On Saturday, Nov. 16, the New York Times published a 403 page directive detailing the mass detention of Muslims belonging to Turkic ethnic groups in Xinjiang, China. The Times has dubbed this report “one of the most significant leaks of government papers from inside China’s ruling Communist Party in decades.” The Chinese government has since responded, labeling the story, “a smear, filled with distortions.”  

The Xinjiang papers in question reveal that the Chinese government has put up to a million, possibly more, Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities in re-education camps which the communist government has labeled “job-training centers.” The documents indicate that the camps were first instigated by a series of private speeches People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping, gave to officials when he visited Xinjiang for the first and only time in April 2014. That visit came following a series of violent attacks by various individuals claiming allegiance to Uighur separatists. Jinping’s speeches urged for a “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism,” and to show “absolutely no mercy.” In August 2016, Chen Quanguo, current Communist Party Secretary, was transferred from Tibet to Xinjiang. He quickly expanded the camps and called for officials to “round up everyone who should be rounded up.”    

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Those being detained in the camps include individuals suspected of disloyalty toward the Chinese government and those who display “symptoms” of religious radicalism, such as wearing long beards, giving up smoking or drinking, studying Arabic and praying outside mosques — all of which are common of devout Uighurs. While it is difficult to validate the extent of the mistreatment occurring in these camps, at the very least, citizens are being incarcerated without judicial procedure or charge of any crime and subjected to severe propaganda efforts to transform them into devoted supporters of the Communist party and rid them of their Islamic beliefs. There have, however, been additional allegations of food deprivation, forced labor and other forms of abuse including sexual violence.

William Hurst, a Northwestern political science professor with a regional specialization in Asia, said the Times’s story is, “one of the most impressive pieces of journalism by international reporters in China in a long time.”

Despite this, Hurst knows there is only so much information we can garner from these reports, as most of it is at least a few years old.

“It’s hard to see if the thinking is evolving in real time,” Hurst said, “but so far the government has not shown any desire to walk back the policy.”

Hurst is unsure as to whether the leaked papers will have an impact on government policy in the United States or other countries.

“Unfortunately, Xinjiang seems not to be at the top of the agenda for most other governments,” Hurst said. “I think they should pay much more attention.”

He also noted the the U.N.’s lack of power over the situation in Xinjiang, pointing to the PRC’s permanent membership on the Security Council and thus their permanent veto power.

Regarding the creation of the camps, Hurst acknowledges there have been legitimate concerns about national security and terrorism related to Xinjiang. But the country’s response has been “disproportionate to whatever threat of political upheaval or terrorism exists.”

“It is severely troubling that the government has adopted this set of policies to address those concerns,” Hurst said.