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Uighur Muslims in China have long reported state suppression, but now they say repression is stronger than ever. Advocates for the Muslim minority say Uighurs are now being rounded up by the hundreds of thousands and put in camps for assimilation. Nick Schifrin learns more from Omer Kanat, director of the Uighur Human Rights Project, and James Millward of Georgetown University.
As we reported earlier, the Chinese government objected today to a call by some U.S. members of Congress to levy sanctions on Beijing for its treatment of the Uyghur ethnic group, who live mainly in Western China.
As Nick Schifrin reports, advocates for that Muslim minority say Uyghurs are now being rounded up by the hundreds of thousands.
In China's Xinjiang province, to be a Uyghur Muslim is to be accused of having a contagious disease. Muslims from Xinjiang to Beijing have long complained of state suppression. But now they say Chinese repression is stronger than ever.
In Xinjiang's Kashgar, where Chairman Mao looms over the city, Chinese police are accused by human rights groups of creating the world's most extensive surveillance. Uyghurs are native to this area and have long accused China of forced indoctrination, as exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer put it in a 2012 visit to Tokyo.
Rebiya Kadeer (through translator):
The Chinese government systematically assimilates the Uyghur people, while we're struggling for freedom and human rights. It's a life or death struggle.
The U.S. and U.N. says that struggle is now happening to one million Uyghurs inside of camps seen in satellite images.
We know the camps are expanding thanks in part to a blog by a Chinese law student at the University of British Columbia, Shawn Zhang, who started investigating because at first he didn't believe the Uyghurs' accusations.
Many Chinese say they are fake news, because they think it'd be impossible to detain so many people.
But Zhang found government construction project bids for what the Chinese call reeducation camps and he cross-referenced those to find the truth.
So, I look at these locations in the Google satellite images, and I found there are indeed some very large detention facilities.
In a Kashgar camp, he found a construction boom, and could even identify which structures were — quote — "teaching buildings."
You can clearly see the extension of the detention facilities, especially in the education camp. I think it likely doubled or even tripled its size in the past few months.
Radio Free Asia journalist Gulchehra Hoja told Congress last month her family's in camps where Uyghurs are reportedly subject to torture and indoctrination.
I learned in February that my aunt's cousins, their children, more than 20 people had been swept up by authorities in the same day.
That hearing was called by Senator Marco Rubio. Yesterday, he and 16 other Senate and House members sent the State and Treasury Departments a letter accusing China of arbitrary detention, torture and egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture and calling for sanctions on senior Chinese officials.
Today, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Chinese minorities have freedom of religion, and the U.S. had no right to criticize.
Hua Chunying (through translator):
China's ethnic minority policies and the rights and equality ethnic minorities enjoy are even stronger than in the United States.
China says it's responding to what it calls Uyghur terrorism and a Uyghur separatist movement.
In Xinjiang, many Uyghurs seek an independent homeland and clash with police. China says it's trying to maintain stability and doesn't detain anyone arbitrarily.
For more on this, we're joined by Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, and Jim Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University.
Thanks very much to you both.
Omer Kanat, the Chinese call these vocational training camps. Are they vocational training camps?
Yes, that's what they say. It's not vocational centers. It is actual jails.
There are a lot of evidence that shows that, at the end of the day, they are jails. We have victims. We have witnesses. We have victims who spent several months, later released from the — I call it concentration camp.
And they already told their stories in how people are being tortured in these so-called vocational centers, how the people are insulted, how the people are humiliated, how the people are deprived from food, from sleep, in order to obey what the Chinese guards and the Chinese officials ask them to do.
What they have asked them to do, what they have forced them to do is to — to denounce their religion, first of all, denounce their culture, denounce their even traditions.
Jim Millward, there's another line that the Chinese have. They say that they — there's a serious threat in this area from militants, from separatists. There have been terrorist attacks in this area.
Are the Chinese actually worried about stability? And aren't they right to worry about stability?
Well, they're certainly worried about stability.
And to a certain extent, they're right to worry about various kinds of unrest. What the Chinese do is refer to all violence, any kinds of action or dissent from people as terrorism. And, actually, it runs the gamut from small-scale, into rural uprisings, maybe farmers with their agricultural tools attacking a police station, to what we would call race riots.
So, stability is a concern. The problem is, their reaction to it, this response to it with these camps is indiscriminate and it's excessive. It's way beyond anything that good policy would dictate as a response to this kind of relatively low-level unrest.
Is this about economic concerns from China and China's Belt and Road plan?
Yes, this is really Xi Jinping, President Xi Jinping's sort of signature contribution, and he's very much thinking about his legacy in terms of this.
It's drawn on the map as rail lines and roads and the belt across Central Asia. But I think we really should understand that is much broader than that. It really takes in all of Chinese foreign policy all around the world, loans, some investment, economic involvement all over.
So if we think of it simply as a rail line running from Xinjiang to Central Asia, then you think, oh, well, maybe they're worried about Uyghurs doing some things to that rail line.
But that's a very small part of what the entire Belt and Road is. And, moreover, China has security of that key infrastructure in Xinjiang very well under control. There's no real danger to this.
There's a recent editorial from the Chinese newspaper Global Times, which reflects state policy. And it says that there was a danger of Xinjiang becoming China's Syria or China's Libya, and, therefore, these harsh measures were necessary in order to prevent that from happening.
To maintain the ability, to prevent Xinjiang from becoming Syria or Libya.
That's ridiculous. It's absolutely ridiculous. If you looked at any of the securitization of the region, there are police with boots on the ground. They have facial recognition cameras everywhere. There's no danger of littering, practically.
It doesn't have anything to do with the fight against terrorism, fight against extremism.
It's a war against a people, to eliminate a people, eliminate an ethnic group. So it doesn't have anything to do with the — with the terrorism.
You cannot — it's not an excuse for Chinese government, so to say that we are fighting against terrorism. More than one million Uyghurs are in actual jails in detention center. And more than two million people are in political and cultural indoctrination centers.
And, Jim Millward, quickly, in the time we have left. Uyghurs have been targeted before. Minorities have been targeted before.
But is this on a scale that we haven't seen?
So, what we're seeing now is really unprecedented as a human rights atrocity in China.
Not since the Cultural Revolution, perhaps, not since the Tiananmen incidents of 1989 has there been anything really this serious that I think the world should pay attention to.
And it's really very sad, because it may sound funny to say this, but China is better than this. China has a tradition of multiculturalism, believe it or not. It's not liberal, Western-style multiculturalism, but they have a way of managing different groups within one state.
And if they would stick to that, they could provide an example of managing diversity, albeit within an authoritarian context that, in some ways, measures up to some of the ways we manage diversity in the West, because there are problems — these are difficult problems everywhere.
Jim Millward, Omer Kanat, thank you very much.
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