ucanews.com reporter, Hong KongUpdated: October 24, 2017 05:21 AM GMT
This photo taken in Hotan, in China's western Xinjiang region in 2015, shows a Uyghur man and boy near a statue of Mao Zedong meeting with a Uyghur. Reports stated that thousands of Uyghurs have recently been sent to re-education camps in Xinjiang. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)
In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, so called political re-education camps have been proliferating in the lead up to the 19th Communist Party Congress.
The Chinese government's aim is to streamline ideology in an area it perceives to be troubled by Islamic terrorism, and perhaps even erase the western region's connections with Islam.
But human rights experts have said details of what happens in these camps during re-education, where ethnic Muslim minorities are detained and exposed to communist propaganda, are murky at best.
Chinese authorities are succeeding at keeping a tight cap on the spread of information in the region and international rights monitors are concerned about what re-education entails.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, one person who spoke to the group said his family members in Xinjiang had been hospitalized while under political re-education. "But it is unclear what had happened there as there is very little information," Maya Wang, Senior Researcher, Asia Division at HRW, told ucanews.com.
"It is fair to say that the Chinese government has heightened the repression and discrimination against a particular ethnic group to an extent that seems quite unprecedented," Wang said.
Meanwhile, Radio Free Asia (RFA) has reported that officers in Xinjiang's Hotan, largely populated by Uyghurs, have confirmed authorities gave them a target of sending nearly half the area's residents to re-education camps. RFA also reported that re-education camps throughout Xinjiang have been registered as "career development centers" to circumvent legal problems and hold 3,600 detainees.
"As the 19th Party Congress is approaching, it [the camps] may be related to the authorities' stepping up efforts to exert further control in the region. If true, it's extremely appalling to see how open the practice of re-education through labor still is, as re-education through labor was abolished," Patrick Poon, Researcher at Amnesty International, told ucanews.com.
Poon could not confirm RFA's reports because "it's getting more and more difficult to get information about what's happening in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, [but] such treatment against Uyghurs in the region is highly possible."
Xinjiang's political re-education camps are the brainchild of 61-year-old Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who has been tipped for promotion to the Politburo at the Party Congress. Chen was transferred from Tibet to take the reins of power in Xinjiang in August 2016. During Chen's time in Tibet, he became well known for his repressive style of rule.
According to Frances Eve, researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, the ramped up suppression in Xinjiang will likely continue past the Party Congress's because it appears Chen was brought to Xinjiang to replicate the heavy-handed tactics he used in Tibet.
"Using this sledgehammer approach to counter-terrorism and ethnic-minority policy making is extremely misguided. It violates the civil and political rights of ethnic Uyghurs and does nothing to address the serious economic and social gaps between Han Chinese [the national majority] and Uyghurs," Eve told ucanews.com.
The lack of a response from the international community is somewhat surprising in the face of mounting evidence of the re-education camps.
"The U.N. can request the Chinese government allow its independent special experts or the High Commissioner on Human Rights to visit the region, and governments should put more pressure on China to allow journalists and other groups into the region to independently report on the situation," Eve said.
According to HRW's report on the re-education camps, those detained were often targeted for traveling abroad or having families that live abroad. Other reasons for detentions are not known. Those interviewed said their family members were forced to learn the Chinese language and law, and watch propaganda films.
Xinjiang is home to some 10 million Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities.
According to an article published in a Xinjiang-based state newspaper in April, more than 2,000 had been "trained" in a Hotan facility.
Recently, ethnic Kyrgyz and Kazakhs have also been targeted for re-education — a move seemingly sparked by a highly anticipated boxing match with famous Kazakh fighter Kanat Islam, who earlier renounced his Chinese citizenship for Kazakhstan.
The government's measures to suppress ethnic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang are growing increasingly draconian. Since Chen took over last year, a new raft of restrictive and discriminatory measures has come into force for those living in the region — far extending the political education camps — including required tracking devices on cars, installing mandatory apps to monitor mobile phones, and harsh travel restrictions.
Chinese authorities continue to justify these security crackdowns with allegations of hostile foreign influence on the region. However, the government's claims seem to lack any apparent evidence — especially with the tight control over information in the region.