China ‘Re-Education’ Camps: Where Is The World?

People lining up outside a Vocation Centre in Artux, Xinjiang, December 2018 Source: Associated Press

Discoveries of ‘re-education’ camps for Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the autonomous region of Xinjiang in China have been increasingly publicised in recent years. The existence of these camps first gained widespread attention in 2017 when reports by media outlets and organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, began exposing details surrounding these education camps, calling out China’s ruling Communist Party for alleged human rights abuses.

Since then, expanding witness accounts, undercover reports, and unearthed documents have contributed to growing evidence that mass human rights violations are indeed taking place in Xinjiang. The camps are, therefore, being alternatively labeled as concentration camps. As the evidence grows, so does the international political recognition of it. However, despite few, relatively minor, developments in international responses, world powers are generally turning a blind eye.

A Violation of Human Rights

Brain-washing, sterilizations, abuse, torture, and even suspected killings are among the experiences that former detainees of re-education camps in Xinjiang claim are taking place within the walls of confinement. Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang are subjected to this treatment, primarily Uyghur Muslims. The existence of these camps has been defended by Chinese officials, who maintain that they are designed to re-educate Muslims by taking them away from their supposed extremist ideals, and instead, re-align them with the views of Chinese Communist society. Witness accounts, however, indicate that these camps are centers of abuse. Recent reports claim that detainees are also being used for COVID-19 vaccine testing, organ harvesting, and biological weapon testing, while others are sent away to undertake forced labor.

There are two primary reasons why Muslim minorities are being persecuted in Xinjiang:

1) They are perceived as extremists and deemed a terrorist threat.
2) They are accused of having too many children and, therefore, not complying with China’s strict birth policies.

Both of these reasons are linked to one another. Muslims in Xinjiang having what is defined by national policy to be ‘too many’ children is associated with breeding religious extremism. The regional context shows how previous conflicts between Muslim minorities and the Han Chinese majority have led to Xinjiang Muslims being framed as extremists, separatists, and terrorists – an overall threat to the dominant ideals of the Chinese Communist Party. Combined with rising evidence that it is primarily Muslim minorities who are persecuted for violations of the national birth policy, it is clear that the Party is cracking down on Muslims through birth regulations to prevent them from procreating. Even those who have not violated any national policies are forcibly removed from cities across Xinjiang and placed in the camps. There are extensive efforts in place to reduce, or at least dilute, the Xinjiang minority populations, and, therefore, reduce the supposed extremist threat.

A now deleted tweet by the Chinese Embassy in the US Source: Twitter

These efforts are not exclusive to China’s borders. Numerous cases have shown that Uyghurs who have been living abroad but had to return to China for reasons such as retrieving documents to establish residency elsewhere have also been forcibly detained once on Chinese territory. This is not enough to classify the issue as international, although it does extend beyond the boundaries of China’s efforts to reduce the Uyghur ethnicity. Such efforts have also been classified as prevention mechanisms to stop Uyghurs outside of China from revealing Xinjiang’s practices.

The UN defines genocide as actions taken to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group through killing, inflicting harm, and preventing births within the group. Many of the testimonies made by former detainees, as well as information provided by insider sources, categorizes the practices of China’s re-education camps as genocide.

International Responses Thus Far

A legal claim was presented to the International Criminal Court in 2020, positing that China was committing “crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity”. The claim was underpinned by “principles of command and superior responsibility”, highlighting China’s non-compliance with international law and calling for an international investigation. However, the ICC has since rejected calls for an investigation on the grounds that China did not sign the Courts’ Rome Statute, so the ICC, therefore, does not have jurisdiction to prosecute China for crimes enacted on its territory. The Office of the Prosecutor also responded to cases involving Uyghurs who were living abroad but brought back to China to be detained, ruling that these cases also do not qualify as crimes against humanity for deportation.

A centre in Artux, Xinjiang Source: Associated Press

A UN human rights panel revealed in 2018 that it had received reports that an estimated two million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities were held in internment camps in China which confirmed that the UN had prior knowledge that China was detaining minorities in Xinjiang and treating them as enemies of the state. Recently, 39 countries at the UN’s human rights committee reiterated concern with China’s violation of human rights, calling for the re-education camps to be closed.

An interview given by UN human rights lawyer Emma Reilly disclosed that the UN had known about the development of China’s re-education camps since 2013. Reilly went on to declare that UN officials were handing over the information of Uyghur dissidents who had spoken of the details of the persecutions to the UN Human Rights Council to China. As a consequence, Chinese officials would harass and detain the families of these dissidents who were still in Xinjiang. She alleged that in response to an internal case against the UN, she was told a political relationship with China held priority over human rights principles. Reilly summarised this as UN compliance in what she deemed to be genocide. Currently, no further UN action has been taken against China.

Are There Grounds for International Response?

The extent to which international organizations can enact their Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is dependent on their definition of China’s practices. R2P establishes an international commitment by UN member states to end severe forms of violence and persecution, including genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Although the existence of re-education camps, and the vast accounts that come from them, already fulfill the criteria of genocide, it has not yet been internationally defined as such.

The decision to enact R2P complements the debate surrounding humanitarian intervention and sovereignty. Do international forces have grounds to interfere in China’s domestic affairs where violations of human rights are concerned, or would this violate China’s sovereignty?

The current UN and ICC responses suggest a reluctance to attach the label of ‘genocide’ so as to avoid the need to enact R2P. Based on Emma Reilly’s statements, the UN appears to consistently prioritize preserving stable political relations with China, and violating China’s sovereignty by undertaking extensive action to end its program against Xinjiang minorities would potentially destroy these relations.

Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming has stated that Western accusations that China is violating human rights are a “new cold war on China”. Such a statement serves as a wall of defense put up by China against Western interference in its domestic affairs. This interference is framed as the West cracking down on China’s alternative practices without just cause, ultimately serving to assert China’s dominance. A China Daily article, written to debunk the alleged myths created by the West about Chinese practices in Xinjiang, points to the US as propelling these myths in order to realize “its ulterior political purpose”. The authors reiterate that human rights are used as an “excuse to wantonly interfere in China’s internal affairs”.

Even if a decision was made by the UN to intervene, there is little prospect that it would successfully cease the human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China has the right to veto any Resolution taken against them and obstruct any UN human rights mechanisms used against it, as it did in the past.

  • Based on the evidence available, do China’s policies against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang amount to genocide?
  • Considering the importance placed on international political relationships, is it possible for international powers to interfere without starting a war?
  • Does Ambassador Liu Xiaoming’s defense that Western accusations are means to interfere in China pose a legitimate barrier to further international action?

Suggested Readings

Associated Press (2020). “China cuts Uighur births with IUDs, abortion, sterilization”. Associated Press, 29 June, 2020.

France 24 English (2019). “Surviving China’s Uighur camps”. France 24 English, 10 May, 2019.

Vice News (2019). “China’s vanishing Muslims: Undercover in the most dystopian place in the world”. Vice, 29 June, 2019.

Werleman, CJ (2020). “‘Death is everywhere’ Millions more Uyghurs missing”. Byline Times, 24 August, 2020.

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