At a time when China is in the news for its expansionist adventurism during a global pandemic, what has remained largely underreported is Beijing’s disturbing record of gross human rights violations of the Uighur Muslims, an ethnic minority in the country’s Xinjiang province.
Using open-source data, India Today TV’s analysis of over 50 satellite images show that under the watch of President Xi Jinping, China has created a huge network of internment camps across the far-western region of Xinjiang.
These camps have been built over the past six years to control the region’s Uighur Muslims. Experts estimate that China has already imprisoned millions of Uighur Muslims in these massive camps, called as ‘re-education camps’.
Among the Uighur Muslims who are currently languishing in China’s special internment camps in the Xinjiang province is Dr Gulshana Abaas.
Her sister, Rushan Abbas, a whistleblower and Uighur activist based in Washington DC, spoke to India Today TV’s New Director Rahul Kanwal in an exclusive interview during which she talked about China’s atrocities in Xinjiang.
Speaking to India Today TV, Rushan Abbas said her sister was “abducted” by the Chinese government in 2018 and since then, the family has not heard about her. “My sister is one the victims who are being kept in these camps right now. She was abducted by the Chinese government on September 11, 2018. This was in retaliation for my activismfor speaking out about China’s human rights abuses,” Rushan Abbas said.
Describing the atrocities against her community as “genocide”, she said there are more than 3 million Uighurs in these camps at present.
“We even don’t know the reasons for which my sister was taken away. There is no case registered against her. She does not face any charge and is not lodged in any prison,” Rushan Abbas said, adding that “unfortunately”, this is not a story that is unique to her family.
“Under the Communist regime since the occupation of our homeland in 1949, the Chinese government has been using different excuses to target the Uighur Muslims. It has now come down to an actual genocide,” she said.
Asked about the treatment and abuse in these camps, Rushan Abbas said people in the camps are used as “slave labours to advance China’s economy”.
She said according to testimonies of witnesses, people in the camps are subjected to mental and physical torture. “People are given unknown medication, they are fed just about 600 calories a day and not given enough water. Dehydration and sleep deprivation is high among the camp inmates.”
“There have been many women who came out of these camps and in their testimonies they said that women there are subjected to forced sterilisation. China’s first concentration camp was built under the Strike Hard Campaign in 2014. It has been six years now and the size of the camps has grown more than 500 per cent,” Rushan said.
Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Xinjiang, China. (Photo: Reuters)
Experts in the past have also indicated about mass sterilisation of Uighur Muslim women in these camps that are reportedly run directly under the command from the Chinese military.
The Xinjiang province is strategically important as it borders many Central Asian countries. Experts say this is one of the reasons why Beijing wants to assert its control over the Uighur Muslims, which it regards is a population that is growing fast and is hard to track.
In the past 10 years, there has been a gradual securitisation of the Xinjiang province, author and journalist Ananth Krishnan who has been covering China for years, told India Today TV. “In my three visits to Xinjiang, I noticed that there was a gradual securitisation of the region.”
Krishnan says there has been a visible increase in the presence of security forces in Xinjiang and security cameras have been installed literally everywhere.
“But the building of these camps, at this scale, since 2017 was really unprecedented. No one saw it coming. The numbers are staggering. Estimates vary but even the lowest put it to at least a million Uighur Muslims in these camps,” he said.
Speaking about the treatment and future of the camp inmates, he said nothing is clear at present. Some inmates have been sent back, he says, while many are being put through the judicial system and eventually given long sentences.
“It is pretty clear that there is no due process. The worrying part is that throughout all this, there has been complete silence from the international community. It is changing now because the US has its own problems with China. India too has been pretty silent on everything that has been unfolding in Xinjiang, especially over the last three years,” Krishnan said.
However, contrary to these accounts, Einar Tangen, a Beijing-based political analyst, rubbished the allegations as speculation, saying “the facts on ground are contrary”.
“I find these estimates to be odd. Today we have heard the number of people in these camps from 1 million to 3 million. These estimates come from a person who is funded by the US government for a group called the Anti-Communist Historical Research Foundation,” Einar Tangen said.
Raising doubts on the allegations against China, he said, “If there were really 3 million people in these camps, then there would have been a tremendous of impact on the produce of Xinjiang and the rest of Chinabut it is untrue. I also find it hard to believe (the existence of camps) because last year alone there were around 200 million Chinese tourists roaming around Xinjiang. If there were camps, certainly they would have seen them,” he said.
On the other hand, Uighur activist Rushan Abbas said she is not surprised to hear what Einar Tangen says because China has not only “successfully silenced international criticism of its horrific human rights abuse, but has now managed to ask them to speak in its defence”.
Ananth Krishan said while the numbers of how many people are there in the camps may vary and also be slightly inflated, but the fact remains that a vast number of people have gone through these camps.
“The Chinese government itself has accepted the existence of these camps but it calls them as vocational training camps. I know of professors, lawyers etc who do not need any vocation training, but were made to go through these camps,” he said.
“I think that raises many questions about what exactly these camps are for.”
Asked about these so-called vocational education camps, Einar Tangen said he agrees that if anyone was forcefully put in these camps, then someone must be made accountable.
“It is only reasonable to ask that. But you must also understand that the Chinese are immensely practical people. They do not want to create more problems for themselves. These vocational camps have been setup to help the Uighurs get educated and learn to speak the Chinese language. Without being able to speak Chinese, or a proper education, you would not be able to get a job.”
However, contradicting him sharply, Rushan Abbas said that the truth in Xinjiang is that hundreds of university professors, doctors, famous writers and actors have been put in these camps. “Why are they taking university presidents and writers to these camps? China basically treats the Uighurs as inferiors and is waging a war against Islam. That is why these camps have been set up and the people in them are being used as slave labours,” she said.