When allegations first surfaced that China was spiriting Uighurs and other Muslims away from their homes in the autonomous far-western Xinjiang region and sending them to detention camps, the Chinese government said it wasn’t happening. Rather, the government insisted, those reports were fabricated by human rights groups with a political animus.
Two months later the government partially acknowledged the program, saying it was giving minor criminals an opportunity to change their ways by learning new skills at “boarding schools.” Then early this month, China’s vice foreign minister, Le Yucheng, again dismissed the criticisms of the country’s human rights record as politically motivated, and described the detention centers as educational facilities where “trainees” formerly “controlled by extremist ideology” were learning new ways. “It's another important contribution of China's to the global counter-terror field,” Le said, evidently with a straight face.
No, it’s not. What the Chinese government appears to be doing is reprising one of the dark chapters of the Mao Tse-tung years by reportedly forcing dissidents, or those considered to be potential dissidents, into concentration camps and subjecting them to brainwashing and, according to some former detainees, torture. Those arrested are held incommunicado and families often can only guess that relatives they suddenly can’t find have been snatched by the police. Authorities also reportedly have been sweeping up and detaining the Chinese-based relatives of Uighurs who have criticized the government from abroad. That is an especially atrocious practice that must come to an end. But how to force China’s hand on an issue its leaders no doubt view as a purely internal matter is the hard part.
In recent years, President Xi Jinping has solidified his control over the Communist Party and thus the central government. His agents have arrested booksellers in Hong Kong for selling titles the government doesn’t like. The government has turned universities into “party strongholds” where it uses surveillance and undercover agents to ferret out those who stray from party orthodoxy. It has also jailed pro-democracy activists as well as some of the human rights lawyers who rose to represent them. And as more Chinese turn to religious faith, the government has cracked down on some churches and closely monitored others.
Externally, Xi has invested in port and other infrastructure projects around the world under the guise of improving economic ties, though some analysts see the effort as a strategy to expand China’s global influence , including militarily; it recently opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Xi also has sought to increase China’s footprint in Southeast Asia, including by creating disputed military outposts on rocky outcroppings in international waters. So far, the international community has been unable to come up with a practical response to China’s expansionism, and President Trump has let his obsession with trade deficits distract him from the geopolitical games that China is playing. That Xi feels he can oppress the Uighurs with impunity is a measure of how little sway the international community has with him.
China says that it needs to offer these “retraining” sessions to combat terrorism. And it is true that some Uighur separatists have, since the mid 1990s, carried out sporadic terrorist attacks in Xinjiang province as well as in Beijing, Guangzhou and other locations. But experts in the region report no serious, concerted independence movement, and the levels of attacks, while a concern to the Chinese government, do not merit such an atrocious and overwhelming violation of human rights. In that regard, it resembles the Myanmar government’s brutal reaction (which has included killings, rapes and arson) to scattered attacks by Rohingya militias. Whatever the provocation, the grossly out-of-balance responses in both are uncalled for.