By Nick Zuroski, Contributing Writer

With COVID-19 consuming political journalism on all fronts, it’s easy to forget about the countless other humanitarian crises unfolding across the globe. Take China’s Xinjiang province, for example. Since spring of 2017, the Chinese government has forced around one million Muslim Turkic minorities such as Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Hui into “re-education” centers in Western Xinjiang province as part of a mass ideological and behavioral indoctrination campaign. China developed this policy under the guise of countering Islamic radicalization, but recent reporting shows that the internment centers seek to socially rewire Muslim minorities and erase their culture, replacing it with loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. In addition to the internment, China has encouraged the migration of Han Chinese citizens in order to favorably shift the region’s demographics. This oppressive campaign undermines freedom of religious practice, cultural expression, and individual privacy in the world’s most populous nation and second-largest economy. In response to the vicious cycle of authoritarian surveillance, identity-based internment, and forced labor facing Xinjiang’s Uyghur and Muslim Turkic population, the United States should restore its refugee cap for fiscal year 2021 to 2019’s 30,000 limit to admit 12,000 of Xinjiang’s persecuted.  

The repressive policy in Xinjiang developed from a history of social unrest and authoritarian Chinese government control in the region. Uyghur communities declared independence in the Qing province of Xinjiang as the Republic of East Turkestan in 1933, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) assumed full authority over the region after the 1949 Communist revolution. Unrest in Xinjiang sparked in the 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union and establishment of independent Central Asian Muslim states, such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Uyghur communities in Xinjiang held demonstrations calling for independence, the majority of which were peaceful. While the demonstrations did turn violent in a few cases, like the 2009 Urumqi riots that killed 200 Han Chinese and 2014 Luntai county bombings that killed fifty people, CCP police brutality contributed to the violence of such episodes. According to academic Kilic Kanat, this violence came in the form of excessive force in the Urumqi riots and subsequent roundups and forced disappearances. The CCP used these events to justify its gradual undercutting of Uyghur civil liberties. Research conducted by The Brookings Institution notes that the Chinese government started to closely target Uyghur religious practices around 2014. Such policies involved banning of fasting for Ramadan and wearing religious clothing, restricting pilgrimages to Mecca, and even forbidding certain names because of their association with Islam.  

This monitoring involves tracking supposed “suspicious” activities like unregulated text messages, religious registrations, passport applications, and simply asking for others to pray.

The persecution that Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Hui experience through the CCP’s digital surveillance of Xinjiang’s Muslim residents constitutes unjust profiling of religious and cultural traits. The November 2019 leak of government documents to international journalists revealed that starting in 2017, the CCP has been using an intelligence tool known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform to screen Xinjiang’s Muslim population for internment. This monitoring involves tracking supposed “suspicious” activities like unregulated text messages, religious registrations, passport applications, and simply asking for others to pray. The documents even note that the government targets minorities who do not exhibit suspicious behavior, meaning that the campaign attacks innocent ethnic minorities solely on the basis of religion and culture. An additional government document leaked in early 2020 called the Karakax List corroborates this religious and cultural targeting, with the CCP using “frequent worship at a Mosque” and attendance of religious funerals as grounds for internment. Xinjiang’s government established legal authority for the surveillance and restriction of these activities in March 2017 with the passing of the “Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Regulation on Anti-Extremism” law, adding a revision in 2018 that formally allowed internment and “re-education” even though the camps had been in operation for several months.  

The environment within the internment camps is a harrowing experience that equates to a gross violation of individual liberties and rule of law. The leaked government documents outline full control over detainees’ schedules and living conditions, forcing repentance and confessions for “criminal and dangerous nature of past activity,” and erasure of cultural practices like language and religion. Detainees can leave the centers only after four Communist Party committees have seen evidence that they have transformed. They also face a harsh punishment-and-reward system based on “compliance with discipline” and “ideological transformation” that can limit outside contact with family members during internment. Journalistic reporting of Kazakh detainee, Omir Bekali, states that center officials forced him to stand at a wall for five hours at a time and deprived him of food for 24 hours.  

Finally, the strict Chinese government control over ex-detainees shows that the United States should actively protect the liberties of those released from internment by the CCP. Ex-detainee accounts, like that of Mayila Yakufu, show that the Chinese government closely monitors ex-detainee finances to imprison them for dubious charges like “funding terrorism” should they send money to relatives abroad. The CCP’s destruction of mosques and banning of traditional Hui religious clothing in Gansu province in April 2019 indicates that the government plans to expand its repressive policy and feels emboldened from its ongoing internment. Research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute reveals that between 2017 and 2019, the Chinese government coerced tens of thousands of Uyghur detainees to participate in forced labor programs by threatening to send them back to detention centers.  

Admitting 12,000 Xinjiang Muslim minority refugees by raising the refugee cap from 18,000 to 30,000 is both urgent and realistic as a policy response. The U.S. government admitted 30,000 refugees in fiscal year 2019, meeting its cap for the period. In fiscal years 2017 and 2018, the United States set much higher respective caps at 50,000 and 45,000. The campaign against Xinjiang’s Muslim minority population is widespread race and religion-based persecution, which establishes eligibility for refugee status under U.S. law. Furthermore, the United States received 4,900 refugees from Burma in fiscal year 2019, showing that there is precedent for accepting thousands of Asian refugees based on cultural genocide. The December 2019 House approval of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act is a first step in condemning China’s wrongful action, but the U.S. must now implement refugee policy that directly protects the lives and liberties of Chinese Muslim minorities. Though 12,000 Muslim Turkic minority refugees is a small share of Xinjiang’s Muslim minority population of approximately ten million, the protection of more than 10,000 lives outweighs the protection of zero.  

Nick Zuroski is a first-year graduate student pursuing an M.A. in International Affairs at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.  Nick is concentrating in international law and organizations and is currently a Policy and Research Intern at the US-ASEAN Business Council. He can be contacted at nzuroski@gwu.edu