By: Mia Moreno
There are approximately 1,800 Uyghur people in America right now. This ethnic group isn’t too widely known in North America due to the lack of population here. They are very well known in Xinjiang, China with a population of 12,123,000 and at least 1,000,000 being forced to live in internment camps, resulting in cultural genocide.
The Uyghur people, with the interchangeable spelling of Uighur, are a minority ethnic group that is widely located in places like China, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, etc., but are native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China. While being native to Xinjiang, the idea that the Uyghur people are an indigenous group is heavily rejected by the Chinese government. Historically, a great number of Uyghurs have settled all across the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin causing a large number of Uyghurs now to identify as Muslims.
Construction of internment camps in Xinjiang began in 2017 by the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with over 90 internment camps identified and an estimated number of over 1,000 camps already built. On Aug. 13, 2018, the allegation that over one million Uyghur people were being held captive was raised by a United Nations panel member, Gay McDougall from Atlanta, Ga. She said that many reliable reports were received that “one million ethnic Uighurs were held in what resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no-rights zone.” After these allegations, China quickly rejected the notion but did say that some people underwent “re-education” and made a statement about how “Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists who plot attacks and stir up tensions between the mostly Muslim Uighur minority who call the region home and the ethnic Han Chinese majority.” Further, a senior Communist Party official, Hu Lianhe, told the U.N. Committee that “the argument that one million Uighurs are detained in re-education centers is completely untrue,” and that “there are no such things as re-education centers.” But soon after the claims brought up by the U.N. were denied, images of camps with watchtowers and barbed wire fences surfaced and the Chinese government quickly acknowledged “voluntary re-education camps for Uyghurs.”
Leaked information has shown that the Uyghur people are, in fact, being held against their will in abhorrent conditions, and it’s been happening for the last three years. Over one million people have been in and out of these internment camps during that time. Uyghur people are being arrested for insubstantial things like wearing a long beard, refusing alcohol, not having their clock set to the right time or sometimes nothing at all. They are then transferred to these “re-education” camps that are run like a high-security prison, with strict discipline and punishments, all without a trial. Once they are put into one of the hundreds of camps, they are forced to live in overcrowded cells no bigger than a small room, with up to 60 other people and little regard for hygiene standards. They are made to study communist propaganda, learn in and only speak the Mandarin language and chant praises of their captors – the CCP.
Former detainees have spoken about the abuse and sometimes torture they and many others were forced to endure, including being chained to chairs, waterboarded, electrocuted, handcuffed for hours, forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, forced abortions, forced contraceptives, forced sterilization, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. As a result of these inhumane conditions and practices, many people have died within these camps.
Many people had similar stories and experiences to Orynbek Koksybek, who is an ethnic Kazakh and was detained for many months. “My hands were handcuffed, my legs were tied. They threw me in a pit. I raised both my hands and looked above. At that moment, they poured water. I screamed. I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t know how long I was in the pit but it was winter and very cold. They said I was a traitor, that I had dual citizenship, that I had a debt and owned land. None of that was true,” he said.
A leaked nine-page memo, sent out in 2017 by the Chinese government to those who run the internment camps, containing protocols for the treatment of Uyghur people, was made public by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The memo has orders to never allow escapes, keep strict secrecy, increase discipline and punishment for behavioral issues, promote repentance and confession of the students for them to truly understand the illegal and criminal and dangerous nature of their past activity and encourage students to truly transform. The memo goes into great detail about how every aspect of the detained people’s lives must be controlled and monitored. It speaks about how people may only be released depending on how well they demonstrate a change in their behavior, beliefs and language.
The memo for officers also has a section on what to do when university students come back and find their family missing. Officers are told to immediately corner Uyghur university students when they come home and keep them from speaking too extensively about what is going on. In the city of Turpan, city officials have a seven-page guide that includes frequently-asked-questions and answers including, “The Uyghurs are in a training school set up by the government to undergo collective systematic training, study, and instruction.” They are also told to say that “the Uyghur people have very good conditions for studying and living there and that tuition, food, and living arrangements are all free.” If a student were to ask more questions about the whereabouts and safety of their family or why their relatives needed to be sent away to a school, officials are to say “because they have come under a degree of harmful influence in religious extremism and violent terrorist thoughts that could lead to severe consequences if they acted on them.”
Currently, one out of 10 Uyghur people is being held against their will, forced to live in inhumane conditions for an unspecified amount of time. Every day, these people are put through physical and emotional trauma just because of who they are and what they believe. Every day, they and multitudes of other ethnic groups are being targeted by the Chinese government. This is 2020, this is happening.