Uighur Muslims are a Turkic ethnic group native to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, where they are an officially recognized minority. About 10 percent of that Uighur population, or about a million people, is currently being held in an estimated 143 re-education camps maintained by the Chinese Communist Party as part of its anti-terror efforts. These camps have three levels of detainees. Some are sent to be re-educated for practicing their religion in a manner such as wearing a burqa. The next two levels are Uighurs with serious offenses that chose to attend the camps instead of jail, and others who arrived upon completion of serving time in prison. If they want to leave, they must pass exams. It’s unknown what exactly these exams contain.
Although the camps are more like prisons, the Chinese government has attempted to masquerade them as something much more harmless with innocent-sounding names such as Hotan Prefecture’s Moyu County Vocational Education and Training Center. In September of 2019, NBC News spoke to the director of that camp, Bu’ayixiemu Abulizi. According to Abulizi, “If we leave the terrorism thoughts to be developed, it is very easy to have riots or other issues. We prevent this from happening. Our center is to prevent terrorism thoughts from happening.” However, human rights groups don’t see the camps as protection for China. Rather, they want to bring to light the rampant human rights violations committed against Uighurs: mass arbitrary detention and even torture. In the words of Guy McDougall of the United Nations, Xinjiang has become “something resembling a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no-rights zone.”
The view of the camps that the government presents isn’t completely truthful. China states that Uighurs live in dormitories and take lessons on what are deemed to be useful professional skills, as well as lessons in Mandarin, culture, and law. However, the camps are really about crushing the Muslim culture and increasing loyalty to the Communist Party, according to Dennis Wilder, who formerly worked for the CIA as well as acting as a National Security Council director for China. The story of the camps only gets more sinister from there: when an Ughur tries to leave the nation, they are imprisoned if caught. Documents leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists showed new evidence that these camps detain without trial. A memo sent by a security official and high-ranking Communist Party member named Zhu Hailun in 2017 instructed the camps to run as high-security prisons with harsh punishments and full surveillance. Detainees have no idea how long they will be imprisoned. The camps serve to brainwash their residents, by any means necessary.
China’s history with the Uighurs is filled with turmoil. Xinjiang contains natural resources that are critical to the Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious infrastructure plan by President Xi Jinping. Conflict over the land led to riots that turned violent. This was labeled as terrorism and the government decided that it was necessary to act against the Muslim population. China’s actions against Uighurs have been condemned by Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, as well as Senator Marco Rubio, who has sponsored bills in favor of concrete actions to stop the unfair treatment.