Since 2017, minorities, mostly Muslims, have been detained and controlled in Chinese “re-education camps,” formally titled “Vocational Education and Training Centers” by the Chinese government. Around a million Muslims are thought to be kept in these concentration camps in order to push for what government officials call “education,” “transformation,” and a counter against extremism. In November 2019, the inner workings of the Xinjiang camps were revealed through a set of secret documents, detailing the process by which Chinese officials select people to detain and through what means they are monitored within the camps. The documents describe the government’s approach to capturing minorities and forcefully altering their beliefs and language. The papers also exposed a scoring system used within the camps, indicative of how well the detained minorities are able to speak Mandarin, submit to certain ideologies, and comply with the stern rules set at these “re-education” centers.
The Chinese government has made efforts to develop this system, and with the growth of technology, the issue is simply worsening. The government is now using its Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) and artificial intelligence in order to access the names of tens of thousands of minorities considered suspicious to pull them in for interrogation or even to be admitted to the Xinjiang detention camps. In particular, Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority, are greatly targeted.
Chinese officials continue to defend the detention camps, claiming them to be a necessity in order to provide protection for citizens. For years, China has been striving to control Xinjiang, especially after a number of Uyghurs executed over 200 terrorist attacks throughout the course of a few decades. Liu Xiaoming, a Chinese ambassador, stated in late 2019 that the camps assisted greatly in assuring local safety, as no Xinjiang terrorist attacks had occurred for the past three years during which the camps were implemented. While the government frames these “Vocational Education and Training Centers” as measures to ensure national security, they raise the question of whether this choice is truly effective in accomplishing its goal and whether such practices are actually ethical.
“I think it’s fair to describe everyone being detained as being subject at least to psychological torture, because they literally don’t know how long they’re going to be there,” said Sophia Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. This is an instance of ethnic erasure, as minorities are being forced to give up their beliefs simply to stay alive every day. Camps strictly forbid running away and stipulate that just one step out of line will trigger harsh punishments. People kept at these camps are stringently monitored and are designated specific time slots to use the restroom, bathing, changing, etc. The camps emphasize the idea that Uyghurs are uncultured and thus should learn to be more civilized through the use of said camps in order to conform with Chinese society.
The question at hand further complicates itself with the recent Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. Experts claim that once the epidemic spreads to the “re-education camps,” thousands of Muslims trapped inside could potentially die. Living conditions within the camps are not completely safe nor are equipped with proper facilities to aid countless sick people. The Xinjiang detention camps are one of the most overlooked humanitarian issues today, and the Coronavirus could add a new layer of conflict to the ever-growing problem. While it is impossible to tell what the future holds, world leaders must come together and address the pressing issue of the erasure of minorities’ cultures in Xinjiang “re-education camps” before it is too late.