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Expert estimates China has more than 1,000 internment camps for Xinjiang Uyghurs

Uyghur People Demand Freedom with Flag of East Turkestan in front of the U.N. (SFT HQ/WikiCommons)
November 16, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China has built more than 1,000 internment camps for ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), one of the world’s foremost experts on mass incarcerations in the region told RFA.

Adrian Zenz, Senior fellow in China Studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service he is reviewing official documents and other sources of information to determine a maximum estimate for those held in a network of camps that he said likely number more than 1,000 in the XUAR.

“Maximum estimates are inherently speculative and I’m trying to be quite cautious in my estimate, but I’m currently looking at the details of that,” he said.

“I’m increasingly viewing evidence that would indicate that my original estimate of at least one camp per administrative unit between township and prefecture levels, which adds up to 1,200, was accurate. I’m increasingly moving in the direction that it’s over 1,000 camps.”

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Since April 2017, authorities in the XUAR have held Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a vast network of camps in the region.

Zenz had initially estimated that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the camps, but in March this year revised his assessment to 1.5 million—equivalent to just under one in six members of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR.

While Beijing once denied the existence of the camps, China this year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.

Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.

Shifting strategy

According to Zenz, China significantly increased its internment and internment capacity in the XUAR in 2018, but gradually shifted from “vocational training” into what he called “involuntary or coercive forms of labor” in the second half of last year.

“I think these movements are gradual, but I think they are probably accelerating as we speak,” he told RFA.

Zenz said that while it is difficult to confirm such trends, as there is limited evidence to work from and China’s government doesn’t provide statistics, he believes that “in 2019 Xinjiang has been moving from internment into forced labor.”

“But we need to take into account the vocational training in internment camps is only one of seven or eight forms of extrajudicial internment in Xinjiang,” he said.

“So in a sense, only the lucky ones get to go into these camps and then into forced labor. There are many others who are in other forms of re-education that have nothing to do with vocational training—that are simply about brainwashing, indoctrination and intimidation—and that internment is probably still ongoing.”

‘Ethical boycott’

Last month, at a hearing in Washington held by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), witnesses including Zenz highlighted reports of a widespread system of forced labor in the XUAR, which requires Uyghurs and other ethnic minority Muslims to work in the production of textiles, food, and light manufacturing.

Zenz detailed a forced labor system he called even “more shocking” than that of the internment camps, which he said involved coerced military, political, and vocational training for the purpose of working in officially subsidized companies as part of a “business of oppression.”

China is the world’s largest cotton producer and Zenz noted that some 84 percent of China’s cotton is produced in the XUAR, meaning that between the textile industry and other forms of work—including on components that are sent to eastern China and incorporated into finished products—it is extremely difficult for customs officials in the U.S. to determine whether imported goods are linked to forced labor in the region.

On Friday, he said that “the situation in Xinjiang is so serious, that it is necessary and warranted to call for an ethical boycott of any products made in whole or in part in Xinjiang.”

While he acknowledged that government boycotts of Chinese goods made in Xinjiang are unlikely, he suggested that with increasing public awareness, companies that rely on goods or components produced in the region will be forced to “become more concerned.”

‘Ultimate purpose’

Zenz said he believes that the Chinese government’s “ultimate purpose” in the XUAR is to assimilate the Uyghur people into Communist ideology and into the majority Han Chinese nation, but he stopped short of comparing the camp system to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany or Soviet gulags.

“It’s in a sense more sophisticated—it’s a crime against humanity that is more difficult to categorize,” he said, instead labeling policies in the region part of a “cultural genocide.”

But Zenz said it is “unlikely” that the Chinese will succeed with their plan in the long term, which he contends is forcing Uyghurs to reexamine who they are as a culturally distinct people.

“The Chinese have not typically treated the Uyghurs equally, and that has not improved—if anything, it has gotten worse,” he said.

Mass incarcerations in the XUAR, as well as other policies seen to violate the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslims, have led to increasing calls by the international community to hold Beijing accountable for its actions in the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month singled out China as one of the worst perpetrators of abuse against people of faith, particularly in the XUAR.

In September, at an event on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan said that the U.N. has failed to hold China to account over its policies in the XUAR and should demand unfettered access to the region to investigate reports of the mass incarceration and other rights abuses against Uyghurs.