While the world watched Wuhan, China at the beginning of the COVID crisis early this year, another crisis was unfolding across the country in the Xinjiang region. The eleven million members of the Uighur Muslim ethnic group have faced forced detention, surveillance, and repression under the Chinese government for years—and the COVID pandemic has proved a new means for the government to increase its brutality.
Since 2017, anywhere from 800,000 to 2 million Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained by the Chinese government. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations, there are at least twenty-seven confirmed “re-education” camps across the region. However, there are believed to be as many as 1,200 camps, with a boom in construction in 2017 and 2018.
Forced detention, usually with no real charges filed, is not the only form of repression Uighur Muslims face in Xinjiang. The People’s Republic of China’s Cybersecurity Law, passed in 2009, is one of many methods used to constantly repress Uighurs. The law followed a series of riots in the region in 2009 and allows the government to completely shut down internet access in the event of “public security” incidents, an intentionally vague term.
A massive surveillance system has grown up in the Xinjiang region, along with a series of propaganda campaigns. Smartphones in the region have been tapped dating back to 2013, with bugs embedded in special keyboards used by Uighurs and common apps with news or beauty tips. These bugs allowed access to conversations, photos, and microphones, providing the Chinese government with access to a wealth of information on the Uighur population. Combined with the Chinese government’s forcible collection of blood samples, fingerprints, and development of facial recognition software for the region, there is almost no way to avoid surveillance in Xinjiang. In one Xinjiang city, there is a police checkpoint every hundred yards, accompanied by facial recognition cameras.
More draconian measures are also not an uncommon feature of life in Xinjiang. It’s estimated that up to one million Uighurs could currently be held in China’s so-called re-education camps. The Chinese government passes the camps off as vocational training centers. The reality, however, is that detainees are forced to renounce their faith, learn Mandarin, and carry out unpaid labor for the government. These camps would more aptly be called prisons, with surveillance watching and listening to detainees 24/7. Sexual assault is common. The qualifications set for being sent to one of these camps is minimal and often arbitrary. In 2017, a database containing biological data collected by the Chinese government through a required app used artificial intelligence to create lists of “suspicious people.” Within the week, fifteen thousand Uighurs were then sent to the camps based on this algorithm.
Other measures in the region include forced sterilization, with women required to get IUDs, abortions, and even full sterilization without consent. In fact, having too many children can cause a parent to be sent to the detention camps. In part because of these forced birth control measures, the birth rate in the Xinjiang region dropped by over 24 percent just in 2018.
An anti-China Uighur protest outside the White House in 2009
COVID has only provided a veil for the Chinese government to intensify their repression—and even benefit from it. Xinjiang has been under strict lockdown even as the rest of China re-opens. Officials have even gone door to door, placing tape or even metal bars to prevent residents from leaving. Services for those in lockdown have been scarce, especially in comparison to what those outside the region have received in past lockdowns. Described as a “wartime” mode, there is no end date in sight for restrictions in the region.
Reports out of Xinjiang have also noted that Uighurs are forced to work to produce personal protective equipment, or PPE, that companies can sell during the COVID crisis. A shipment of masks to Georgia came from a factory where 100 Uighurs were sent to work and pledge their loyalty to China.
Restrictions have only grown tighter during COVID, and the pandemic could allow for even more surveillance and repression by the government through COVID tracking and lengthy lockdowns. The Chinese government has long claimed that the Uighurs and the Xinjiang region required surveillance to combat extremism. President Xi Jinping even advocated for using “dictatorship” tools to combat so-called Islamic extremism.
Repression in Xinjiang is just one example of China’s attempt to Sinicize religion to make it conform to Chinese Communist Party doctrine. The CCP’s doctrine revolves around atheism, in part due to the supremacy of the party over all else. China has also attempted to justify their repression by calling their surveillance a part of the War on Terror, as Uighurs were also blamed for terrorist attacks in China.
There is also a big economic incentive for China to control the region: the expansion of their Belt and Road initiative. This plan, aiming to fully link China to Europe and even beyond, seeks to create a network of roads, pipelines, shipping lanes, and economic channels. The road through China towards Europe and the Middle East cuts directly through the Xinjiang region, meaning that ensuring stability there is key to China’s expansion plans. Additionally, natural gas and coal are plentiful in Xinjiang, which are highly profitable.
International response to the human rights abuses in the region has also been muted. The United Nations Human Rights Chief has requested access to the camps, and the European Union has condemned China’s actions. In June, the United States imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for aiding the human rights abuses of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Yet the sanctions will most likely not have a major effect, as the individuals sanctioned likely have few assets outside China. In October 2019, the Trump administration imposed restrictions on imports from Xinjiang and restrictions on individuals involved with the repression of Uighurs. Activists and organizations, however, say there is more left to be done, including restrictions on exports of certain surveillance products and asylum for Uighurs who have fled China. Unfortunately, the rise of COVID has left other nations too preoccupied to adequately respond.
In August, Merdan Ghappar, a Uighur model, recorded a video from one of the so-called re-education camps. He was shown shackled in a sparse room with only a bed, and recalled seeing other detainees with black sacks over their head, handcuffs, and shackles. He also messaged others with accounts of unsanitary conditions and physical torture. Ghappar has not been heard from since.
Uighurs had been suffering far before the COVID crisis struck China and, subsequently, the rest of the world. The pandemic has only provided a further veil for the government to disguise their repression and surveillance as necessary measures. A stronger, more cohesive international response, both economically and politically, will be key to change. Yet with COVID, any international response has been made difficult, leading activist groups to instead fill the void. The way in which the international community and the United States respond to the human rights abuses in Xinjiang reveals much about China’s power on the international stage. The unfortunate reality, however, is that China’s power has been used for abuse and repression—and has gone unchecked for far too long.
The header image used in this article has not been changed from its original form, is licensed under the Creative Commons 3.0 license, and can be found in its original form here. The protest image is also unchanged, is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0, and can be found here.
Julianna Rossi is a third year Political Science major and Human Rights minor. Originally from Los Angeles, California, she spends her time on campus as the Chair of UChiVotes and as a communications intern for the IOP. Besides that, she loves cooking and baking, reading the news, and exploring Chicago.