The northwestern region of Xinjiang is the largest autonomous region in China, meaning in theory, it has a degree of self-governance away from the capital city of Beijing. Xinjiang is home to various minority ethnic groups and according to the Uyghur American Association, around 15 million Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghurs reside in the region. With the majority practicing a moderate form of Sunni Islam, they are frequently viewed as a threat by the Chinese government, and so like Tibet, this territory faces major restrictions by the central government. According to estimates mentioned by a United Nations panel in August 2018, up to a million Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking minority groups have been placed in political re-education camps in the region. Justifying its actions, the Chinese government cited extremism and “mental illness” as reasons for rounding up Uyghurs into their “education” camps. A congressional committee in the U.S. has urged President Donald Trump to sanction officials and companies involved in the human rights crisis in Xinjiang. The committee wrote: “Muslim ethnic minorities are being subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture, and a digitized surveillance system so pervasive that every aspect of daily life is monitored.”
Although their motives are heavily veiled, the Chinese government believes clamping down on the Uyghurs and Muslim minorities would eradicate separatist groups. While the government had initially denied the existence of such camps, it changed its tune to say that such facilities are an effective tool to shield the country from potential terrorist attacks while providing vocational training for Uyghurs. However, media organizations have repeatedly shown that those held in these overcrowded camps are unwillingly detained, subjected to political indoctrination, and kept under inhumane conditions that negatively affect their health and well-being. The families of those who are detained have little to no information about their whereabouts. Performing any religious activity such as praying is against the rules, and the detainees are pushed to become obedient members of the Chinese Communist Party. While separatist movements in Xinjiang do occur in opposition to the government and the migration of waves of Han Chinese into the area, most rebellions are unorganized, incohesive, and lack any connection to jihadist roots that could greatly challenge the government.
With Chinese officials guarding entrances to secretive concentration camps, investigations by reporters and journalists are severely limited. The police are known for following and frequently detaining foreigners traveling to Xinjiang in order to block reporting on these camps and the treatment of Uyghurs. The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights is barred from visiting the camps, which are surrounded by locked gates, razor wire, and sentry towers. The primary goals of the Chinese government seem to aim to dissolve the autonomous area into that of a Han-majority, secular region free of “politically incorrect” ideas. For the Chinese, this means removing all agency and identity from the Uyghurs. Banning the existence of males’ beards, womens’ headscarves, and certain Muslim names for babies leads to psychological oppression with intent to strip away Uyghurs’ core identity, religion, and culture. The Chinese state system demolishes the Uyghurs core beliefs in faith and family by separating families in detention centers where children are placed in state orphanages. The government is keenly aware that the act of physically eradicating millions of people would garner immense international attention, so they turn to carefully constructed psychological methods and isolation to minimize media coverage as much as possible. China is not only joining in to contribute to Islamophobia, but it is also capitalizing on xenophobic fears to eradicate the Uyghurs under the guise of state security.