The Untold Stories of Xinjiang


In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, he illustrates a society that has fallen victim to infinite warfare, ubiquitous government surveillance and propaganda. Although this fictitious story is merely an insight into the dangerous implications of totalitarianism, the question of whether or not Orwell’s anti-utopian world has become a reality for some seems unfortunately to be the case on both a universal and regional scale, especially for Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, China.

The Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang have been detained and sent to concentration camps since the beginning of 2014, when Chinese authorities announced a “People’s War on Terror” campaign in the region. Local government in Xinjiang began to restrict and ban things like long beards, the wearing of veils in public places and naming children after religious entities. Names like Muhammed and Fatima were no longer allowed in the region, with the Chinese government claiming that these regulations were put in place to help fight against terrorism and extremism within the country. Things only got worse when Communist Party leader Chen Quanguo took charge in 2016. Following his arrival, local authorities recruited over 90,000 police officers and laid out approximately 7,300 heavily guarded checkpoints in Xinjiang. This forced the Uyghur Muslim population to go through extensive search and seizuresaccelerating the detainment of Uyghurs to local camps even more than before. Some Uyghurs have even claimed that local Xinjiang officials have put up video surveillance cameras in their homes as a way to watch and observe them on a day-to-day basis. According to a United Nations report, there are at least 1 million ethnic Uyghurs in China currently being held in these “re-education” camps—about 10 percent of their overall population.

Life Inside the Camps

According to Chinese officials, there are three types of students in these re-education facilities: those who have committed minor offenses, such as wearing a burqa or watching an illegal religious video, those who have committed more serious crimes and were given the choice to either attend or go to jail and others who were sent for rehabilitation purposes after a prison sentence. Although there are Uyghurs who are in fact attending these camps for those reasons, many have reported being detained without any charges brought against them. Uyghur politician Rebiya Kadeer, who has been in exile since 2005, has had as many as 30 relatives detained and put into camps, with some of them completely disappearing altogether. There is no clear reason as to why they were taken away, besides their ethnicity.

So what goes on inside the camps? According to facility director Abulizi, detainees are given lessons in Chinese law and Mandarin, and are taught vocational skills, as well. But the underlying motives are quite clear when you take a closer look into what is going on in these centers: China is trying to demolish Muslim and Uyghur culture and force Xinjiang citizens to conform to communist ideologies. “They’re really about crushing, to some degree, the Muslim culture, and getting people to feel much more bonded to the Communist Party than to their own religious beliefs,” said Dennis Wilder, a former National Security Council director for China and former CIA deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific. Uyghur woman Mihrigul Tursun described details of torture and beatings after she escaped one of the camps in Xinjiang. “The authorities put a helmet-like thing on my head, and each time I was electrocuted, my whole body would shake violently and I would feel the pain in my veins,” Tursun said in a statement read by a translator. “I don’t remember the rest. White foam came out of my mouth, and I began to lose consciousness. The last word I heard them saying is that you being an Uyghur is a crime.”

Tursun isn’t the only one who recalls excruciation within these centers. Most detainees who are able to escape the camps claim that they experienced both physical and mental torture whenever they expressed disagreement of communist ideologies. Former inmates said they were “forced to study communist propaganda for hours and give thanks to the general secretary by chanting ‘Long live Xi Jinping.’” Anyone who failed to follow these obligations would receive punishments such as being placed in handcuffs for hours, waterboarding or being strapped to a “tiger chair”a metal contraptionfor long periods of time.

Why This Matters and How to Help

The consequences associated with China detaining Uyghurs goes far beyond the humanitarian implications—it also questions whether or not the rise of authoritarianism will become an increasingly more imperative issue internationally. The apprehension of ethnic Uyghur Muslims is not decreasing anytime soon, especially since there is barely any media coverage or education about the current relationship between them and the People’s Republic of China. The only way that this issue can be solved is if we allow the voices of Xinjiang to be heard by educating the masses about the ongoing problems within the region. Because the longer we allow these concentration camps to go on without their cries being heard, the longer we allow autocracy to shape and create the everyday lives of millions. And just as George Orwell said in his book 1984, “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” We must wake up the masses and allow the voices of Xinjiang to be heard across the globe. Because if not, the oppression and injustice that Uyghur Muslims are facing in China will only get worse, and the rise of totalitarianism will only continue unimpeded.