By Aryaa Gavai
China secretly built a massive new prison and internment camps with at least tens of thousands of detainees crowded into government buildings repurposed as camps by the end of 2017, the government began building the largest new facilities in the spring of 2018. Several were complete by October 2018, with further facilities built through 2019 and construction of a handful more continuing even now.
In 2018, a UN committee highlighted that about 1 million Uighur Muslims and other Muslim minorities could be detained in the western Xinjiang region in China where they are said to be undergoing "re-education" programs. Leaked documents seen by BBC Panorama show how inmates are locked up, indoctrinated, and punished. The leak was supposedly made to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ). The leaked Chinese government documents by ICIJ labeled as "The china cables" include a nine-page memo sent out in 2017 by Zhu Hailun, then deputy secretary of Xinjiang's communist party and the region's top security official.
It is believed that the camps started in April 2017 by china to control the Muslim ethnic minorities whom it sees as harbouring "strong religious views" and "politically incorrect" ideas in a region where roughly half of the population of 25 million is made up of Uighurs and Turkic minorities. Upon asking the Beijing government denied its existence but later in a statement described the facility as "re-education camps to provide vocational training for Uighurs to help local residents rise above poverty, discouraging radicalisation and help protect the country from terrorism."
However, over the years there has been mounting evidence of the alleged act of barbarity at the camps including torture, rape, and forced sterilisation. Sayragul Sauytbay a 43 year old escaped inmate, a teacher who escaped and found asylum in Sweden said "twenty prisoners lived in one small room. They are handcuffed and head shaved, every move is monitored by ceiling cameras. A bucket in the corner of the room is their toilet." She further spoke about the torture method at the re-education camps "torture – metal nails, fingernails pulled out, electric shocks – takes place in the 'black room'. They are a subject of medical experiments. Many of them suffer cognitive decline. Some of the men become sterile, women are raped routinely." Belkez who was a former local government employee in Urumqi said Chinese authorities took her mother, father, and husband to re-education camps in 2017. She and her five children left for Egypt in September 2016. She was hoping that her husband and their three year old daughter would join them but they never got their passports. She also added that she does not know the whereabouts of her three year old daughter. She last spoke to her husband in 2017 at the detention camp.
The United States announced sanctions in October against Chinese entities linked to repression in Xinjiang, whereas Sweden has come forward to grant asylum to the escaped prisoners. In a letter to United Nations high commissioners for human rights in July, nearly two dozen industrialised countries called on China to end the mass detention program. However, Time reported that a total number of 37 nations, including many with Muslim majorities, have defended China's record, hinting towards the economic and political cross with the world's number two economy at the time when rival superpower the U.S. is withdrawing from international commitments under Donald Trump.
Human Rights Watch says people with relatives in 26 countries like Indonesia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan have rounded up. HWR also said that Uighur people are under strict surveillance – from facial recognition cameras to QR codes on people's doors, so officials can check who is inside at any point. With burning tensions between America and China; China also had a fallout with its neighbouring country India with whom it shares a border of more than 3,440km. Armed forces on both sides had a deadly clash in the Galwan Valley in June over territorial disputes. The relations have worsened since, leading to both the nations accusing each other of provoking military tensions.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi led an anti-china sentiment banning more than 150 china-linked apps including hugely popular Tiktok and PUBG. The Modi-Xi relationship does not seem to be strengthening as the Indian cricket team also dropped Chinese smartphone company Vivo as their title sponsor. If the situation doesn't calm down between the two global powers the analysts fear this could further escalate tensions as both the countries have nuclear weapons.
As of now, China has successfully built 260 structures identified by the satellite images. People from all over the world protested towards this biased and islamophobic activity in the name of safeguarding the nation. Disney's Mulan is even being criticised by the people as it was partly filmed in Xinjiang which is the centre of the detention camps.
Aryaa Gavai is an Intern with The Colourboard,
she is currently pursuing her Bachelors in Mass Media in Mumbai