by Rania Hassan

Genocide is often seen as a “never again”. A horror written down in our history books, the atrocities of a society we’ve outgrown. We are wiser now. We know how wrong it is. We won’t ever stand by as whole peoples are erased. We’ve learned from the Holocaust, from Armenia, from Cambodia.

And yet the Rohingya in Myanmar are killed, raped, abused, and driven out of their homes. The Dinka and Nuer in South Sudan remain wrapped up in a conflict that’s destroying them both. Christians and Yazidis continue to be persecuted by ISIS. And, of course, the inhumane, incomprehensible cruelties inflicted upon Uygher citizens in Chinese internment camps for the unpardonable crime of their faith. 

Government officials, affronted at this attack against their moral integrity, prefer to use the term re-education camps, vocational training centers. Not internment or concentration. How 1945. 

This conflict is not new. Labeled an “autonomous” region, Xinjiang, a province in China with a majority Muslim population, is anything but. After a brief period of independence in the 1940s as East Turkistan, it was brought back into the fold by Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party in 1949. In 1945, the People’s Republic of China declared the province the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region; this turned out to be a largely superficial decision taken to prevent potential uprisings or sedition movements, as Uyghurs still didn’t hold much political power. But just over a decade later, Mao again turned his focus to Xinjiang as part of the Cultural Revolution, his attempt to erase any remaining traces of the “four olds”: old ideas, old customs, old habits and old culture. In Xinjiang, anything related to Islam was destroyed, including mosques and religious texts, and Uyghur language texts were burned. In addition, young, urban Chinese citizens were urged or forced to move to the province (“Up to the mountains, and down to the countryside” was the official order). This chillingly named “re-education” campaign was another program ordered by Mao in an effort to bring his state under control in the wake of other disruptions during this period. 

However, after Mao’s death, his successor allowed the resurgence of Uyghur culture, religion, and traditions. By the 1990s, protests and support in favor of Uyghur independence increased drastically in the region, causing yet another crackdown on Uyghur citizens in Xinjiang. Peaceful demonstrations dissolved into brutal suppression, violent responses to protests, and horrific torture inflicted upon those arrested during or after the protests. The Chinese government chalked this up to what they labeled “inhuman, antisocial and barbaric acts,” – victim-blaming at its finest. Since then, skirmishes between Han Chinese, Uyghurs, and law enforcement have only increased. Several violent attacks were accredited to Uyghur militants, resulting in the beginning of President Xi Jinping’s “People’s War on Terror” in 2014. Citing “counter-terrorism”, the government drastically increased surveillance on ordinary Xinjiang citizens and tighter controls on freedom of expression and religion. Police checkpoints were installed and biometric data was demanded. It was trapping a hamster inside a fishbowl. Citizens could be tracked effortlessly using millions of cameras and facial recognition technology, with new developments in surveillance technology being tested on these same residents. How 1984.

The turning point towards the unfathomable state Xinjiang finds itself in today came in 2016. As the crackdown intensified, passports were confiscated, checkpoints increased, and “extremist behavior”, an arrestable offence, took on a whole new meaning; anything from wearing a hijab to travelling or contacting people abroad was enough to land oneself in prison, or worse, the new camps being constructed. By 2018, a UN report estimated that over one million Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang had been imprisoned. 

The internment camps are not designed to kill. They are designed to erase. Harrowing accounts from countless former prisoners help piece together the true depth of what occurs behind those walls. Gulbahar Haitiwaji recounts being summoned back to China after living in France for a decade as a permanent resident with her husband, by then a French citizen, and two daughters. She relented, believing it would be a short return to sign paperwork pertaining to her retirement. Instead, she was detained by police and interrogated about her family and connections for five months, at one point kept chained to her bed for 20 days, before being sent to an internment camp in June 2017. She remembers the fear, “There was no way to escape their watchfulness, no way to whisper, wipe your mouth, or yawn for fear of being accused of praying… One day, one of my classmates, a woman in her 60s, shut her eyes, surely from exhaustion or fear. The teacher gave her a brutal slap. ‘Think I don’t see you praying? You’ll be punished!’ The guards dragged her violently from the room. An hour later, she came back with something she had written: her self-criticism. The teacher made her read it out loud to us. She obeyed, ashen-faced, then sat down again. All she’d done was shut her eyes.” 

An Uyghur instructor, in another twist of cruelty, was employed to teach them the correct way of being “Chinese” with 11 hour lessons full to the brim with propaganda, slowly whittling the women in Gulbahar’s camp down to a fraction of who they once were. “It took away the memories and thoughts that bind us to life. After a while I could no longer picture clearly the faces of Kerim and my daughters. We were worked until we were nothing more than dumb animals,” said Haitiwaji. She remained in custody until August of 2019, after being tortured for over two years and admitting multiple false confessions. “Wave after wave of propaganda crashed down upon me, and as the months went by, I began to lose part of my sanity. Bits of my soul shattered and broke off. I will never recover them. During violent interrogations by the police, I kowtowed under the blows – so much so that I even made false confessions…What options do you have left? A slow, painful descent into death, or submission. If you play at submission, if you feign losing your psychological power struggle against the police, then at least, despite it all, you hang on to the shard of lucidity that reminds you who you are.”

Brainwashing is far from the only weapon in the camps’ vast arsenal. Systemic rape and forced sterilization, in addition to the physical abuse and mental torture Gulbahar suffered, all play a role in the camps’ philosophy. Tursunay Ziawudun, another victim of the internment camps told BBC, “The woman took me to the room next to where the other girl had been taken in. They had an electric stick, I didn’t know what it was, and it was pushed inside my genital tract, torturing me with an electric shock.” Other women were raped and gang-raped by Chinese men in masks. Gulzira Auelkhan, who spent 18 months in the camps describes the role she was forced to play in this sickening system: “My job was to remove their clothes above the waist and handcuff them so they cannot move. Then I would leave the women in the room and a man would enter – some Chinese man from outside or policeman. I sat silently next to the door, and when the man left the room I took the woman for a shower.”

The New Yorker recently produced a 3D documentary based on the stories of three prisoners held in internment camps for varying periods of time, whose lives intersect in the most devastating of ways. These stories are not unique. They are not chance occurrences or a tiny portion of unfortunate people. These stories are a few of millions. Millions. A number too vast to fully comprehend when applied on such a scale. Try, watch it dissolve. Try again. 

With the proverbial red hand hidden halfheartedly behind its back, fingers crossed, the government’s official line on the genocide in Xinjiang is that there is none. Spokespeople shake their heads, disappointed at the world’s gullibility. “This is the most preposterous lie of the century,” says Hua Chunying of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The free hand points. “As overwhelming facts have proven, the investigative report the US keeps citing and hyping up is disinformation fabricated by the likes of Adrian Zenz, who are anti-China. The few so-called “witnesses” are just “actors” and “actresses” the US has used and trained.” At the same press conference in March 2021, she pointed out the past failings of other countries such as the U.S. and Britain, condemning them as though their history of intolerance and destruction forgives China’s own. Deny, discredit, deflect. 

This is not about attacking a country or a people. This is about institutionalized racism, labor camps, and cruelty. This is about torture, propaganda, and the wiping out of a culture, an entire people. This is about unspeakable human suffering on a scale that shouldn’t have to be imagined. Genocide is best left to the history books, an old nightmare, a boogeyman of guilt and regret. This is about what happens when it’s not.

Works Cited

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on March 31, 2021

China’s oppression of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs: a visual history – Coda Story Coda Story The Uyghurs are a

The Ghulja Massacre of 1997 and the Face of Uyghur Genocide Today

How I survived a Chinese ‘re-education’ camp for Uighurs

‘Their goal is to destroy everyone’: Uighur camp detainees allege systematic rape

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