The region of Xinjiang, also known as East Turkistan, has long been a site of conflict between the Chinese government and the Uyghur Muslims. Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim group of Turkic speaking people, 11 to 15 million of which reside in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang has been an economic hub for centuries due to its proximity to the Silk Road and its successful agricultural and trade history. Uyghurs have a history well over a thousand years old in the region and have served as a bridge between Eastern and Western civilizations for a long period of time. However, the territory has suffered disturbances in the past century. The annexation of East Turkistan by the Manchu Empire in 1876 and another invasion by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 brought the Uyghur region under Chinese control, and it was renamed “Xinjiang”, or “New Territory.”
Current PRC President Xi Jinping has taken a hardline stance on the Uyghur minority, with many oppressive and discriminatory government policies being enacted under his rule. According to Wired, “Uyghurs have undergone seemingly groundless arrests and imprisonment,” and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (a United States Government agency which monitors human rights in China) estimates that over a million Uyghurs have been detained in the government’s infamous “re-education camps.” Also known as “vocational training centers,” the Chinese government asserts that these camps are merely for occupational services. However, a U.S. Congressional hearing on the camps in November 2018 as well as ensuing investigations have portrayed them as government prisons for propaganda and indoctrination. It has been revealed that many Uyghurs have been locked up without trial or charges, with Chinese government officials act outside of the regular legal system. The acceptance and promotion of the Chinese Communist Party as well as the erasure of Uyghur cultural identity – such as customs, language and the practice of Islam – are the main goals of these camps. Hundreds of Uyghur academics, as well as artists and journalists have been detained, which actually deals a bigger blow to the integration of Uyghurs that the Chinese government so desires.
The current administration has claimed that the detentions are part of an operation to counter terrorism and radical extremism, and that in the long run the re-education will benefit the Uyghurs. However, the action of trying to educate a population by detaining their intellectuals seems counterintuitive to many, and some have called out the Chinese authorities for their shaky cover story. Rune Greenberg, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen, says “This is the really big tragedy about the clampdown. They were actually bridge builders of integration of broader Uyghur society into the modern Chinese society and economy.” Indeed, it seems as if the scholars could have provided a more moderate pathway of continuing the religious and cultural ways of life without straying towards fundamentalism. But the Chinese government continues to keep hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of people in custody.
There are other policies that the Beijing administration have undertaken to attempt to wipe out Uyghur culture. Some have been tortured, while others have outright disappeared. Mosques have been closed due to efforts to eradicate religion. The Uyghur language has been banned in universities. Involuntary unpaid labor by Uyghurs have been used to construct a pipeline to export petroleum resources. And public executions for political crimes still continue to be only against the Uyghur population.
All of these policies have caused tensions to rise between the Chinese authorities and the Uyghur population in recent years. However, perhaps the most disturbing involves the surveillance of the communities. Video cameras on street corners and lamp posts identify faces and track movement. Police officers scan the contents of things like their ID, their bodies, their phones, and their supermarket bags. Their personal information and biometric data are used to create a composite score of their level of submission to the Chinese government, which can be used to bar them from public facilities or detain them. The newest development in Xinjiang involves artificial intelligence, or AI. TechCrunch discovered a smart city database through a security researcher named John Wethington. It stored gigabytes of facial recognition scans on hundreds of people during the last few months. The data was stored on a a base hosted by Chinese tech conglomerate Alibaba, and references the company’s artificial intelligence cloud platform known as City Brain. The data has been used to detect ethnicities to designate Uyghurs and oppress them on an industrial scale. The Human Rights Watch found a smartphone app used by local police forces that “tracked the movement of people by monitoring the ‘trajectory’ and location data of their phones, ID cards, and vehicles; it also monitoring the use of electricity and gas stations of everybody in the region.”
The Chinese government has denied all allegations of wrongdoing in the matter, and are sticking to their stance of their need to combat terrorism and extremism in their country. Its actions are creating a cultural and humanitarian crisis, but due to lack of exposure, expertise and information, not much is being done to combat it. Unless support from human rights organizations expands enough, the fate of Uyghur culture hangs in the balance.