U.N. Calls for Release of Xinjiang Detainees

The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has issued a report that calls on the Chinese government to release all and other ethnic minorities currently being held in extra-legal political re-education camps in . The CERD report follows two days of testimony and submissions by experts, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the World Uyghur Congress, and more, earlier this month, and is part of their periodic review of China, their first in the country since 2009. From the report’s section on Xinjiang:

Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR)
40. The Committee notes the delegation’s statements concerning the non-discriminatory enjoyment of freedoms and rights in XUAR. However, the Committee is alarmed by:
(a) Numerous reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism. The Committee regrets that there is no official data on how many people are in long-term detention or who have been forced to spend varying periods in political “re-education camps” for even non- threatening expressions of Muslim ethno-religious culture like daily greetings. Estimates about them range from tens of thousands to upwards of a million. The Committee also notes that the delegation stated that vocational training centres exist for people who committed minor offences without qualifying what this means;
(b) Reports of mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uighurs, including through frequent baseless police stops and the scanning of mobile phones at police checkpoint stations. Additional reports of mandatory collection of extensive biometric data in XUAR, including DNA samples and iris scans, of large groups of Uighur residents
(c) Reports that all XUAR residents are required to hand in their travel documents to police and apply for permission to leave the country, and that permission may not come for years. This restriction impacts most heavily on those who wish to travel for religious purposes;
(d) Reports that many Uighurs abroad who left China have allegedly been returned to the country against their will. There are fears about the current safety of those involuntarily returned to China.
(e) While acknowledging the State party’s denials, the Committee takes note of reports that Uighur language education has been banned in schools in XUAR’s Hotan (Hetian) prefecture(arts. 2 and 5). [Source]

The findings were followed by a list of recommendations for the government, including halting any further detentions, releasing all current detainees, ending travel restrictions on Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, and carrying out a full accounting of the number of camps and individuals being held there.

Stephanie Nebehay of Reuters sums up the findings:

In its conclusions, the panel said it was alarmed by: “Numerous reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.”

“We are recommending to China if this practice exists, to halt it. We are asking China to release people if they don’t have a legal ground to be detained,” panel member Nicolas Marugan told Reuters Television.

Chinese officials were not immediately available for comment on the panel’s criticisms on Thursday. [Source]

Following the CERD review in Geneva on August 10, Chinese representatives denied the claims.

At the same time, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Representative Chris Smith, and 15 other members of Congress sent a letter to the Trump administration calling on them to use the Global Magnitsky Act to impose sanctions on Chinese officials and companies that are involved with the detention camps. From Josh Chin and Eva Dou at the Wall Street Journal:

In a letter sent Wednesday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and 16 other members of Congress from both parties called for the sanctions on seven Chinese officials and two businesses that make surveillance equipment.

An official at the Treasury Department, which is largely responsible for executing the administration’s sanctions policies, said the office “responds as appropriate to Congressional correspondence” and doesn’t “telegraph sanctions or comment on prospective actions.” A State Department spokeswoman said she hadn’t seen the letter.

The letter, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, cites the Communist Party boss of Xinjiang, the western region where Chinese authorities have over the past year vastly expanded an internment program that initially targeted religious extremists but now includes broad numbers of Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group. [Source]

CBS News reports on the Chinese government’s response:

China’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the criticism, urging the U.S. lawmakers to “focus on their job.”

“The U.S. has no right to criticize China on this issue, to be a judge in this regard,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Thursday, according to French news agency AFP. “These lawmakers are receiving money from the American taxpayer, they should focus on their job… instead of trying to poke their nose in the business of other countries, trying to be the judge of human rights and even threatening to impose unreasonable sanctions on other countries.” [Source]

Meanwhile, further reports are coming out that the policies targeting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are also reaching across China’s borders. In a post on Living Otherwise, Gene Bunin translates accounts from three Kazakh citizens who were detained in camps in Xinjiang while traveling to China, while the Financial Times’ Emily Feng reports on the harassment of Uyghurs living in neighboring countries:

In an attempt to control Uighur diaspora communities, Beijing is extending its security apparatus from the western region of Xinjiang to its Central Asian neighbours, which in turn must balance their economic and political priorities with China. Seven countries involved in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative — the $900bn plan to build infrastructure in 78 nations — border Xinjiang.

[…] As China strengthens its security in Xinjiang, its attention has turned to the Uighur diaspora, estimated at 1m-1.6m. “[China] sees the Uighur population outgrowth as a danger to itself . . . and the diaspora has always been a lot stronger in ,” said Abigail Grace, a research associate at the Center for New American Security, a Washington think-tank. [Source]

As China invests in its Central Asian neighbors as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, those governments have refrained from speaking up about mistreatment of their own citizens, and other Muslim minorities, caught up in China’s dragnet. At the same time, the mass detentions have impacted trade along the Belt and Road routes, as trade centers in Xinjiang and in neighboring countries have been left deserted. Alexandra Ma at Business Insider reports:

Many Muslim-majority countries aren’t speaking out because they don’t want to jeopardize their economic relationships in China, experts say.

Several states in Central Asia and the Middle East are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive project launched in 2013 linking 78 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania through a network of railroads, shipping lanes, and other infrastructure projects.

Many of these deals entail China giving hefty loans to economies with a bad credit rating, which countries such as Pakistan are already finding difficult to repay. And it appears that these economic partnerships are stopping these countries from speaking out about Xinjiang. [Source]

An article by Sigal Samuel in The Atlantic examines how the detentions resemble psychiatric treatment as the government attempts to eradicate religious belief and forcibly assimilate Uyghurs into mainstream Han society; in doing so, the detentions are causing lasting psychological damage to those being held. Read more about the ongoing detentions in Xinjiang via CDT, as well as from SupChina’s detailed explainer of the situation. The topic was also the focus of a BBC2 Newsnight report on Thursday: