Since the late months of 2017, news media has increasingly published more information about the detainment of ethnic minority groups in China’s “re-education” camps. These internment camps have been in operation since 2014, and the number and size of the camps have increased dramatically since 2017. Four speakers and a moderator gathered on Thursday evening at the Ford School of Public Policy to participate in a panel titled “The Human Rights Crisis in Xinjiang,” with dozens of students filling the audience of Annenberg Auditorium.
The Weiser Diplomacy Center hosted the single-night conference, which aimed to discuss the detainment of Uighur Muslims in East Turkestan. Chinese authorities recognize East Turkestan as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, or XUAR.
The detainment of Muslim ethnic minorities in China primarily targets Uighurs, a group that primarily practices Islam and has experience a long history of severe religious and cultural suppression under the Communist Party of China. The most extreme oppression of Uighur Muslims is now taking the form of their detention in internment camps, where members of ethnic minority groups are taken for “extremist” behavior— which, according to Chinese authorities, can include using Islamic greetings or choosing to eat halal. Detainees in these camps include other Muslim minorities in China, such as ethnic Kazakhs.
Estimates from various sources suggest that between 800,000 and 2 million people are currently detained in China’s internment camps.
Ann Lin, an associate professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, moderated the event. Lin began the conference with a brief overview of China’s repression of the Xinjiang region, invoking the United States’ history of its internment of Japanese Americans following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.
“I start with this piece of history because when we talk about the internment camps of Xinjiang, I think it is important to say that the Chinese government is not the only government that has dealt with fears of terrorism and political unrest by imprisoning its own citizens,” Lin said.
Nury Turkel, a former executive director and co-founder of the Uighur Human Rights Project and a Washington, D.C., staff attorney, was the first of the event’s invited guests to speak. Turkel is a self-identified Uighur American, and spoke on the urgent reality of the human rights crisis in Xinjiang. He described the extensive monitoring by the Chinese state that Uighurs experience, such as being subject to phone checks and data scans and even scans of groceries.
“And these are the things that are happening in real time, this is not a fiction, this is not a dystopian science fiction,” Turkel said, referencing a statement made by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Chinese authorities have stated the camps are means of counter-terrorism, meant to address religious extremism in the Xinjiang region. However, multiple speakers at the conference emphasized that incidents of terrorism or separatism (of the XUAR from China) attributed to Uighurs have been almost nonexistent in the past few decades, since China accelerated its intense crackdown on Uighur Muslims.
Sean Roberts, one of the speakers at the event, is an associate professor of the Practice of International Affairs and director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University with a research focus on the XUAR. Moore commented on the classification of Uighurs as “terrorists” by the Chinese government. He said he opposed this label, because the racialized connotations of the word “terrorism” have allowed Chinese authorities to carry out genocidal strategies against Muslim ethnic minorities.
“The terrorism label has taken on, I think, a certain kind of connotation that’s not human, it’s been dehumanized,” Roberts said. “And at the same time … it’s being profiled racially against Muslims.”
Public Policy senior Zoha Qureshi attended the event and said in a message to The Daily that she was able to learn more about the crisis from the speakers' stories.
"The presentations by the speakers were all very informative and I learned so much about the Uyghur crisis I didn’t know," Qureshi said."Nury Turkel spoke about his personal connection to it as a Uyghur American, and his story shed so much light onto the persecution the Uyghur people have faced for decades. I also appreciated the other two speakers’ talking about the history and the events leading up to the crisis now. This event also made me realize how much I still don’t know about what’s going on, and how important it is to use my voice to urge Congress and our government officials to take action and support the human rights of the Uyghur people."