Somewhere in China, an oppression of over a million Muslims has been allowed to take place under the radar of the world. A persecution ratcheted up to an internment camp holding well over a million Uighur Muslims in which they have been forced to denounce their faith, criticise it and sing communist propaganda songs.
The chilling totalitarianism of China has been unveiled further in their crackdown on their Muslim population after the UN expressed grave concerns that gross abuses of human rights were occurring in the country. Over two million Muslims have been imprisoned with a clear attempt by the state to disconnect them from their faith. The conditions in which these Muslims have toiled have been very severe, in which they have been physically and mentally tortured in a bid to have their faith renounced. One Muslim who had been tortured revealed to the BBC that he had been strapped to a chair and deprived of sleep by the police, claiming “you could hear other people screaming as well”. One of the inmates of these camps, Omir Bekali, revealed the extent of China’s indoctrination plans in making Muslims disavow their faith by praising the Communist Party while being coerced to drink alcohol and eat pork.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the size of China’s internment camps doubled in Xinjiang within the last year. The argument that this is a confrontation of the extremism element within the Uighur Muslims itself seems flimsy given how far the net has been cast to entrap millions of innocent Muslims, attacking them for even innocuous manifestations of the Islamic identity.
Gay McDougall, a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, accused China of turning Xinjiang into “something resembling a massive internment camp, shrouded in secrecy” in the name of combating religious extremism. Ms McDougall cited reports from various activists and scholars that many of them had vanished and even ordinary Islamic practices were grounds for being sent to an internment camp. As she remarked, the evidence and story accounts indicated Muslims “being treated as enemies of the state solely on the basis of their ethn0-religious identity.”
A friend of mine revealed that some of her family members had been in these camps for years and were suffering immensely, explaining that the Chinese state viewed Muslims suspiciously as the fifth column, the enemy inside. There was undeniable hurt and contempt in her words at how a wide-scale persecution had gone on for years to very little media coverage.
China’s response has unsurprisingly been shocking, likening the internment camps to schools and hospitals. According to the Chinese government the Muslims are not being locked up in internment camps for their religious faith but the purpose of healing and re-education after being indoctrinated with extremist propaganda. An excerpt from an official Communist Party recording transmitted last year claimed that “members of the public who have been chosen for re-education have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology and therefore must seek treatment from a hospital as an impatient… The religious extremist ideology is a type of poisonous medicine, which confuses the mind of the people. … If we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumour.”
Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, observed that “There’s no legal basis, none, for the people to be held this way. There is no warrant, there is no crime, there is no calling a lawyer, there is no calling your family, there is no knowing when you are going to get out, there is no knowing what you have been charged with.”
So why is this happening?
The threat of extremism has been pinpointed as to why China has begun using an iron fist against its Muslim population. In 2013, a deadly car explosion in Beijing that killed five people was attributed to its Uighur Muslims. It was a terrorist attack that carried significance, framed as an assault on the heart of the nation as well as its institutional pillars. Although China had been initially hesitant in the immediate aftermath to point fingers, the construction of an internment camp system trapping well over two million people indicates a policy of brutal and violent assimilation. But if the aim was to refocus the loyalties of their Muslim minority, it’s difficult to imagine this fuelling much enthusiasm for China.
There is a body of opinion that leans towards the analysis that China’s actions towards its Muslim population is the inevitable endpoint of state communism, one in which uniformity and homogeneity are seen as the markers of equality. The identity of the state is the identity of the people and demands complete fidelity for its survival. In this situation, identifying by an ethnic race or another religion is seen as disseminating that single national identity structure, certainly threatening its foundations. The Soviet Union, perhaps the clearest example of what transpires with communism, pushed deeply racist and nationalist policies towards its ethnic minorities, including systematic social discrimination, large-scale cleansing and state-sanctioned anti-Semitism. China, in how it views Muslims, is little different here.
Surprisingly, this has received very little coverage outside China, and though increasingly picked up by liberal American outlets, not much is known about it. The left, traditionally in favour of protesting human rights atrocities, have been deliberately muted in their outrage. This is explained partly by the pyramid of international relations that posits America at the top as a capitalist menace and everyone else a reactionary agent justified in their measures no matter what it is. It’s difficult to imagine the British government saying too much on this either, particularly with China possibly growing as a trading interest with Brexit leaving such an unclear future.
There’s also the bitter truth that these are Muslims who are being oppressed, and for many, a group of people most difficult to empathise with.