After repeated denials, Chinese officials finally admitted last month that they have set up internment camps in the far-western province of Xinjiang, where up to one million ethnic Uighurs, almost all of whom are Muslim, are being held. Under China’s anti-terrorism law and ‘religious affairs regulation,’ the government in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region publicly introduced the ‘Regulation on De-extremification.’ What it describes is a new gulag, where re-education and the suppression of Uighur identity is its main goal.
There are approximately 25 million Muslims in China today, but these new draconian laws in Xinjiang are aimed solely at the ethnic Uighurs, of which there are just over 11 million. Unlike the Hui, another major Muslim ethnic group who have largely assimilated into Chinese society, Uighurs have resisted intermarriage, speak their own Turkic language, and advocated for some level of autonomy, making them a target for suppression. Over the decades, Beijing’s heavy-handed approach has helped outside Islamist elements make inroads among Uighur youth, and spurred the formation of radical groups. As a result, the Uighurs have remained a largely colonised people, and Xinjiang has become the epicentre of Chinese Muslim resistance to Beijing.
Uighur activists have conducted numerous violent attacks since 1990, including bus bombings in Shanghai and Kunming, multiple sword and knife attacks at train stations in major cities, and a car bombing in Tiananmen Square, the symbolic centre of China. Ties between Uighur radicals, previously known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and the Taliban and Al Qaeda are among the reasons Beijing has cracked down on them so strongly.
That some Uighurs are extremists is undeniable. But the new measures introduced by the Chinese authorities do not just aim to prevent religious violence. At first glance, many of the new regulations concern activities that bedevil Western states, such as the forced wearing of the burqa in Muslim communities; or which occur in Islamist-run territories around the Middle East, such as ethnic cleansing by forcing those of other faiths out of their homes.