China is conducting a “mass, systematic campaign of human rights violations against Turkic Muslims” in its Xinjiang region bordering Central Asia, says a damning report released by Human Rights Watch on September 10.
The study collates evidence of “mass arbitrary detention, torture and mistreatment” of Uyghurs and Kazakhs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as well as “pervasive controls on daily life.”
“They wanted to exterminate Muslim people, Muslim writing, Muslim dress,” Kairat Samarkand, an ethnic Kazakh from Xinjiang, said in a video accompanying the report.
“They are planning a nation that’s homogenous. Everyone has to be Chinese.”
Samarkand is a former detainee in one of the “political education camps” (or “re-education camps”) that campaigners and eyewitnesses say exist to indoctrinate Turkic Muslim minorities and integrate them with the Han Chinese mainstream.
Detainees are taught to sing the national anthem and songs eulogizing Mao Zedong, China’s first communist leader, and Xi Jinping, the current leader, Samarkand said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimates that up to 1 million people, some of them children, are being held. The system has been in the headlines in Kazakhstan recently because of the trial of an ethnic Kazakh woman who worked in a camp as an ideological instructor before escaping.
Sayragul Sauytbay was tried on charges of illegally crossing the border after she fled to Kazakhstan. Her case prompted a storm of controversy when it emerged that she could face the death penalty if she were deported to China. She was convicted but – in an unusual act of leniency – the court handed down a suspended sentence and ruled against deportation.
HRW said that Xinjiang’s Muslims face not only incarceration but also restrictions on freedom of movement and freedom to practice religion, as well as pervasive security checks and mass surveillance.
“The Chinese government has long treated the Turkic Muslim population of Xinjiang with disdain and hostility,” said Sophie Richardson, HRW’s China director. “It considers their distinct identity, their religion, their culture, their language as evidence of political disloyalty, of separatism.”
In 2014, 31 people were killed when two cars crashed through a market. There have also been periodic attacks with explosives and knives.
Persecution of minorities in Xinjiang has intensified since a change of leadership in 2016, HRW says. Beijing denies any systematic campaign.
In July, Zhang Wei, China’s consul in Almaty, accused critics of “fabricating unfounded accusations” about repressions of Kazakhs “with the evil intention of putting a stain on Xinjiang,” and “groundlessly criticizing the Chinese government for its policy and practice of defending stability and the interests of the country’s development.”
Zhang Hanhui, China’s ambassador to Kazakhstan, in July acknowledged “individual cases” of over-zealous security checks in Xinjiang, but said that minorities were not singled out and that Han Chinese in the region were also affected.
There is intense controversy over the issue in Kazakhstan. In February, in an unusual step, Astana risked angering its ally by issuing a diplomatic note over China’s treatment of Kazakhs.
HRW urged the international community to act over human rights violations in Xinjiang and impose sanctions against responsible officials.
“A failure to urgently press for an end to these abuses will only embolden Beijing,” Richardson said.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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