For years, the Chinese government has denied the existence of the extrajudicial internment camps holding hundreds of thousands of China’s Uighur minority. Now even after denying their existence as recent as August of 2018, Xinjiang officials have stated that “vocational education centers” have been set up and are proving to be effective in deterring terrorism.
To the dismay of much of the world, the centers have been legalized under recent legislation by the Xinjiang People’s Congress. While in past years the internment camps had been isolated to China’s western Xinjiang region, recent reports have found that more have been constructed and have even started to spread outside the region. With the legalization of such camps, many worry that the number of those held in these camps will drastically increase.
Those that are being held in the reeducation camps are almost entirely the Uighur. Uighurs are mostly Muslims who account for 11 million of the over 21 million people living in Xinjiang. Still, they are a minority when compared to all of China. There are several possible reasons for such a crackdown on the Uighur people.
China claims publicly that the camps are a response to the threat of separatist Islamist groups. While it is true that there have been attacks orchestrated by such groups, most Uighurs are not associated with the aforementioned groups. Rights groups in the area attribute the violence to China’s oppression of minorities in the Xinjiang region. Another likely contributing factor is Han-centric racism and Islamophobia.
Han-centrism is the increasingly popular idea in which the Chinese people judge others cultures according to their own. If one is to deviate from the likeness of their culture, it is seen as disrespectful to Chinese exceptionalism and would inhibit China’s rise. Tied to this is Islamophobia, which Uighurs are likely to be victimized by since the majority of them are Muslim. By blaming the Uighur people for the violence, the Chinese government is able to justify their actions. It has also been speculated that officials have used the supposed threat of terrorism as a way to expand their own power and to give their position significance. By taking a hardline stance on the issue, it is easier to justify their actions and expansions of power.
So what actually happens inside these camps? Chinese officials have stated that the camps are intended “to carry out the educational transformation of those affected by extremism.” In addition to this, an official from China’s Communist Youth League has stated that “no one in the re-education camps will starve, be left in the cold, be punished or be forced to work.” The New York Times reported China’s description of the camps’ conditions. According to that report, the camps are meant to transform people who are influenced by extremism through the use of “ideological education, psychological counseling, behavioral correction, and Chinese language training.”
This might have been reassuring if not for the reports from former participants who have described abuse, solitary confinement and even torture.
The reeducation camps are representative of a large scale push in China to assimilate minorities like the Uighurs into the Chinese majority. The idea of Han-centrism again plays a key role in motivating this action. If the “re-education” is successful, the people will no longer be Uighur; they will be stripped of this and forced to be the “Chinese” that the government wants them to be. We can see the Chinese government slowly changing from a Communist government that claimed to value diversity and equality to one that desires a homogeneous population.