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Chinese Forced Labour Camps: One Million Imprisoned

Updated: Jan 13

Kate Byng-Hall reports on the chilling imprisonment of Muslims in brutal Chinese ‘re-education camps.’

Photo by Brian Matangelo

Shocking satellite imagery and drone footage, as well as first-hand accounts, have exposed the Chinese government’s sanctioning of ‘re-education’ camps imprisoning over a million Uighur Muslims in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

Drone footage filmed by activists in August 2019 show hundreds of blindfolded and shaven prisoners in a railway marshalling yard, seated in rows and surrounded by guards in SWAT uniform.  A letter signed by over 130 British MPs, including Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey and former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, calls the footage “chilling” in its similarity to “historical footage of Nazi concentration camps”.

The letter condemns the camps as “a systematic and calculated program of ethnic cleansing against the Uighur people”, going on to say: “When the world is presented with such overwhelming evidence of gross human rights abuses, nobody can turn a blind eye”.

Human Rights Abuses

Chinese suppression and imprisonment of Uighur Muslims now qualifies for the UN’s definitions of genocide, mass sterilisation, forced abortions and mandatory birth control.  

In an attempt to limit and reduce the Uighur population, a report by Chinese scholar Adrian Zenz has revealed that women are being involuntarily fitted with IUD contraceptive coils and coerced into sterilisation surgeries to prevent pregnancies, or forced to have abortions in order to fit birth quotas.  As a result, birth rates in the country’s largest Uighur populations fell by 84% between 2015 and 2018.  According to Mr Zenz, “this kind of drop is unprecedented, there's a ruthlessness to it. This is part of a wider control campaign to subjugate the Uighurs”.

A video that surfaced earlier this year, filmed by Uighur model Merdan Ghappar, has exposed the harsh reality of life inside a camp in Xinjiang.  The clip, presumably filmed in secret on a smartphone, shows the 31-year-old handcuffed to a metal bedframe in a bare and grubby room, resembling a prison cell.  Propaganda announcements can be heard blaring from loud-speakers outside the room’s barred window.

The camps, which have been coined “modern day gulags” by some, are almost certainly the largest example of mass incarceration of a racial or religious group since the Holocaust.

Excuses for Persecution 

During an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show in July, the Chinese Ambassador for the UK, Liu Xiaoming, was confronted with the aforementioned footage of a camp in Xinjiang, and appeared visibly flustered before saying, “I do not know where you get this videotape”.

He has denounced the UK’s condemnation of the practice, stating that Muslims are not in concentration camps in Xinjiang, but are being retrained as artists, estate agents and chefs in order to deter them from extremism.  He asserts that the West’s backlash to the scheme, including a US Import Ban on cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang which may have been produced using slave labour from the camps, is an attempt to spark a modern Cold War with China.

He went on to affirm that “history has proved and will continue to prove that China is always a defender of world peace, a contributor to global development and upholder of international law”, and that criticising the Chinese government has “seriously poisoned” relations between the nations.

Systemic Oppression 

There has been an alarming resurgence of religious intolerance in China, especially towards Uighurs and Muslims, in recent years.  This is likely due to the ruling Communist Party’s atheism, the ideology of Han Chinese supremacism, and the idea of “national rejuvenation”.  A number of terrorist incidents have led to prejudiced condemnation of Muslims by much of the Chinese population as dangerous extremists.

In 2017, Xinjiang first introduced its Regulation on Anti-Extremism, banning a wide range of activities deemed to constitute “extremist behaviour”, including rejecting mass media, practising a halal diet, wearing a religious veil, distributing ‘extremist’ propaganda, and violating birth control policies.  Local governments are legally permitted to set up ‘re-education camps’ to house anyone who violates these extremism laws.

Leaked Chinese government documents from 2017 distributed from the Communist Party to those running the camps gave instructions including: “never allow escapes”, “increase discipline and punishment of behavioural violations”, and “encourage students to truly transform”.  The aim is to ultimately brainwash and terrorise the Muslims into abandoning their faith.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this oppressive practice is the apparent belief that the expectation of cultural and religious transformation is justified.  The Uighur are seen as a blemish in China’s efforts towards ethical homogenisation and universal obedience to the State.  Official condemnation of the goings-on from Western states is long-overdue, and more needs to be done to ensure the rights of this innocent ethnic minority are protected.

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