Beijing at first denied their existence, then justified the internment camps as counter-terrorism measures. But there are many unanswered questionsby Isabel Hilton / January 26, 2019 / Leave a comment
In mid-January, delegates gathered in Ürümqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, for the annual meeting of the regional People’s Congress. They listened attentively to the chairman, Shohrat Zakir, as he gave a report on behalf of an administration accused by the UN of incarcerating up to one million Uighurs in extra-judicial internment camps.
There was one upbeat piece of news: tourism in Xinjiang is booming, up 40 per cent on the previous year. In other respects, the chairman’s report was more sombre: the government, he said, will maintain “high pressure on curbing terrorist activities.”
The intensity of this pressure has been documented through eye-witness testimony, digital mapping, and analysis of government contracts for the building of the (now extensive) network of detention camps in which people are held indefinitely, without being charged or convicted of any crime. Beijing at first denied their existence, then justified them as counter-terrorism measures. But there are many unanswered questions, beginning with the nature of the problem that they claim to address.
There has been unrest in Xinjiang ever since the territory and its Muslim, Turkic peoples were incorporated into the Qing empire in the 18th century. More recently, nearly 200 people died in violent riots in 2009, triggered by social media footage of an assault on Uighur workers in a toy factory in distant Guangdong province. After a rumour that a Uighur worker had assaulted a Han Chinese woman, Han men attacked their Uighur co-workers in the factory dormitory. Street protests in Ürümqi became riots as Uighurs turned on Han Chinese migrants.
There had been bus bombings in 1992 and 1997, and between 2010 and 2014 a number of violent incidents that were either claimed by or attributed to the shadowy East Turkestan Islamic Movement. But serious though these episodes were, they do not reach the scale of the threat claimed by Zakir in an interview published last October.
“Chen developed the repressive techniques in his role as Party Secretary of Tibet—and takes full advantage of digital technology”
“Since the 1990s, terrorists, extremists and separatists in China and abroad,” he said, “have plotted, organised and conducted thousands of violent terrorist attacks, including bombings, assassinations, poisoning, arson, assaults, unrest and riots, causing the deaths of…