In an unprecedented crackdown, China has forcibly sent hundreds and thousands of Muslim Uighurs to detention centres called `political education centres`. This is the latest in the series of repressive and brutal measures China has been imposing on the hapless residents of Xinjiang for years now with the sole aim of subjugating them and making them give up their religious and cultural practices. 6
The Chinese are deeply uncomfortable with the Muslim-dominated population in the western-most province. All their attempts to rein in the people through cruel means, including mass killings under the guise of counter-terrorist operations, have failed to tame the tough and high-spirited people.
The latest measure is the forcible detention of a large number of people, including women and children, to teach them how to be Chinese. The detainees include dozens of family members of reporters working for Radio Free Asia in Washington. It is estimated that some 500,000 to 1 million Uighurs have been sent to these centres for months of “political indoctrination” In Washington, some US Congressmen have termed it as the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.
Media reports stated that inKashgar alone, more than 120,000 people – about three percent of the area’s population – were being held in the detention centres. Local websites of some counties in Xinjiang stated the punishment for even minor transgressions of religious regulations was a minimum of three months at these detention centres.
The Human Rights Watch officials who interviewed some family members of those detained said the detentions began last spring and the people who were locked up in these detention centres were not presented any warrant, evidence of crime or any other documentation. They were merely told that they were being “re-educated“ at these “political education centres“. The Human Rights Watch said the Chinese authorities were holding Uighurs at these centres “ not because they have committed any crimes, but because they deem them politically unreliable” .
For decades, the Uighurs, a Muslim minority in western China, have been facing restrictions and repressions at the hand of the Chinese authorities. China views the Muslims in Xinjiang suspiciously, principally because of their religious beliefs and practices. The presence of a few members of terrorist organisations affiliated to al Qaeda gave the authorities a ready handle to come down heavily on the other-wise peaceful community. China first tried to change the demographic profile by bringing in Hun Chinese from other provinces to Xinjiang and gave them free land, money, protection and other facilities to settle down. Not content, China began a widespread crackdown on the population under the guise of countering terrorism.
Illegal detentions and torture became a daily routine for the Uighur community already living in the shadow of fear and helplessness. Then came encounters, ostensibly to deter terrorists, but those killed included men, women and children who were innocent and had nothing to do with terrorism. The Uighur residents were then put to select anti-terror drill which meant to rush out of their houses and shops whenever the designated siren rang. They were meant to assemble in a ground designated for such an event where military officials gave them a long lecture on being a Chinese and how to abstain from religious practices which were contrary to `national` ethos.
The province was flooded with armed security personnel and armed carriers in large numbers roamed around the thoroughfares and streets, striking terror in the hearts of residents. Streets were filled with spy cameras and all Muslim residents were put to blanket surveillance 24 by 7. No one can move without the police knowing their every single step.
Not satisfied, the state then ordered a biometric survey of all Muslim residents, making them digital prisoners of the state.
These suppressive measures were supplemented with severe restrictions on their religious practices. The Muslims were not allowed to observe religious fasts and prayers. During the traditional fasting month of Ramzan, Muslim shopkeepers were ordered to keep their shops open although they would have preferred to shut it. The Muslim restaurant owners were likewise were made to keep their shops open even without any customers. There were similar restrictions on wearing dresses which emphasised their religious identity, or say prayers in public.
In fact, many Uighurs have been dispatched to the detention centres for praying, wearing “Islamic” clothing or having travelled to Muslim countries or having relatives in another country.
In a recent letter, US politicians, Marco Rubio and Christopher H. Smith.the co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, cited reports of deaths and torture in the detention centres. They raised alarms over a digital surveillance system in the region so pervasive that every aspect of daily life is monitored, through facial recognition cameras, mobile phone scans, DNA collection and an extensive and intrusive police presence.
Even some Pakistanis are feeling the heat of the Chinese atrocities against Uighurs. Those Pakistanis who have married Uighur women are finding that their spouses have suddenly stopped responding to their calls or mails, and have gone missing. The Express Tribune, a Pakistani English daily, reported (March 2018) that the men have discovered that their families (wives and children) “ had disappeared into a growing network of shadowy “reeducation centres”. The newspaper quoted a businessman as saying: “My wife and kids were taken away by the Chinese authorities in March last year and I haven’t heard from them since.”
With the Chinese authorities bent upon pressing their Muslim citizens into submissions, the Uighurs have no place to run. The Uighurs, perhaps, are one of the most hunted and suppressed people in Asia.