The US government is warning Americans that if they visit China they may not be able to return home


  • The US State Department has issued a travel advisory urging Americans to "exercise increased caution" when traveling to the People's Republic of China.
  • The elevated travel advisory is out of concern that China may arbitrarily enforce local laws and detain US citizens without cause using exit bans.

  • Under these exit bans, US citizens may be detained or forced to stay in China for an indefinite period of time and may be subject to harassment and interrogation.

  • The new China travel advisory is a level-two advisory, which urges increased caution.

  • Other countries or regions with a level-two advisory include Algeria, Antarctica, Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark, Myanmar, and the United Kingdom.
The US State Department has issued a travel advisory urging Americans to "exercise increased caution" when traveling to the People's Republic of China.

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48 Ways to Get Sent to a Chinese Concentration Camp


Something terrible is happening in Xinjiang.



There is a crisis in Xinjiang. The details are murky. The Communist Party of China has little incentive to reveal the inner workings of the vast system of surveillance and terror it has built to control the 12 million Uighur and Kazakh citizens of China’s westernmost region. From the party’s perspective, the further away the global spotlight is from its activities the better.

But we now have a rough outline of what is happening to the people of the region. In response to growing tensions between Han Chinese and the Uighur population of Xinjiang itself, the recruitment of Uighurs to fight in the Syrian civil war, and several terrorist attacks orchestrated by Uighur separatists, the party launched what it called the Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism. Despite its name, the campaign’s targets are not limited to terrorists. No Uighur living in Xinjiang can escape the shadow of the party nor can members of other ethnic minorities, especially Kazakhs.

Some of the methods used to surveil and coerce the population of Xinjiang are straight from the dystopian imagination: The party has collected the DNA, iris scans, and voice samples of the province’s Uighur population, regularly scans the contents of their digital devices, uses digitally coded ID cards to track their movements, and trains CCTV cameras on their homes, streets, and marketplaces.

To students of Chinese history, other elements of the system are depressingly familiar. Cultural Revolution-style struggle sessions have been resurrected: Uighurs now gather in public meetings to denounce their relatives and publicly admit their personal political sins. Most worrisome of all is the vast network of political education camps that have been created to hold and “re-educate” Uighurs who are too attached to their mother culture. Somewhere between 600,000 and 1.2 million Uighurs—that is, approximately one out of 12—are being held in these camps.

What must a Uighur or Kazakh do to warrant detention in one of these camps? This month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a 125-page report on the crisis in Xinjiang that helps answer this question. It is titled “‘Eradicating Ideological Viruses’: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims.”

The report consists mostly of excerpts from interviews that HRW researchers conducted with 58 ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs living in nine countries. This is the largest interview set of its kind yet published. All of the subjects successfully fled from Xinjiang sometime during the last two years. All were either detained in the political education camps themselves or have seen members of their family detained in their stead. Their accounts corroborate the data gleaned from the other streams of information that outsiders have about what is happening in Xinjiang. What makes the HRW interviews so valuable, however, is that they allow an exceptionally clear view of the way the Strike Hard Campaign is changing the course of everyday life in Xinjiang.

Here I list the things that Uighurs and Kazakhs now fear to do out of dread of attracting the attention of ever-present security agents. Each item on the list was mentioned by at least one of the HRW interviewees. Each is enough to be detained without trial and locked away in a political education camp indefinitely.


Red Flags for Detainment in Xinjiang


Owning a tent Telling others not to swear Speaking with someone who has traveled abroad
Owning welding equipment Telling others not to sin Having traveled abroad yourself
Owning extra food Eating breakfast before the sun comes up Merely knowing someone who has traveled abroad
Owning a compass Arguing with an official Publicly stating that China is inferior to some other country
Owning multiple knives Sending a petition that complains about local officials Having too many children
Abstaining from alcohol Not allowing officials to sleep in your bed, eat your food, and live in your house Having a VPN
Abstaining from cigarettes Not having your government ID on your person Having WhatsApp
Wailing, publicly grieving, or otherwise acting sad when your parents die Not letting officials take your DNA Watching a video filmed abroad
Wearing a scarf in the presence of the Chinese flag Wearing a hijab (if you are under 45) Going to a mosque
Praying Fasting Listening to a religious lecture
Not letting officials scan your irises Not letting officials download everything you have on your phone Not making voice recordings to give to officials
Speaking your native language in school Speaking your native language in government work groups Speaking with someone abroad (via Skype, WeChat, etc.)
Wearing a shirt with Arabic lettered writing on it Having a full beard Wearing any clothes with religious iconography
Not attending mandatory propaganda classes Not attending mandatory flag-raising ceremonies Not attending public struggle sessions
Refusing to denounce your family members or yourself in these public struggle sessions Trying to kill yourself when detained by the police Trying to kill yourself when in the education camps
Performing a traditional funeral Inviting multiple families to your house without registering with the police department Being related to anyone who has done any of the above


A central element of this campaign is uncertainty. It is difficult to judge which of these items are official policy and which are simply the result of ad hoc decisions made by local officials. This is likely by design. One Uighur interviewee told HRW how he simply stopped using his smartphone because he could not tell which websites were allowed and which might incriminate him; another described how she stopped talking to neighbors and strangers altogether because she did not want to unintentionally say something that might bring the police to her door. Vagueness breeds fear. Fear makes the people subject to the Communist Party’s campaigns easier to control.

Listing out the activities barred and items banned by the party betrays its true aim. Some of these items—such as the prohibition on extra knives and welding equipment—are plausibly related to terrorist activities. Most of these items, however, have less to do with violence than with ethnic identity or religious piety. Forcing Uighurs to drink and prohibiting them from praying is not about ending terrorism. It is about forcing Uighurs to violate their religious beliefs. Forcing Kazakhs to use Chinese and prohibiting them from celebrating traditional festivals and holidays is not about ending terrorism. It is about forcing Kazakhs to act like Han Chinese.

The goal of the Strike Hard Campaign is not, as China claims, purely to destroy terrorists but to destroy minority religion and identity altogether. It has created an atmosphere of constant fear, in which Uighurs dread the invisible lines placed around every aspect of their lives. In what it calls a campaign against terrorism, China has created a state of terror.


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My Uyghur Friend, Where Are You?


Fadi Zatari

December 14th, 2018


Nearly a decade ago, while pursuing my Master’s degree at the University of Frankfurt in Germany, I became accustomed to spending most of my time in the library; I inhabited it from the early morning until late at night. While tiring, my extended time there afforded me the good fortune of coming across and getting to know one of the brightest individuals I have ever met: my Uyghur friend, Nurali.

I had previously seen Nurali serval times at the student dormitory where I lived, but we never really spoke. I was new to Frankfurt and had few friends, but I was interested in getting to know serious students, who could motivate me and from whom I could learn. It was on an unassuming morning that I saw Nurali during my break in the library, and decided to finally greet him with a simple “hello.” With a delighted look, Nurali greeted me back, and we began to build a friendship almost immediately. After introducing ourselves to one another, we both wondered at how long it had taken us to speak, given the frequency with which we crossed paths in the library (and even at the dormitory).

It was during this initial, brief chat that I heard for the first time about the Uyghur people—a persecuted Muslim minority of Turkic origin that lives in the Xinjiang region in China. Nurali told me about the distressing history of the Uyghurs and their life under the Chinese government. When I asked him how many “hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs” lived in China, he responded, with a smile, that there were “over 20 million.” I felt shocked and embarrassed, but even more curious to learn about these surprising people.

After spending more time with Nurali, I realized I had met perhaps the most polite, decent, benevolent, generous, and kind person I had ever known. In a short period, the library had become a place where I not only studied, but also went to spend time with my best friend, Nurali. During almost every break, and during virtually every weekend, Nurali and I would meet, often for tea. We even traveled together to other cities in Germany. I still remember our wonderful journey to Heidelberg, where we walked for hours around the old castle.

On top of educating me about the politics, culture, and history of his hometown, Nurali used to bring me Uyghur food—a most wonderful culinary experience. After staying for long hours in the library, we used to go home and cook together. Through this direct and intimate experience, I discovered some of my favorite Uyghur foods, such as Polo and Lagman. 

I was extremely sad when Nurali left Germany in 2012. I took him to the airport, all the while wishing he could stay. Still, we stayed in contact. One year later, in 2013, Nurali received his PhD and became a lecturer at Xinjiang Normal University. That was the same year I moved to Turkey. We continued to email each other and communicate on Skype—he even promised to visit me in Istanbul. Starting in late 2014, however, I suddenly stopped hearing from Nurali. I wrote him many times, and attempted to call him too, but never received a response. Around this time, Nurali’s Facebook and Twitter accounts also disappeared. I remembered wondering to myself, “why is Nurali not making any effort to reach out to me?” I would continue to contemplate this question, sometimes feeling upset and often worried by his silence.

On the morning of Thursday, November 22, 2018, I finally heard from—or rather, about—Nurali. His name appeared to me, like a bullet in the chest, in a document titled “List of Uyghur intellectuals imprisoned in China from 2016 to the present.” I immediately understood why I had not heard from Nurali for so long: he was one of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Uyghur Muslims who had been interned in concentration camps by the Chinese government.

I have been incredibly sad and frustrated to learn about my friend’s fate. As with other Uyghur prisoners in these concentration camps, there is no real way to know what Nurali’s condition is. Is he alive? Is he dead? Is he being tortured? Is he in good health? The inability to know is numbing.

Nurali is a very talented, peaceful, and tolerant person, and is, in fact, a-political; I cannot imagine he would harm anyone. There is simply nothing Nurali could have done to justify the massive injustice and discrimination committed against him by the Chinese government. Nor can I understand how the Uyghur people (or any people) themselves could merit the punishment being meted out by the Chinese. 

Reading about the concentration camps is horrible and shocking. Various reports have documented the unbearable psychological pressures placed on detainees, leading some Uyghurs, sadly, to commit suicide. In these camps, Uyghurs are forced to denounce Islam, adopt atheism, and even pledge allegiance to the Chinese state. They are forced to listen, repeat, and embrace communist party propaganda. Detainees are denied medical treatment and are tortured, often to the point of death. They are not even given suitable clothing to endure the freezing night temperatures. As reported by The Independent, Riam Thum, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, has said these camps “echo[] some of the worst human rights violations in history.”

China claims its concentration camps are “vocational training centers,” and are meant to prevent “acts of terrorism.” But if this were true, why won’t China allow international human rights organizations to visit or report on these “vocational” and “educational” centers? Why is the media not allowed to conduct independent investigations about what is happening in Xinjiang?

I am not an expert on China or its politics. I am simply a man deeply concerned about his old friend—a friend who may or may not still be alive. Like many other Uyghurs who are unable to obtain information about their imprisoned friends and family members, I am stuck between hoping Nurali will be released and praying upon his soul, as if he has already passed.


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Dozens of Bitter Winter Reporters Arrested


Accused of espionage and subversion, at least 45 contributors are in custody; the reporter who filmed a secret camp in Xinjiang “disappeared” after the arrest.


In August 2018, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities designated Bitter Winter a “foreign hostile website” for publishing secret documents and news reports about the CCP’s suppression of religious beliefs and human rights violations. The authorities have retaliated by launching repeated attempts to hack the website, and by targeting reporters and contributors.

Since August, at least 45 Bitter Winter contributors in mainland China have been arrested for filming incidents of, or gathering news about, the CCP’s persecution of religious freedom and violation of human rights. Reporters are usually detained and interrogated on the charge of “divulging state secrets” or “involvement in infiltration by foreign forces.” Some reporters have been sent to “legal education centers” to undergo mandatory indoctrination, while others have been tortured and abused.

The CCP has intensified its attacks on freedom of the press and those recording human rights violations in China. Reporters Without Borders, an international non-profit based in Paris, France, released a report in December, naming China as the country with the most imprisoned journalists. At least 60 professional and citizen journalists have been arbitrarily detained (strict control of information by Chinese authorities makes it difficult to document the case of every missing journalist, so the number may be higher).

This crackdown on reporters has hit Bitter Winter hard. In mid-October, two contributors were arrested in the southeastern coastal province of Fujian. They are still being detained. The authorities designated them as so-called “first-level persons” that undergo heightened scrutiny, with family visits prohibited. According to insiders, both contributors have been tortured by police.

Another contributor, from Xinjiang, conducted groundbreaking investigative reporting into “transformation through education camps,” including their internal construction. That contributor was arrested at the end of September. To date, his whereabouts remain unknown.

Some contributors who have been released were able to report on their interrogations. According to one, he was told, “You’re in China, so you must abide by Chinese laws. If the state deems that you have violated the law, then you have violated the law. If the Party wants to mess with you, it would be like crushing an ant.” The reporter was further told, “Collecting these materials and reporting about these incidents is a subversion of state power; it is espionage.”

Another contributor remarked, “Covering the news is very dangerous, but we must let the world know the reality of the CCP’s persecution of religious beliefs and its abuses of human rights. They should be condemned and stopped. I think that I will be able to persevere and continue to report.”






Fear and Loathing in Xinjiang: Ethnic Cleansing in the 21st Century


What we are witnessing in Xinjiang is a new form of ethnic cleansing that draws from all of these mass atrocities of the past while benefiting from the technologies of control available in the 21stcentury.


Over the last two years, there has been a flurry of news coverage of the mass human rights abuses targeting Uighurs and other Turkic minorities in China’s northwest Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Initially, reports documented the growing use of cutting-edge technology to monitor the inhabitants of the region, but such stories were quickly eclipsed by the evidence that the state had constructed scores of mass internment camps throughout the region, which held hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and members of other local ethnic groups arbitrarily and indefinitely.

While Chinese authorities initially denied the existence of these mass internment camps, they have since acknowledged their existence and characterize them as benign and voluntary “vocational training” centers meant to combat Islamic extremism in the region.

Many scholars and journalists, who have been tracking information about these internment camps for over a year, have presented plenty of evidence that the camps are anything but voluntary. People are arbitrarily detained and placed in camps against their will, frequently without any notification being given to their families. When husbands and wives are both interned, their children are sent to special boarding schools, becoming essentially wards of the state. There is no standard time period for internment, and it appears that very few of those who have spent time in these camps have been released.

While the camps are allegedly meant to deter extremism in the region, the diverse reasons for being interned and the varied population in these facilities belies a much broader agenda. The list of criteria for internment is vast and includes both present and past behavior, alleged religiosity or nationalist tendencies, travel abroad, contacts with foreigners, family associations, the content of one’s electronic devices, the use of a Virtual Proxy Network (VPN) to circumvent censorship while browsing the internet and any accusation that one has suspect loyalty to the People’s Republic of China and the Communist Party. Those interned include farmers and urban workers, businessmen and businesswomen, intellectuals and cultural figures, and many members of the Communist Party with long histories of loyal service to the state. In short, almost anybody can be interned for virtually any reason.

Survivors and former workers of the camps have also suggested that what transpires inside them is anything but benign, recounting terrifying experiences that include torture, the use of mind-altering drugs on detainees and persistent humiliation. Beyond the most egregious abuses that occur in the camps, the banal existence inside them is a source of incredible psychological stress. All spaces in the camps are under constant surveillance by closed-circuit TV cameras that are under the constant gaze of guards in a CCTV central control room. The living quarters inside the camps are reportedly overcrowded, and inmates are poorly fed and limited in their ability to interact.


While the atrocities that these camps represent and the most egregious abuses inside them have been well documented, there has been less analysis of what this situation means for the Uighur people as a whole inside the XUAR, whether they are inside or outside the internment camps. The full scale of what is happening in this western region of China became clear to me when I recently met an Uighur who had only left the region at the end of this summer. This person’s account of life in the region, both inside and outside the camps, suggested that the Uighur people and other local ethnic groups are facing a systematic effort to change their identities and perhaps even their consciousness. To fully understand the impact of this effort on the indigenous population of this region, one must examine how life in the camps intersects with that outside of them. The person I met gave me insight into this dynamic.

In an effort to protect this person’s identity, I will avoid reveling his/her gender, place of residency both inside and outside China, and profession. Instead, I will refer to this person as “informant,” alternatively using the initial “A.” I should note that the informant with whom I met had not been interned in a camp, but A did have a close acquaintance who taught in one camp and had recounted that experience to A in detail. Furthermore, the informant is not an activist or involved in any way with political groups either inside or outside of China. In fact, the informant had mentioned that the information being provided to me had only been shared with a few close friends for fear that it would have ramifications for A’s family back in China.

The intensity of this experience suggests an environment far worse than most prisons in the world. The detainees are given almost no opportunity to communicate with each other, and with the exception of morning exercise sessions, they are forced to be completely still for the majority of the day.

That said, once the informant began talking, it was difficult to stop A. It was as if it was a cathartic moment that allowed A to let out feelings that had been bottled up for months in the terrifying context of what it must be like to live as a Uighur inside the XUAR today. Obviously, the informant’s accounts provide a sample of one and should not be considered as demonstrative of the experience of all Uighurs in the region.

Furthermore, the quite detailed description of the camp where his/her acquaintance worked should not be considered to characterize the operations of each of the at least 59 internment camps in the region. Nonetheless, as a means of providing both more eyewitness accounts of the daily life in the camps and offering an understanding of the psychological impact of these camps on those Uighurs who are not detained in them, I felt obliged to bring this person’s account to a broader audience. I believe this account should add to the mounting evidence of what the People’s Republic of China is actually doing today in the Xinjiang and serve as a rebuttal to the benign explanations of the Chinese state when it denies violating Uighurs’ human rights in the region.


When asked what word is presently used by Uighurs for the mass detention centers that are spread throughout the XUAR, my informant said “education centers” (terbiyilesh Merkezi), stressing that the word “vocational” is never used to describe them. If this term was favored by most Uighurs, the informant also noted that relatives tended to tell the children of those taken to the camps either that they had gone to “university” or to the “hospital.”

The description of the camp where A’s acquaintance taught painted a picture that was more like a highly fortified prison than a school or a hospital. Not only are the detainees forced to remain on the grounds, which are protected by watchtowers and barbed wire fences, but each floor of the building is self-contained to prevent interaction between those interned in different parts of the camp. In doing so, the camp’s administration also makes a conscious effort to ensure that relatives and acquaintances are on separate floors or in different buildings to further isolate individuals.

I explicitly did not ask my informant about reported physical torture in the camps because I was more concerned with the banal ways that these institutions have invaded the everyday life of all Uighurs in the region, both those inside and outside of the camps. While stories of physical torture and punishment illustrate more sensationally the camps’ gross violation of human rights, it is the terrorizing aspects of these camps’ impact on the banality of everyday life that tells us more about their broader impact on the Uighur people as a whole.

According to the teacher with whom my informant is acquainted, the daily routine of detainees is mostly composed of three main activities aside from meals. First, the detainees take part in organized physical exercise, then they are subjected to an extended class on the Chinese language that takes several hours, and finally they must endure several hours of intense propaganda instruction about Xi Jinping Thought, the duties of PRC citizens, the evils of extremism and religion more generally, and the identification of extremists. As a regular part of these propaganda lessons, the inmates are asked to participate in sessions of self-criticism where they admit their past mistakes and pledge to change their ways.

The language classes are particularly surreal in that they involve many students whose primary language is already Chinese (Minkaohan) as well as those who have almost no knowledge of the language. Frequently the instructors do not even know the language as well as many of the students. In this context, the classes cannot be very effective in actually teaching the Chinese language. Rather, the description of these classes provided by my informant sounded as if their goal was to symbolically convey the intent of the entire experience in the camps by force-feeding them a Chinese identity while stripping them of their own.

The brutal setting of the classroom cannot be conducive to learning and appears more like an elaborate form of torture. The students are forced to sit perfectly still in an upright position with their hands either crossed or on their knees for hours on end. The intense pressure of sitting upright for hours on end without movement has given most detainees one of a variety of physical ailments such as hemorrhoids and muscle disorders. All classrooms are watched by employees of the camps on CCTV cameras, and these hidden monitors quickly berate students in the Chinese language from loudspeakers in the classroom if they are observed moving, appearing to be falling asleep or fidgeting.

The teachers of these classes are also physically detached from the students and are behind a fence throughout the teaching period. If they enter the actual classroom, the same loudspeaker warns them to quickly get safely behind the fenced-in area. Thus, as has also been suggested by an ethnic Kazakh teacher in the camps who fled from the XUAR to Kazakhstan earlier this year, life as a teacher in these camps is quite traumatic itself, especially if the teacher is not ethnic Han, but from one of the local ethnic groups. For this reason, my informant noted that school directors have begun regularly using threats of being sent to the camps to teach as a means of motivating their teaching staff to be more obedient pedagogues in their present positions.

In their sleeping quarters, the detainees are placed deliberately with strangers and are prohibited from socializing or even speaking to each other. This is once again enforced by the omnipresent CCTV surveillance and loudspeakers, which will command detainees to refrain from communicating if discovered to be doing so, even with hand signals. In lieu of talking, the detainees must stay up in the evening and watch more propaganda via a television in their cell. A recent account of a former guard at a different camp notes that this constant observation by CCTV follows the inmates even into the bathrooms, which are also installed with cameras.


The intensity of this experience suggests an environment far worse than most prisons in the world. The detainees are given almost no opportunity to communicate with each other, and with the exception of morning exercise sessions, they are forced to be completely still for the majority of the day. Furthermore, while there have been some accounts of detainees being given permission to meet with family members over the course of their incarceration, testimonies also suggest that this is tightly controlled. Family members who wish to meet with inmates must be approved by their local police station and, if approved, are given rare opportunities for face-to-face contact as well as the occasional ability to talk by phone, all of which is monitored closely by the camp.

This controlled atmosphere of surveillance and limited communication must create a feeling of complete isolation. Accompanied by a barrage of propaganda focused on building a “Chinese” identity for the detainees and breaking down their Uighur identity, this isolation must inflict untold psychological trauma. For this reason, and given the indefinite term of inmates’ detention, it is not surprising that my informant’s acquaintance told A that there were frequent suicide attempts in the camp. As a result, detainees are denied access to any objects that could be used to inflict self-harm and are forced to wear uniforms that are deemed “suicide safe.”

What we are witnessing in the XUAR is a new form of ethnic cleansing that draws from all of these mass atrocities of the past while benefiting from the technologies of control available to states in the 21st century. It is a form of ethnic cleansing where the object of purging is not physical territory, but the human terrain of the ethnic group itself.

While it is virtually impossible to understand the full impact of this environment on any of those involved, whether it be the detainees, the teachers or those responsible for controlling the environment either via surveillance cameras and loudspeakers or through physical enforcement — it produces a distortion of reality in all cases. For the inmates, it must be incredibly disorienting and traumatic, creating an environment that may indeed facilitate a process of gradually cleansing them of their identity.

For many teachers, it likely creates a dilemma of conscience as they participate in parading brutal means of indoctrination and psychological torture as a form of pedagogy. And, among many security personnel, it may be creating a vicious and desensitized segment of the population for whom inflicting psychological torture and intimidation are becoming normalized as part of their banal work life.


Although not comparable with the psychological damage done to the detainees inside the camps, these “education centers” are also inflicting psychological trauma on all Uighurs in the XUAR. My informant suggested that the presence of these detention centers constantly hangs over all Uighurs’ daily life in the region. In some ways, this has created a sense of a new normalcy that people must factor into virtually all of their daily choices of action, but it also instills in people a constant fear of arbitrary detention as well as intense distrust of each other.

Some of the ways in which the camps have invaded the everyday life of Uighurs are as mundane as finding code words for telling others where their missing friends and relatives are when they have disappeared into an education center. Others are more overt, but equally mundane. As my informant explained to me, now, when one enters a store to buy clothes, the salesperson will ask without emotion if they are buying regular clothes or clothes for the camps. These examples suggest that people have to a certain extent internalized the existence of these camps as a normal part of life.

If the presence of the camps has become normalized, their incorporation into daily life also reinforces a constant fear among virtually all Uighurs that they, too, may be sent to live in them. In work places, employees are made aware of the many criteria that makes one either an “extremist,” or in state places of work (including schools and universities), a “two-faced official,” criteria against which they are constantly evaluated. While not stated explicitly, people know that these regular evaluations are intended to determine whether they will be sent to an education center.

For some Uighurs, this experience is even more immediate, as those who evaluate their loyalty are sent by the state to periodically live with them in their homes. While my informant did not experience this extreme invasion of private space, A did mention that similar evaluations of the family were regularly done by a local state-run neighborhood committee (Makhalla Komiteti).

On one hand, this process of constant evaluation offers Uighurs a road map of the things to avoid being perceived as doing as a means of navigating the new normal of Xinjiang. On the other hand, they serve as a means to force Uighurs outside the camps to forsake the markers of their identity, including their language, history and religion. Additionally, these regular evaluations provide an avenue for others to attack those with whom they may have disagreements. Thus, my informant said that there are frequent instances of people using accusations of “extremist tendencies” or “two-facedness” against others as a means to remove competitors in the workplace or neighbors with whom one has a disagreement.

In this sense, the camps have cultivated an environment of distrust and viciousness that is quite similar to those in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and China’s Cultural Revolution during the 1960s, when colleagues and neighbors frequently turned each other in as “enemies of the people” or “counter-revolutionaries” to be sent to labor camps or killed on the basis of personal grievances.

The uncertainty and lack of trust in this situation makes one live in almost constant fear that one could get the “knock on the door” from authorities. My informant said that it is widely believed that people are taken to the camps from their homes late in the evening, leading to many sleepless nights. A, for example, would stay up most nights waiting anxiously to find out if the authorities would be coming. The lack of trust cultivated by this situation has led people to take all steps possible to avoid talking about the camps and the fear they evoke. If one is to discuss this with anybody, it must be a very trusted person and in complete privacy where nobody else can hear. Thus, one cannot compare notes about the fear each is encountering, and all of these feelings must be bottled up and self-absorbed.

This internalization of fear among Uighurs in the XUAR must be creating a contradictory environment. On the one hand, people have incentives to appear unquestioning of what is happening and to embrace it as normal. On the other hand, the consciousness that at any moment one might be arbitrarily detained indefinitely in a camp must make life anything but normal. They cannot demonstrate any attachments to the social life they once lived — the bonds of family, friends, neighbors and ethnic identity must all be forsaken. This, in effect, is breaking down the social fabric of Uighur society, which is at the center of their cultural identity.


It is clear that the People’s Republic of China is seeking to radically transform the culture and identity of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic groups in the region, but to what ends? In general, these efforts have focused on the elimination of Islam, the eradication of any political voice in society, the destruction of Uighur social capital, the repression of the Uighur language and the destruction of all substance in Uighur culture beyond song, dance and perhaps a version of “national dress” that is acceptable to the state.

While the state appears to be attempting to replace these aspects of Uighur identity with the hallmarks of Chinese identity, I would posit that the goal is not assimilation because the dominant Han culture will never fully accept Uighurs as equals; rather, it is to make this ethnic group into a cultural artifact, much like the state changed the living Uighur old city in Kashgar into a museum-styled caricature of its original form.

While this systematic campaign to change identity shares some commonalities with other state-led social engineering projects from the past, it also appears to be something completely new. While its aggressive attempt to alter identity is reminiscent of Pol Pot’s Year Zero campaign in Cambodia or Mao’s Cultural Revolution, both of these examples of mass social engineering targeted the entire citizenship of states and not merely select ethnic groups. In other ways, the mass internment of people on the basis of ethnicity and religion in Xinjiang evokes the history of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, but the fact that this has yet to result in the mass murder of Uighurs suggests it is too soon to call this genocide.

Finally, it is tempting to equate efforts to quarantine and control Uighurs in the XUAR with a process of “ethnic cleansing” like that which occurred during the Yugoslav civil war, but China’s efforts vis-à-vis Uighurs and other Muslim groups in this region have not yet sought to drive these populations from the region entirely as was the intent in former Yugoslavia.

In this context, what we are witnessing in the XUAR is a new form of ethnic cleansing that draws from all of these mass atrocities of the past while benefiting from the technologies of control available to states in the 21st century. It is a form of ethnic cleansing where the object of purging is not physical territory, but the human terrain of the ethnic group itself. Whereas ethnic cleansing during the breakup of Yugoslavia sought to cleanse a territory of other ethnicities, in Xinjiang, the Chinese state appears to be trying to cleanse Uighurs of their “Uighurness.” A recent document on China’s state policy in the XUAR makes these intentions clear, noting that the goal with regards to the Uighurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.”

The appearance of new technologies for ethnic cleansing should be of great concern to the international community, which had worked throughout the second half of the last century to prevent such mass atrocities from repeating themselves. How it deals with what is happening in Xinjiang today may be a litmus test for the future, and its response will help set a precedent for how much state-led violence against citizens — particularly against minority populations — will be tolerated in the 21st century.


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Power by: Arslan Rahman