A demonstrator wearing a mask painted with the colors of the flag of East Turkestan and a hand bearing the colors of the Chinese flag (Ozan Kose / AFP / Getty Images).

China’s Xinjiang Policies are Not Working

March 26, 2022

At the Xinjiang Delegation meeting during China’s National People’s Congress on 6 March 2022, Hanibati Shabukai, vice chairman of the NPC Ethnic Affairs Committee, hailed the success of President Xi Jinping’s policies, saying that that the trend “should be continued to lay a solid foundation for social stability and long-term stability” in the region.

Chinese leaders have often claimed highly salutary results for the policies, under which as many as three million ethnic Uyghurs have been incarcerated in massive detention facilities the government describes as “Vocational Education and Training” centers. According to the White Paper “Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang” published by the State Council in August 2019,

Xinjiang has set up education and training centers to carry out education and training work to educate and rescue people affected by terrorism and religious extremism. This is in line with the practices of some countries and regions in the world. The purpose is to prevent the dysfunction, cure diseases [referring to extremism] and save people, and protect the basic human rights of citizens from terrorism and extremism to the greatest extent.

According to Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the purpose of carrying out the “vocational education and training” is to “eliminate terrorism and extremism from the source.”

The White Paper claimed that “education and training in Xinjiang has succeeded to an enormous extent in eliminating the soil and conditions in which terrorism and religious extremism breed, rehabilitating those who have committed unlawful or criminal acts, and protected basic civil rights.” “Trainees” had learned to abide by the Constitution, and basic principles of the rule of law, and improved their ability to speak and write standard Chinese.

“Religious extremism has been effectively eliminated,” the document boasted. “Through education, the vast majority of trainees can recognize the nature and harm of terrorism and religious extremism, and free themselves from the control these phenomena exert over their minds.” It went on to claim that

the education and training centers carefully guide them to change their mentalities, and promote mutual respect for folkways among all ethnic groups while encouraging adaptation to the requirements of modern society in terms of food, clothing, housing, transport, weddings, funerals, etiquette and customs. The centers also vigorously spread the concept of modern civilization, so that trainees can divest themselves of outdated conventions and customs.

Zakir reported that, with “religious extremism” being “curbed,”

the public safety situation in Xinjiang’s society has improved significantly, the infiltration of extremism has been effectively curbed, all ethnic groups are in unity and harmony, all religions are harmonious, the people’s life is stable and peaceful, the society’s morale has improved significantly, and the social atmosphere of pursuing knowledge in modern science and technology and civilized lifestyle is becoming stronger. People of all ethnic groups widely recognize, generally support, and personally feel that the good situation in Xinjiang today is not easy to get. Without the education and training work, there would be no serene and stable days today.

According to the Chinese government, “most” individuals held in re-education camps in Xinjiang region have left the internment camps and “found jobs.” However, according to the Karakax List, a person may be released from detention (or return to the community), but would still be subjected to local government monitoring and control. Reports from a number of sources indicated that following detention in “vocational and education” camps, former detainees are sent to work in factories where they remain under close supervision, as forced laborers, sometimes building additional incarceration camps. Very few Uyghurs have emerged with the freedom to describe their experiences.

Results: “Deep resentment and psychological trauma”

In assessing the Chinese’s government’s wide-ranging claims about the success of these policies, let’s start with the assertion that they have ended Islamist terrorism in Xinjiang. While it is true the region is virtually free from such terrorism, there was virtually none before the mass incarcerations began. Some Uyghur detainees have confessed to planning terrorist acts, but members of the community counter that such confessions are false, and have been obtained under torture, which is widespread in the facilities. 

What we find as “results” of the incarceration program is a deeply demoralized population whose freedoms are substantially more restricted than those of most other groups in China. Since 2016, with the beginning of the major crackdown, no one can legally and freely leave the region; passports have been confiscated. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of Uyghurs have managed to leave, although exact figures are not available.

Rahima Mahmut, a human rights activist and United Kingdom Director of the World Uyghur Congress, maintains close contact with members of the community in Xinjiang and in exile. According to her, China’s campaign to achieve “integration” of the Uyghurs via forced indoctrination has had the opposite effect; it has resulted in “deep resentment and psychological trauma among those who have been incarcerated. It has generated resentment not just for the government, but for Han Chinese people in general,” she said in an interview with the author.

Mahmut said during her work as a translator she has learned that, in treatment aimed at “detaching Uyghurs from their communities and identities, they are subjected to systematic physical abuse, including gang rapes many are forced to observe,” and other extreme humiliations. “These experiences have stripped away their ability to even express anger at their persecution, and have destroyed their spirit; the Chinese government is trying to condition Uyghur people to act as subservient robots,” she said. Other sources contain similar conclusions. China is not succeeding in “integrating” Uyghurs into the mainstream, but is in fact handicapping and alienating camp victims who had been well-adjusted members of society.

A blight on China’s reputation

The aforementioned White Papers claimed that “the international community has made positive comments on Xinjiang’s efforts. Education and training has aroused the general interest of the international community.”

Indeed, there is no Chinese policy that has “aroused” more international condemnation than for forced incarceration and abuse of millions of citizens in the effort to change their cultural orientation, and ostensibly prevent terrorism.

Hardly any international forum on human rights where China is discussed does not focus on the Uyghur detention camps in Xinjiang. And it is clear that these widely-exposed policies are a primary reason for China’s plummeting favorability ratings as reflected in public opinion research. In 2020, according to the survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, the majority in the surveyed countries has an unfavorable opinion on China. 

The following year, in 2021, Pew undertook another survey that showed near unfavorable views of China at near historic levels in the surveyed countries.

Another public opinion research firm found that Americans’ favorable opinions of China have dropped since 2018 and reached the lowest in history since 1979.

In conclusion, Xi Jinping’s social engineering campaign in Xinjiang has been universally condemned as inhumane and in violation of numerous fundamental human rights principles, including prohibitions against torture in international human rights legislation. That China’s rulers care little or nothing about compliance with human rights standards is by now well understood by the international community, and is known most intimately by the Chinese people themselves. Yet many, both in China and abroad, credit the authoritarian system of the Chinese Communist Party as being efficient in achieving its social objectives, at the expense of respecting basic human rights and freedoms. In the obvious failures of China’s Xinjiang policies, however—policies that have ruined the lives of those affected and failed to achieve their stated objectives—we find a tragic example of the inefficiency of vertical, totalitarian rule.

Dr. Aaron Rhodes is a senior fellow at Common Sense Society and president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe. He is the author of The Debasement of Human Rights (Encounter Books, 2018).

Originally published in Chinese in Storm Media.

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