Concentration camps and forced labor: China’s repression of the Uighurs, explained

Jewher Ilham said she had not heard from her father since 2017.

Her dad, Ilham Tohti, is an economics professor and prominent Uighur intellectual in Xinjiang, China. He ran a website, UighurOnline,thatfocusedon issues pertaining to the Muslim ethnic minority group.

Chinese authorities repeatedly shut down the website. Jewher says the family received death threats. Chinese authorities also disappeared her father multiple times before detaining him in 2014 and quickly finding him guilty on separatism charges. He was sentenced to life in prison.

At first, Jewher told me, because her father was a political prisoner, the family could visit him every few months. But then the Chinese government cut off access entirely.

Jewher is in the United States; she still has extended family in Xinjiang, the northwestern region in China where most Uighurs live. She does not talk with them, either. “If they talk to me or if they receive a phone call from me, I don’t think anything good will happen to them,” she told me over the phone in July.

Jewher’s father was targeted by the Chinese government for his advocacy of Uighur rights. But in recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has arbitrarily detained between 1 million and 3 million other Uighurs in so-called “reeducation centers” and forced them to undergo psychological indoctrination programs, such as studying communist propaganda and giving thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese officials have also reportedly used waterboarding and other forms of torture,including sexual abuse, as part of the indoctrination process.

Researchers from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, using satellite imagery and other evidence, have documented more than 380 re-education camp detention centers and prisons in Xinjiang, with at least 61 having been expanded or updated within the last year.

It is the largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority group since World War II.

The concentration camps are the most extreme example of China’s inhumane policies against the Uighurs, but the entire population is subject to repressive policies. China has used mass surveillance to turn Xinjiang into a high-tech police state.

Uighurs inside and outside the camps are exploited for cheap labor, forced to manufacture clothing and other products for sale both at home and abroad. The New York Times revealed in July that some Chinese-made face masks being sold in the United States and other countries were produced in factories that relied on Uighur labor.

Another recent investigation found evidence that Chinese authorities subjected Uighur women to mass sterilization, forcing them to take birth control or have abortions and putting them in camps if they resist. Some have argued this attempt to control the Uighur population meets the United Nations’ definition of genocide.

The Chinese government, however, claims that the camps are merely vocational and training centers, and that they’re teaching people job skills. It has justified the oppression in Xinjiang as an attempt to clamp down on terrorism and extremism emanating from theUighur separatist movement.

There have been incidents of violent unrest over the years, including a few deadly terrorist attacks, and at least one Uighur extremist group in the region, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, has ties to al-Qaeda and the global jihadist movement. But most experts say Beijing’s repression and subjugation of millions of Uighurs is vastly disproportionate to the comparatively minor terror threat in the region.

As more and more reports of the atrocities happening in Xinjiang are revealed, the international community is grappling with how to punish China for its abuses. The United States recently imposed sanctions on Chinese officials involved in persecuting the Uighurs and punished companies believed to be reliant on Uighur forced labor.

Advocates and bipartisan groups of lawmakers are calling for more forceful action, and earlier this week the House of Representatives passed overwhelmingly bipartisan legislation that requires companies to prove products from the Xinjiang region are not made with coerced Uighur labor.

Yet the persecution of the Uighurs continues and in full view of the world.

Jewher is now herself an activist for Uighur rights. She says knowing what is happening to Uighurs makes her more determined to preserve her culture, her history, and her language. “I don’t think there’s any other words to put for this action,” she said. “I think it is genocide. It’s genocide, period.”

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