Xinjiang: Living in a ghost world


Uyghur men in Xinjiang pray during the Corban festival (Eid) in 2016. Public displays of religiosity are now considered signs of extremism.
PHOTO/Kevin Frayers/Getty

Since 2016, at least a million people have been sent to re-education camps as part of the Chinese government’s persecution of the Uyghur people. Yohann Koshy speaks to anthropologist Darren Byler to find out what is going on in China’s northwest province.

The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking, Muslim ethnic group who are native to Xinjiang, northwest China. In 2016, the Communist Party Secretary in Tibet, Chen Quanguo, was moved to the role of governor of Xinjiang, where he launched a mass persecution campaign against the Uyghurs, seemingly in response to a handful of terror attacks.

Amnesty International reports that up to a million Uyghurs have been through re-education camps, where many are forced to renounce Islam and sing nationalistic songs. In July 2019, the government claimed, without evidence, that most detainees from these camps had been released. Many of these ‘graduates’ have been transferred into a network of factories to perform forced labour. Outside the factories, a high-tech surveillance state ensures that Uyghur life is ruthlessly controlled.

Yohann Koshy: When did the mass detention – in what the government calls ‘vocational training centres’ – begin?

Darren Byler: The detention of a million people has happened over the last three years. The state decided that they were going to move from what they called a ‘hard-strike campaign’ against Uyghur ‘separatism, terrorism and extremism’ to a ‘re-education campaign’. They determined that around 10 per cent of the Uyghur population – the total population is around 12 million – were pre-terrorists or pre-criminals.

The Chinese authorities think of what they’re doing as something similar to what the UK calls Prevent, which is countering violent extremism before it happens. Beijing saw Uyghurs turning towards more pious forms of Islamic practice and was afraid that this would lead to violent struggle, although there was little evidence that this was necessarily the case or would happen. It decided pre-emptively that it would detain this number of people.

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