The government insists that the camps are only intended to combat violent Islamist extremism and are only there as vocational education and training centres. However, this is not the reality; the camps are in fact prison camps, holding masses of people, surrounded by barbed wire and monitored closely and continuously by various surveillance cameras (this reality has become known by both eyewitnesses who left the camps and satellite photography). Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese Muslim of Kazakh descent, described being separated from her family and kept in Xinjiang under heinous conditions, with wide use of physical punishment and relentless efforts at cultural reprogramming.
The camps were first established by the Chinese government as a response to anti-government sporadic violence in the region. In 2016, party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed in Xinjiang. He rapidly expanded the concentration camps. The secret speeches by Mr Xi, exposed in the leaked documents, used terms like ‘virus’ and ‘infected’ to describe the thinking of Muslims who were imprisoned. They also denounced religious extremism in brutal terms and demanded that the overall mindset of China’s Muslim minorities ought to be changed instantly.
As more and more Muslims are hauled off to brainwashing camps in China, Mr Xi and his government must be held to account for the mass detentions that are currently occurring on a massive scale. China has repeatedly tried to restrict access for foreign journalists and has also turned aside questions from abroad about the camps. Other countries are also reluctant to challenge China for fear of inflaming tensions and damaging trading relationships due to its economic clout. As a result, China’s policy of repression has not been countered by others.
The international community must step up and condemn China’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities. A strong, collective and coordinated response is needed to curb the current injustice unfolding, not only in Xinjiang, but also throughout the rest of China.