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25 Jun 2021 6:01
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  •   Home > News > International

    China's Xinjiang a 'dystopian hellscape' for Muslims, new Amnesty report says

    In a landmark new report, Amnesty International accuses the Chinese Communist Party of committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

    Even after Mahabbat* was released from a Chinese detention camp, the camp "followed" her.

    "Even when I went to buy a meal, I had to fill in a form saying I had been in a camp," she said.

    Mahabbat was one of more than 50 former detainees of internment camps — which the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) insists are vocational education centres — who was interviewed by Amnesty International for a landmark new report by the rights group.

    The reason Mahabbat was detained for one year was simply because she was travelling to Kazakhstan. Foreign travel or links to people overseas are among many reasons ethnic minorities in Xinjiang can be caught in the dragnet of a crackdown against alleged Muslim "extremism".

    "The fear is palpable, of course in Xinjiang, but also among the Uyghur community here in Australia," Kyinzom Dhongdue, a campaigner for Amnesty International, told the ABC.

    Overseas Uyghurs face consequences if they speak publicly about the situation in Xinjiang, routinely reporting harassment by Chinese officials.

    "There are hundreds of community members [in Australia] who are deeply affected by the genocidal policies of the Chinese government," Nurmuhammad Majid, a Uyghur community leader in Adelaide, told the ABC.

    "In Australia we are unable to do anything to save our family members," he said, stating that being connected to an overseas activist could lead to detention and other abuses in China.

    "My older brother, my younger brother, my two sisters … and their families are targeted by the Chinese authorities.

    "We are unable to secure any credible information about their safety … whether they are alive or not."

    Apart from choreographed press tours, Chinese authorities severely restrict journalists' access to the region, meaning much of the information known about the facilities comes from former detainees.

    "China thinks that out of sight is out of mind," Ms Dhongdue said.

    In the "information black holes" of Xinjiang and Tibet — where Ms Dhongdue is originally from — "China has been able to commit these human rights abuses with impunity", she told the ABC.

    A 'dystopian hellscape' in Xinjiang

    In line with research and reporting by academics, think tanks and journalists, the Amnesty report said that since 2017, Chinese authorities had overseen a crackdown in Xinjiang under the guise of combating terrorism.

    Authorities had effectively criminalised mainstream Muslim practices, including praying or possessing pictures with a religious theme, the report said.

    "The Chinese authorities have created a dystopian hellscape on a staggering scale in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region," Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International's secretary-general, said.

    The policies "threaten to erase their religious and cultural identities", she said.

    "It should shock the conscience of humanity that massive numbers of people have been subjected to brainwashing, torture and other degrading treatment in internment camps, while millions more live in fear amid a vast surveillance apparatus."

    Inside the camps, detainees were "monitored at all times, including when they ate, slept, and used the toilet", and were forced to speak in Mandarin, the Amnesty report said.

    Chinese state media reports about Uyghurs in Xinjiang routinely feature them speaking Mandarin rather than Uyghur, which is a Turkic language.

    Ex-detainees quoted by Amnesty described having to wear heavy shackles and being shocked by camp guards with electric batons or being sprayed with pepper spray.

    Some reported having to sit for prolonged periods in so-called "tiger chairs" — steel chairs with handcuffs and leg irons used by police and other security forces across China.

    "One day they told us journalists were coming. And that when you see them to smile. And to say what you were told or you will be taken to an underground room [where people are tortured]," one former detainee, Ibrahim*, told Amnesty.

    "And we practised answering questions for journalists for more than 10 days … We practised saying that the food is good and the Chinese Communist Party is great."

    Outside of the camp, Uyghurs and other minorities are subject to mass surveillance including biometric data collection, regular searches by "ubiquitous" security officers, and "homestays" by officials, the report said.

    Amnesty's interviewees described an environment in Xinjiang that was "extraordinarily hostile" to the practice of Islam, with people abandoning fundamental tenets of their religion out of fear of detention.

    "Without a doubt, genuine fear of disappearance is so strong that most Uyghurs won't dare to engage in any Islamic practice that could be interpreted by authorities as somehow abnormal or extremist," Tim Grose, an expert on ethnic minorities in China at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in the US, told the ABC.

    "The line separating 'normal' and 'illegal' is hazy and constantly shifting. Therefore I'm confident that many Uyghurs have simply decided not to take the risk of engaging in any religious activities."

    Researchers allege campaign to uproot Uyghurs from their land

    Amnesty interviewees described being put into labour schemes after their release from Xinjiang camps, characterised by low pay, poor working conditions and a discriminatory work environment.

    Australian Strategic Policy Institute research based on publicly available Chinese documents previously reported that between 2017 and 2019, 80,000 Uyghur workers were effectively "bought" and "sold" by local governments and commercial brokers.

    "The internment and now coerced or forced labour is meant to weaken, uproot, and eventually sever Uyghur ties to that land they claim indigeneity," Dr Grose said.

    "I see many frightening parallels between the US government's strategy to 'assimilate' Native Americans with the CCP's efforts to 'de-radicalise' Uyghurs. One of the most obvious is removing these groups from their land."

    Ms Dhongdue explained that China's crackdown on the Uyghurs had emerged in a post-9/11 context.

    "The Uyghurs have been peacefully fighting for their freedom, peacefully fighting to preserve their cultural identity, maintain religious traditions for many decades," she said.

    "With this rise of Islamophobia, China has been able to basically make that an excuse and target the Muslim minorities in Xinjiang."

    Calls for unfettered access to the region 

    Amnesty concludes that based on the evidence it has gathered in the 160-page report, the Chinese government has committed "at least" the crimes against humanity of forced imprisonment, torture and persecution.

    A number of Western parliaments, including those of the US, UK, Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands, have already declared Beijing is perpetrating crimes against humanity and committing genocide in Xinjiang.

    "The onus is now on China to prove that there is no genocide … which is why we are calling upon China to open Xinjiang up, to allow unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers, for diplomats, and for journalists," Ms Dhongdue said.

    "Now is the time to resist China's assault on the human rights of the Uyghurs, of the Tibetans, of ordinary Chinese citizens."

    The Chinese embassy in Australia did not respond to the ABC's request for comment.

    *Amnesty International changed the real names of interviewees to protect their identities.

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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