The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group living in East and Central Asia. Today, Uyghurs live primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the People's Republic of China, where they are one of 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities.
Activists say central government policies have gradually curtailed the Uyghurs' religious, commercial and cultural activities. Beijing is accused of intensifying a crackdown after street protests in Xinjiang in the 1990s, and again in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Since the 9/11 attacks in the US, China has increasingly portrayed its Uyghur separatists as auxiliaries of al-Qaeda, saying they have received training in Afghanistan. The evidence supporting said training is weak and needs to be researched further.
One Uyghur student returned to China from Egypt and was taken away by police. Nobody knows what happened to him. His former classmates claim he was beaten to death by Chinese authorities, however there is no such evidence. His mother is asking: “Is he dead or alive?”
According to the student’s friends, he was spirited without trial into secretive detention camps for alleged political crimes that range from having extremist thoughts to merely traveling or studying abroad. The mass disappearances, beginning the past year, are part of a sweeping effort by Chinese authorities to use detentions and data-driven surveillance to impose a digital police state in the region of Xinjiang and over its Uyghurs, a 10-million strong, Turkic-speaking Muslim minority that China says has been influenced by Islamic extremism, the Associated Press reports.
Chen Quanguo, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official led a campaign to hunt down Uyghur separatists blamed for attacks that have left hundreds dead, saying authorities would “bury terrorists in the ocean of the people’s war and make them tremble.” Since 2011, he has gained prominence in China as an innovator of ethnic policy, in which he developed new methods to strengthen the CCP's control over Uyghurs, Tibetans and other ethnic minorities in Western China. He was promoted in 2016 to head Xinjiang after subduing another restive region — Tibet.
“His predecessor Zhang Chunxian was criticized – although I think largely due to factional infighting – for being soft on security issues. But everybody seems to agree that Chen is an iron-fisted ruler. And it seems like since he came to power he has stuck at that. He’s putting his policy initiatives’ sole emphasis on security,” James Leibold, an expert on China’s ethnic issues at La Trobe University in Australia, said about Chen.
Along with the detention camps, unprecedented levels of police blanket Xinjiang's streets. Cutting-edge digital surveillance systems track where Uyghurs go, what they read, who they talk to and what they say. And under an opaque system that treats practically all Uyghurs as potential terror suspects, Uyghurs who contact family abroad risk questioning or detention.
Chinese authorities extended the scope of the program to Uyghur students abroad. And Egypt, once a sanctuary for Uyghurs to study Islam, began deporting scores of Uyghurs to China. "So much hate and desire for revenge are building up," said Rukiye Turdush, a Uighur activist in Canada. "How does terrorism spread? When people have nowhere to run."
China says the crackdown is only half the picture. It points to decades of heavy economic investment and cultural assimilation programs and measures like preferential college admissions for Uyghurs. The government has referred to its detention program as “vocational training,” but its main purpose appears to be indoctrination. Uyghurs study “Mandarin, law, ethnic unity, de-radicalization, patriotism” and abide by the “five togethers” — live, do drills, study, eat and sleep together.
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