Chinese officials have rejected claims of mistreatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, after growing international outcry and instead claimed they are offering 'education' to counter religious extremism.
The comments came shortly after Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a new report entitled 'Eradicating Ideological Viruses', detailing the abuses suffered in ‘re-education centres’ and the intense surveillance the Uighur population suffer.
Speaking on behalf of China Li Xiajian, director for publicity at the Bureau of Human Rights Affairs of the State Council Information Office, rejected these claims asserting that these centres were more akin to vocational training and people were only kept for a short period of time. Li maintained the importance of this model in combating religious extremism, claiming the “West has failed” to do so.
Tensions within the region can be traced back to April 1990, when Chinese authorities launched a long-term strategy to assert control over Uighur areas. During this period the collapse of the Soviet Union enabled the emergence of new Central Asian republics which led the Chinese government to fear separatist movements in Xinjiang.
Critics maintain that the government has deliberately taken steps to alter the demographic makeup of the region to weaken separatist claims.
In 1949, Uighurs made up 75 percent of Xinjiang’s population while Han accounted for only 7 percent. Currently, Uighurs account for 48 percent of Xinjiang’s population of approximately 23.6 million, while Han have reached 36 percent, or 8.6 million people.
In 2014 China launched its “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” which entailed draconian measures against the Uighur population as well as intense surveillance. According to HRW, following this policy “the number of people formally arrested has leaped three-fold compared to the previous five-year period”.
‘Re-education centres’ have been criticised as perpetuated indefinite detention without trial, torture and being an attempt to indoctrinate the population by forbidding religious practice or expression.
Examining reports, HRW noted a list of 20 categories used by the Baluntai Town government in north-central Xinjiang in detailing who was considered a suspect.
This included those who travelled abroad and organised Hajj pilgrimages but also “families of individuals who were killed by the police in the past” and “families of those who have … unusual communications with those abroad”.
This scrutiny of families could be prolonged to “three generations of relatives” so as to ensure they don’t retaliate, HRW noted.