Jen Kirby, writing for American news website Vox, has described the system of surveillance and repression in Xinjiang put into place since 2016, when Chen Quanguo was appointed head of the regional government. Xinjiang, in the north west of China, is home to ten million Uighur Muslim people.
“Increased surveillance and police presence accompanied [Quanguo’s] move to Xinjiang, including his ‘grid management’ policing system.
“As the Economist reported, authorities divide each city into squares, with about 500 people. Every square has a police station that keeps tabs on the inhabitants. So, in rural areas, does every village.
“Security checkpoints where residents must scan identification cards were set up at train stations and on roads into and out of towns. Authorities have reportedly used facial recognition technology to track residents’ movements.
“Police confiscate phones to download the information contained on them to scan through later. Police have also confiscated passports to prevent Uighurs from travelling abroad.
“Some of the targeted ‘de¬extremification’ restrictions gained coverage in the West, including a ban on certain Muslim names for babies and another on long beards and veils.
“The government also made it illegal to not watch state television and to not send children to government schools. The government reportedly tried to promote drinking and smoking, because people who didn’t drink or smoke — like devout Muslims — were deemed suspicious”.
United Nations reports estimate that up to one million people may now be held in internment camps. After a previously denying their existence, in October 2018 the regional government declared them official, claiming they are “re¬education camps” to tackle extremism.
The Uighurs are a Turkic, Sunni Muslim ethnic group. The majority of the world’s Uighurs live in China. There are around 223,000 Uighurs in Kazakhstan; no other country has a population over 60,000. Most Uighurs live in Xinjiang. Uighur nationalist-separatists call the territory East Turkestan.
The East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), the main Uighur separatist movement, is Islamist. The East Turkestan Freedom Centre, based in the USA, is more moderate. The World Uighur Congress, perhaps most mainstream of the Uighur movements, is based in Munich.
“East Turkestan” has been under Chinese control since 1949, largely against the will of the majority of the populace. State¬sponsored migration of Han Chinese, China’s majority ethnic group, to Xinjiang has occurred since the 1950s.
Uighurs have been largely excluded from the economic development of the region. Uighur-majority areas remain overwhelmingly agricultural and small¬business¬based, whereas areas where Han Chinese have settled have seen rapid industrialisation and development. In 2009, there were widespread riots, with 200 people dying in the unrest. In 2014, Uighur public employees were banned from fasting during Ramadan. The state has also imposed forced shaving of Uighur men’s beards.
There is a history of bombings and other terrorist attacks in the region, which China attributes to ETIM and other Uighur separatists. The state insists its actions in the region are merely a response to terrorism. Chen Quanguo was awarded his latest posting after overseeing significant repression in Tibet.
According to a BBC report: “Former prisoners of the camps have told the BBC of physical as well as psychological torture there. Entire families had disappeared, they said. In July, a former teacher at one of the camps who fled to Kazakhstan told a court there that ‘in China they call it a political camp but really it was a prison in the mountains”.
The New York Times quoted former detainees as saying that they were forced to sing songs such as ‘Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China’ and those who could not remember the words were not given breakfast.
“‘In the end, all the officials had one key point. The greatness of the Chinese Communist Party, the backwardness of Uighur culture and the advanced nature of Chinese culture,’ former detainee Abdusalam Muhemet told the newspaper.”
Many Uighur activists use the language of “ethnic cleansing”, or even “cultural genocide” to describe China’s repression. Xinjiang is a potentially key hub for industry and logistics, so the economic development of the region is significant for China’s regional and global imperialist economic aspirations. But the repression of the Uighurs is also fundamentally ideological for a Chinese Communist Party, and a state, which is profoundly Chinese nationalist and deeply hostile to the aspirations for national rights, or even basic civil liberties, of ethnic, cultural, and national minorities within its borders.