritage that is at stake. 

John Simpson goes behind Xi Jinping’s Great Wall of Iron

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

Katie Stallard on the subjugation of Xinjiang

Xinjiang has long been treated with suspicion. At least one million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been imprisoned in the Xinjiang region. The Chinese say they are combating separatism and religious extremism. Western governments call it genocide.

Rian Thum and Musapir on the suppression of Uyghur culture

Shaped over centuries by pilgrimage, trade, art and war, a unique culture has been suppressed and exploited by Beijing. Can Uyghur distinctiveness re-emerge?

Elif Shafak on why the greatest threat to the Uyghurs is Western apathy

We know that populist dictators are emboldened by each other’s atrocities, so how many more disappearances will it take before China crosses the West’s “red line”?

Anoosh Chakelian meets the exiled poet Fatimah Abdulghafur Seyyah

Sharing a series of specially commissioned poems, the Uyghur writer, who left China in 2010, discusses her family’s devastating persecution.

Megan Gibson on the special edition Uyghur cover

Keen readers will have noticed something different from The New Statesman this week.

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