China's Xinjiang region legalizes Muslim internment camps

China's regional government in Xinjiang has amended its laws to effectively legalize internment camps targeting Muslim minorities. Some 1 million Muslims are currently thought to be held in such centers.

Chinese authorities in the far-northwestern region of Xinjiang on Wednesday revised legislation to permit the use of "education and training centers" to combat religious extremism.

Politics | 05.03.2018

In practice, the centers are internment camps in which as many as 1 million minority Muslims have been placed in the past 12 months, according to rights groups and NGO reports.

The amended legislation states that Chinese regional governments "can set up vocational education and training centers ... to educate and transform those who have been influenced by extremism."

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However, besides teaching the Mandarin language and providing vocational skills, the centers are now directed to provide "ideological education, psychological rehabilitation and behavior correction" under the new clause.

Beijing denies that the centers serve as internment camps but has admitted that even petty criminals have been sent to such centers. Former detainees have told rights groups that they were forced to denounce Islam and made to profess their loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.

"It's a retrospective justification for the mass detainment of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang," James Leibold, a scholar of Chinese ethnic policies at Melbourne's La Trobe University, told the AP news agency. "It's a new form of re-education that's unprecedented and doesn't really have a legal basis, and I see them scrambling to try to create a legal basis for this policy."

Members of the Uighur, Kazakh and other Muslim minorities who live abroad have indicated they have been unable to contact their relatives in China.

The Chinese government has for decades tried to suppress pro-independence movements among Xinjiang's Muslim community, spurred largely by frustration over the influx of migrants from China's Han majority.

Chinese authorities say that extremists in the region have ties to terror groups, but have given little evidence to support that claim.

The latest legislation comes after the regional government launched a crackdown on halal products and banned the wearing of veils.

Read more: China state media justify Muslim Uighur crackdown to prevent 'China's Syria'

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China faces international condemnation over camps

Following the Xinjiang region's law change, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers proposed legislation on Wednesday urging President Donald Trump to condemn the "gross violations" of human rights in the northwestern Chinese region.

The proposal put forward by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China calls on Trump to press his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to immediately shut down what it described as "political re-education camps."

It also proposes imposing sanctions against Xinjiang's Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo under the Magnitsky Act, which would prevent him from entering the US and freeze any assets he has in US banks.

Read more: China's Xinjiang Muslims 'require DNA samples' for travel documents

"China's authoritarianism at home directly threatens our freedoms as well as our most deeply held values and national interests," Florida Senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey Representative Chris Smith, both Republicans, said in a joint statement.

The European Union's top foreign policy official, Federica Mogherini, expressed similar concerns last week.

The measures proposed by US lawmakers come as tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to escalate over tariff disputes and American complaints about China's technology policy.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

China's far western Xinjiang region ramps up security

Three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China's ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

One Belt, One Road Initiative

An ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert. A historic trading post, the city of Kashgar is central to China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative", which is President Xi Jinping's signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

China fears disruption of "One Belt, One Road" summit

A man herds sheep in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China's worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year's diplomatic setpiece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing. Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Ethnic minority in China

A woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamankan Desert. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities in China. Although Uighurs have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam, experts believe that some of them have been joining Islamic militias in the Middle East.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Communist Party vows to continue war on terror

Chinese state media say the threat remains high, so the Communist Party has vowed to continue its "war on terror" against Islamist extremism. For example, Chinese authorities have passed measures banning many typically Muslim customs. The initiative makes it illegal to "reject or refuse" state propaganda, although it was not immediately clear how the authorities would enforce this regulation.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

CCTV cameras are being installed

Many residents say the anti-terror drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang's Uighur heartland in recent months. For many Uighurs it is not about security, but mass surveillance. "We have no privacy. They want to see what you're up to," says a shop owner in Kashgar.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Ban on many typically Muslim customs

The most visible change is likely to come from the ban on "abnormal growing of beards," and the restriction on wearing veils. Specifically, workers in public spaces, including stations and airports, will be required to "dissuade" people with veils on their faces from entering and report them to the police.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Security personnel keep watch

Authorities offer rewards for those who report "youth with long beards or other popular religious customs that have been radicalized", as part of a wider incentive system that rewards actionable intelligence on imminent attacks. Human rights activists have been critical of the tactics used by the government in combatting the alleged extremists, accusing it of human rights abuses.

China's Uighur heartland turns into security state

Economy or security?

China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy says the focus on security runs counter to Beijing's goal of using the OBOR initiative to boost Xinjiang's economy, because it would disrupt the flow of people and ideas.

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dm/rc (AP, AFP, dpa)