China's dystopian oppression of its Uighur ethnic minority group continues to shock the world. So why isn't anyone doing anything about it?
Satellite photos have exposed the rapid construction of a vast network of prison-like facilities across China's northwestern province of Xinjiang.
The West calls them internment camps.
China calls them vocational education facilities.
So, what's in a name? When it comes to the Uighur population at the heart of the project, it's a matter of life or death.
Beijing's assertion that these are benevolent training facilities is crumbling in the face of photos and footage of high-walled, barbed-wire covered, security-tower festooned facilities.
Not to mention recent footage showing 400 bound and blindfolded Uighur prisoners being loaded into railway carts.
Dr Michael Clarke of the Australian National University's National Security College says Australia must take a stand.
"The CCP's ideological framing of the 're-education' camps amounts to a racialised politics of exclusion that seeks to isolate and then 'transform' Uighurs, and other ethnic minorities, into 'normal' Chinese citizens," he says.
"We must recognise that this goes beyond the 'camps' themselves — the entire region is a domain of 'unfreedom' unparalleled in the world today, where all aspects of daily life — certainly if you are Uighur — are monitored and controlled by the State."
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of attempting to use terrorism as an excuse to "erase" minority religions and cultures.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang countered, saying the Muslims being held in detention camps were part of a "deradicalisation" process.
"These measures are no different in nature from the deradicalisation and preventive counter-terrorism measures taken by many other countries, including the United States," Geng told journalists earlier this week.
"The lies of US politicians can't deceive the world and only further reveals their ulterior political goals."
The ANU's Dr Clarke says this was an argument the Australian government must counter through leading a broad coalition of states in voicing their concerns.
"Australia must focus its lobbying on members of the 'global South', Middle East, and so on," he said.
"This cannot just be a Western-led effort because it's too easy for Beijing to deflect as 'double standards', 'imperialism' or simply as an expression of US' new Cold War rhetoric."
But it's a battle Beijing is well prepared for.
Pompeo issued a call this week for China to end its "oppressive tactics" in Xinjiang.
But Beijing's foreign ministry spokesman Mr Geng says such claims "slandered China's policy toward the Uighurs and grossly interfered in China's internal affairs".
"Xinjiang affairs are purely China's internal affairs that brook no foreign interference," he said, stating that Beijing recently released a white paper offering a comprehensive explanation of the training programs.
"We advise certain people in the United States to take off their tinted glasses, abandon their Cold-War mentalities, stop using Xinjiang-related issues to point the finger at China, stop interfering in China's internal affairs, and work to cement rather than undermine our mutual trust and co-operation."
But expatriate Uighurs are finding it almost impossible to contact friends, family — and even academic or business associates — back home. Are they in a detention centre? Are they sick?Are they dead?
This is despite Beijing insisting almost all those detained have been released.
It's a source of immense concern to Erkin Sidick. He is a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer. He's also an ethnic Uighur. And he told a recent Sydney conference of how he has experienced Beijing's ongoing persecution of Uighur intellectuals.
"I have connections, like personal friendship, with many leading intellectuals, artists, musicians, writers … and more than 20 of them are all gone now. Some of them got the death sentence."
Such widespread personal experience contradicts Beijing's assertions that those inside Xinjiang's "vocation camps" are free to come and go. And those who do manage to get in touch with loved ones often find themselves hung-up on because of fears of reprisal.
'WAR ON TERROR'
"The white paper on vocational education and training in Xinjiang that China issued … reveals the lies fabricated by some in the West about the region's vocational education and training centres," the State-approved white paper 'commentary' reads.
"Their dishonest comments about these centres show that their real intention is to interfere in China's domestic affairs with double standards under the guise of human rights."
But it admits the "vocational education and training centres" have been set up to "nip in the bud radical ideas".
"Xinjiang has long been a battlefield in the fight against terrorism and extremism in China," the white paper says. "Thousands of violent terror attacks were carried out in the region between 1990 and 2016 in the name of the three evil forces of separatism, extremism, and terrorism.
"The right to live safely is a fundamental human right, and no responsible government could sit back and let this kind of violence continue unabated."
Just how much of a threat the Uighurs represent remains hotly debated.
"My assessment — and I think that of the majority of academics who follow this closely — is that the response is vastly disproportionate to the claimed threat of Uighur terrorism," the ANU's Dr Clarke says.
"There clearly have been incidents of terrorism in or connected to Xinjiang — myself and others have documented this extensively — but there has been relatively little evidence that the violence is the work of an organised terrorist group."
And, while the white paper says the "vocational centres" had proven successful with no new "terrorist incidents" for the past three years, another State-approved article contradicts this:
"In 2018, the amount of ammunition used by the new commando unit was equal to all of the other Armed Police units in Xinjiang in the past three years," a State-run Global Times article reads.
"The leader of the Mountain Eagle Commando Unit is Wang Gang, who fought in Xinjiang's counter-terror efforts and participated in dealing with more than a dozen of serious terrorist incidents."
STATE OF DENIAL
"The vocational education and training centres are not prisons, as some people in the West have described them," the anonymous Chinese Communist Party "commentary" reads.
"They are boarding schools that provide trainees with free job skills training and work experience. This keeps them away from harmful extremist ideas, and helps them to get a job after they graduate. The freedom and legitimate rights of the trainees is fully respected and protected."
And Beijing says the "trainees" are not being detained.
"The residential education model used by the centres allows trainees to return home on a regular basis," the white paper reads. "They can also ask for leave when they need to attend to personal affairs.
"Trainees enjoy the freedom of correspondence. Regular recreational activities are held at indoor and outdoor sports and cultural facilities. There are reading rooms available, where trainees can relax or study …"
But ASPI analyst Nathan Ruser, who brought the world's attention to the video of 400 Uighur detainees, said that the Communist government had been giving "journalists and diplomats very guided, very manicured tours around the region, to particular camps to highlight what they call progress and human rights in the region". "This video undercuts that narrative and shows clearly the very inhumane treatment that detained individuals get," he said.
But Dr Clarke says not to expect Beijing to come clean any time soon.
"The logic is that the CCP now perceives there to be a relationship between 'underdevelopment', ethnic/religious identity and 'terrorism'," he says. "The 're-education' centres (or what are now officially called 'vocational training internment centres' — quite the giveaway as to their purpose — are necessary to remould Uighurs away from traditional markers of identity and assimilate them to the CCP's version of Chinese civilisation."
China's population is about 1.4 billion. Some 92 per cent of these belong to the Han ethnic group. But the nation itself is made up of 56 different groups. And ethnicity is an issue Beijing cares about: It is a compulsory component of China's identity cards.
This is odd as, under China's constitution, the rights of religious and ethnic minorities are protected.
"All ethnic groups in the People's Republic of China are equal. The State protects the lawful rights and interests of the minority nationalities and upholds and develops a relationship of equality and unity, and mutual assistance, among all of China's peoples," it reads.
China's constitution also gives its people freedom of religious belief. While the Chinese Communist Party is itself atheist, it officially recognises five religions — Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism.
"The only criterion to judge if someone needs training at a centre is whether he or she has engaged in illegal acts of terrorism or religious extremism. A person's nationality, religion, or the place where they live has no bearing on whether they are enrolled in a centre," the Communist Party' commentary' states.
But personal freedom comes second to social management, according to Clarke. The latest incarnation of this long-term Chinese Communist Party policy is the use of modern technology to apply a "social credit" score to each and every one of its citizens.
"Of course, the manner in which 'social management/social credit' manifests itself in Xinjiang has had a much harder edge. In Xinjiang, it has been used as a means of making Uighur society 'transparent' and 'fixed' in place," he says.
It is estimated China is home to some 21 million Muslims. These are mostly among the ten non-Han ethnic groups, some of which form the majority population in remote northwestern China.
"This is a situation that makes many in the Han majority, and definitely many of the Chinese government slightly uneasy," History Professor David Atwill from Penn State University recently told a conference at the University of Sydney.
And the Muslim Uighurs, in particular, have drawn the suspicion of Beijing's bureaucracy. They have sought to preserve their distinct culture, dress and language in the face of Communist Party pressure to conform.
"We are seeing both increased religious restrictions towards Muslims across China generally, and ethnic targeting of the Uighurs, specifically," Professor Atwill says.
There also is evidence of Beijing's tactics against the Uighurs beginning to be more broadly applied. Chinese Catholics, for example, last week complained that they had been ordered to remove all displays of the 10 Commandments and replace them with Chairman Xi Jinping quotes. And some Tibetan monks have reportedly been sent to "vocational" detention facilities.
"It appears that some of the aspects that we've seen in Xinjiang may be bleeding out into other regions and into the Party's handling of other ethnic and religious minorities," Dr Clarke says. "What unites all of these … is the Party's drive to reassert its ideological control over all domains of Chinese society."
Now, Beijing is offering its "social management" techniques and technologies to the world.
"China looks to be exporting the technologies that have enabled the surveillance state in Xinjiang — facial recognition tech, biometrics, and AI," says Dr Clarke, noting that a new "Smart Cities" program being promoted as part of its "Belt and Road" investment scheme "suggests the potential for the export of the methodology of 'social management'."
China is refusing to be embarrassed by the ongoing revelations about its repression of the Uighurs. Instead, it is working to both suppress debate and validate its actions.
Muslim nations have been unexpectedly quiet about the treatment of their Uighur religious and ethnic cousins. And Beijing claims broad support for its assertive actions.
"Not long ago, ambassadors of some 50 countries sent a joint letter to the president of the United Nations Human Rights Council and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressing their support for China's Xinjiang policy. This reflects the wide support and understanding China has from the international community on this issue," the Chinese Communist Party's 'commentary' on its Xinjiang white paper states.
But Clarke says several factors drive the tepid response of the Muslim world. First, Xinjiang is geographically isolated. And secondly, China has built up significant economic and diplomatic leverage throughout the Middle East — and the world.
"And many of the Muslim majority states that normally seek to speak out on the treatment of
Muslim populations elsewhere, such as Saudi Arabia, are themselves authoritarian regimes bent on regime survival," Clarke says.
And Beijing's growing diplomatic influence can be seen within the UN, he says. "It's been especially effective in the human rights arena where its efforts in the UN Human Rights Council have developed a kind of loose coalition of states that seek to push-back against what they perceive to be a Western-led human rights agenda."
Meanwhile, China continues to vocally decry any hint of criticism in and around the current session of the United Nations.
"We urge the United States to cancel the relevant meeting, stop making irresponsible remarks on the Xinjiang issue and stop interfering in the internal affairs of China in the name of human rights," foreign affairs spokesman Geng said yesterday.
US President Donald Trump dismissed the call, telling the UN it was an "urgent moral duty" for world leaders to stop crimes against faith.
Clarke says Australia must follow-through in areas within its power to achieve by continuing representations to Beijing on individual cases of Uighur-Australians in the camps. It should also, "Do more to protect Uighur-Australian population from coercion/intimidation from Beijing, for instance via establishing a co-ordinated reporting mechanism — and follow through on last year's foreign interference legislation," he added.