Uighur re-education camps

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Re-education camps in China.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: China is holding hundreds of thousands of minority Uighurs in re-education camps. Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic minority in the Xinjiang region of China, in the northwest part of the country. An unprecedented surveillance state envelops them and most of the world is unaware and, therefore, silent about it.

June Cheng is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine and she’s on the line now to talk about it.

June, why is China clamping down on the Uighurs in Xinjiang?

JUNE CHENG, REPORTER: Uighurs are a largely Muslim Turkic ethnic group living in Xinjiang and there’ve always been ethnic tensions in the region as China’s been very heavy handed in trying to assimilate the people group. For instance, they’ve moved Han people into the region, they’ve placed restrictions on their religious practices, they force schools to teach Mandarin, and they’ve essentially just discriminated against Uighurs. And so in the past few years, there’s a terrorist group called Turkistan Islamic Party and they’ve launched several attacks in China. Most notably, in 2014, there was the knife attack in the Kunming railroad station that lead to 31 deaths. The Xinjiang region is also vitally important to China as it holds one-third of the country’s natural gas and oil reserves, and it’s the gateway to Central Asia where China wants to develop its Belt and Road Initiative. So China decided to stabilize the region by turning it into a surveillance state. So there’s facial recognition cameras everywhere, residents are asked to spy on their neighbors, police have set up checkpoints every 1,000 feet and they’ve even collected the DNA and blood samples from Uighurs through a mandatory health check. And according to reports, about 10 percent of all Uighurs have been sent to re-education camps in the outskirts of the cities. And that actually equals a total of more than 1 million people.

REICHARD: What are these re-education camps like?

CHENG: So, getting information on re-education camps is really difficult because information is controlled in the area. So, western journalists aren’t allowed, really allowed to report in the area and communications with the Uighur diaspora has been cut. So the only eyewitness reports that we have right now come from Kazakh nationals who have been released after six to eight months in these camps. And they said that the camps are overcrowded, the detainees have to sit through courses on Chinese language as well as history courses where China teaches about how it saved Uighurs from the backward ways. They have self-criticism sessions where they have to denounce themselves and each other and they have to learn to sing patriotic songs. And those who don’t listen are tortured. There’s also been reports that in the camps, detainees are given unknown medicines that have left them infertile and mentally damaged. One woman I heard of was forced to get an abortion inside these camps, and also the children whose parents are in the camps are sent to orphanages. I think the really scary part is that no one knows how many people die in these camps. One Uighur exile that I spoke to, Dolkun Isa, he found out that his 78-year-old mother had died after one year inside the camp. Chinese authorities have also been building crematoriums in the region even though Uighurs traditionally bury their dead, and so the fear is that the Chinese government is trying to cover up its tracks and make sure there’s no evidence of what happens inside the camps.

REICHARD: Has the international community called out China on the detention of Uighurs?

CHENG: They’ve started to. Samuel Brownback, the U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom, has called on the Trump administration to sanction Chinese leaders involved in suppressing religious minorities. The State Department has also made a statement as well as the Congressional Executive Commission on China, which has called on the U.S. Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, to investigate the issue. And in August, a UN committee was the first to bring up the issue, claiming that based on credible reports, 1 million Uighurs have been sent to re-education camps. But many countries, including Muslim nations have mainly stayed silent because they depend so much on Chinese investments.

REICHARD: And what has been China’s response?

CHENG: China has so far denied the existence of re-education camps and claimed they’re only cracking down on “extremist” and “terrorist” crimes. A senior Chinese official has gone so far to say that “the happiest Muslims in the world live in Xinjiang.” So, he blames hostile Western forces for spreading rumors about the region. But, obviously, the Uighur diaspora who have seen family members disappear into camps would beg to differ.

REICHARD: Man’s inhumanity to man. East Asia correspondent June Cheng. June, thanks for this report.

CHENG: Thanks, Mary.

(Ng Han Guan/AP) Ethnic Uighur citizens walk past a statue of Mao Zedong and billboards that read Patriotism and Democracy in China’s Xinjiang region.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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