Over the last few years, a network of enormous detention camps has sprung up across China’s remote northern province of Xinjiang. According to the US State Department, the United Nations and other researchers and activists, they may hold at least a million Uighurs, a Muslim minority Beijing seems increasingly determined to strip of freedom and identity.
It is almost certainly the largest mass incarceration of a racial or religious group since the Holocaust. And it is neither front-page news nor a major part of diplomatic or political dialogue.
In many respects, that is testament to how ruthlessly effective China’s approach has been. The country has been remarkably successful at using its economic clout to minimise international criticism, while limiting outside and foreign access to Xinjiang and making it hard to tell what is truly going on. What experts and activists alike do agree, however, is that the situation for the Uyghurs is deteriorating quickly.
Foreign powers – including Britain – have a host of challenges on which they feel they need China, leaving them understandably reluctant to raise thorny issues like the Uyghurs, Tibet or wider human rights abuses. There are some early signs that this is changing – but not nearly fast or far enough.
What is happening to the Uyghurs could set an appalling precedent for the coming era. Already, Beijing’s cutting-edge technology and diplomatic clout – and complete lack of squeamishness about using it – means China’s Uyghurs are being pressured like no population before in human history. Within Xinjiang, networks of cameras with facial recognition software mean everyone is under continuous state surveillance.
Any displays of behaviour dubbed “foreign” or Islamic – such as wearing a beard or publicly praying – can result in immediate imprisonment. Friends and relatives of Uyghur activists or journalists overseas, such as those for the US-funded Radio Free Asia, are often detained by the dozen. Read more