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Geopolitical Hotspot: Xinjiang and the Uighur Internment Camps

Xinjiang is China's largest province, comprising one sixth of the People's Republic Xinjiang is China's largest province, comprising one sixth of the People's Republic
03 Sep
From 2014, reports began to emerge of mass internment of the Uighur people in China's Xinjiang province. Tim Marshall explores the geographical, cultural and political context of the internment camps

East Turkistan’ has a nice ring to it, conjuring up images of the old Silk Road perhaps, redolent of the Central Asian Republics. It’s certainly more evocative than ‘New Territory’ which is what the Chinese state named what we now know as Xinjiang. Once, there actually was an East Turkistan, but that was before the Chinese arrived in numbers, a time before internment camps and allegations of forced sterilisation.

The region, populated by the Turkic speaking Uighur people, came under loose Chinese control in the 1800s. When it was just a buffer zone for the Han Chinese from the outside world, the Uighurs were mostly left alone. There was even a declaration of East Turkistan independence in 1949, but that same year, Beijing declared it was now part of Communist China. 

The Han arrived slowly, and then quickly. The difference? The discovery that the territory was also a gold mine. There really is gold, but more importantly there is about 40 per cent of China’s coal reserves, and a fifth of its oil and natural gas. Getting it out of the ground required workers. Beginning in the mid-50s hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese began to arrive. From about five per cent of the population in 1949, they now make up at least 40 per cent of the 20 million or so people living there. 

Xinjiang is China’s largest province comprising one sixth of the People’s Republic. It is in the middle of Asia, surrounded by mountains and bordered by eight countries. Within it are forests, grasslands, and the huge desert of Taklimakan (larger than Poland). The Uighurs, a mostly Muslim people, are culturally far more connected to other central Asian peoples, such as the Kazakhs, than to the Chinese. 

Culture and geography are at the heart of current tensions. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to an increase in support for separatism, especially once Muslim majority states emerged in Central Asia. A nervous Beijing embarked on a wave of repression which in part meant cracking down on Islam. This in turn has created greater unrest. 

Xinjiang Province, Urumqi MapXinjiang is China's largest province. It is in the middle of Asia, surrounded by mountains and bordered by eight countries, including Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan

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In the 2000s, conflicts in the Middle East attracted large numbers of radicalised young Uighur men, several thousand of whom fought in Syria. Some have returned home and there have been a number of violent incidents, which the Chinese authorities call terrorist attacks. The turning point came in 2009 when ethnic rioting in the regional capital, Urumqi, led to the deaths of 200 people, mostly Han Chinese. A wave of religious banning orders followed.

From 2014, reports began to emerge of mass internment. A UN committee said it was credible that dozens of detention camps contained a million Uighurs. The government at first denied their existence but after leaked documents proved the opposite, said they were ‘re-education camps’, required to prevent terrorism. Reuters journalists using satellite imagery reported hundreds of camps covering an area roughly the size of 140 football pitches.

This year, the government has been accused of a programme of forced sterilisation of Uighur women and the most intrusive surveillance measures in the world. The province has been placed under a grid management system using cutting edge security cameras paired with facial recognition algorithms. Urban areas are split into squares of about 500 people. Each square has a police station monitoring people’s movement, while at the bus and railway stations iris scans and DNA are collected to be sent to a central database.

There is widespread outrage at China’s actions, although notable silence from most Muslim nations who fear the economic backlash which could follow criticism. Pakistan, Algeria and Saudi Arabia are among three dozen countries to sign a letter to the UN praising China’s ‘remarkable achievements’ in human rights.

Information is difficult to obtain as diplomats and journalists are not welcome in Xinjiang, but what is available is the map. There, we see the province where it has always been – on the old Silk Road, now the new Silk Road, and a key part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative. Along it runs the Karakoram Highway linking China, through Xinjiang, to Pakistan’s Punjab province which in turn leads all the way down to the port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean. Next door to Xinjiang, another restive province – Tibet. Gold, oil, gas, economics, geography, strategy... China has a million reasons not to lose Xinjiang and a million people in prison camps as insurance.

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