Douglas Todd: SFU prof targeted by China for groundbreaking Uyghur research

Not surprising but not acceptable:
SFU professor Darren Byler has been frequently attacked by China’s state media, which accuses him of being an agent of the U.S. government. Something he denies.
During four groundbreaking expeditions into China, the latest in 2018, Byler has witnessed many colleagues and research subjects disappear into the mass “re-education” camps and forced labour factories endured by more than 1.5 million Uyghur Muslims.

The author of In the Camps: Life in China’s High-Tech Penal Colony, was interviewed during a downtown Vancouver conference about the clampdown in Xinjiang. It was attended by 60 people, including Uyghur Canadians, international students from China, Muslim academics and activists.

Participants at the Simon Fraser University event required Postmedia’s commitment to protect their identities, so their families would not be harassed or threatened by police in China. There are about 400 ethnic Uyghurs in Metro Vancouver, the largest group of any Canadian city.

China’s authoritarian leaders are engaged in a planetary campaign to challenge and intimidate anyone who points to the incarceration, mass surveillance and draconian clampdown of the Uyghurs, which the Canadian government has called a “genocide.”

The Global Times, a tabloid newspaper arm of the Chinese Communist Party, has accused Byler of being an “anti-China figure” who makes “fabricated” allegations about “genocide and crimes against humanity” in the Xinjiang region of western China, which is inhabited by about 11 million Uyghur Muslims. The professor is sure China’s agents have attended his classes.

Byler has been with Uyghur people on the streets of China when police have stopped them, taken their mobile phones and demanded, “What is the password for your phone?” A specialist in high-tech surveillance, he says China uses 9,000 police surveillance hubs to routinely search personal data for evidence of resistance and what they consider a dangerous commitment to Islam.

Facial recognition technology is widely used in Xinjiang. Byler has first-hand knowledge of Uyghur students who have studied in North America being detained in China after omnipresent cameras found them walking outside their confinement. Families are often broken up when a Uyghur whom authorities deem suspicious is sent to a work camp, many of which produce textile goods for the West. The U.S. and Canada have laws banning such goods, but many argue they’re ineffective.

A prolific author and widely cited scholar, Byler, 40, is among the Western researchers who argue that China’s Han ethnic majority has in the past decade been escalating a colonialistic internal effort to smear the Uyghur people and systematically erase their Indigenous culture and faith. Chinese authorities often label the Uyghurs as “separatists” and “terrorists,” as well as lazy and slow.

One frequent tactic of the state-controlled Global Times is to try to silence Canadian criticism of the treatment of Uyghurs by condemning this country’s residential-school system for Indigenous children, which the federal government began in 1881 and for the most part ended by the 1970s.

This month, The Global Times enthusiastically reported on Pope Francisrecently referring to Canada’s attempt to assimilate First Nations through residential schools as “a genocide,” even while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has referred to it as “cultural genocide.”

The Global Times article cited how Canada’s Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls also called it a “genocide,” while reporting that last year “more than 1,100 unmarked graves have been discovered at former residential school sites.” Canadian media outlets now largely refer to them as “suspected” graves.

The Global Times and China’s diplomats are making a clear attempt to claim, “You in the West have no right to criticize us, because look what you did to Indigenous people,” Byler said. “They’re kind of saying, ‘You did it. So we are doing it, too.’”

While Byler believes Canada’s residential-school system was a colonialistic attempt at assimilation, he notes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has formalized a decades-long process of restitution in Canada, unlike in Australia and the U.S. And definitely unlike 21st-century China.

During the several years that Byler, a German American who is now a permanent resident of Canada, has spent living among Uyghur people in Xinjiang, he came to realize how outward-looking and sophisticated they were before China accelerated efforts to wipe out their culture.

One of many of his research papers that is drawing global attention explores how Uyghurs had been keenly taking courses from 2004 to 2014 in the English language, with students developing a special interest in novels about totalitarianism, like Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell.

Han Chinese prejudices often portray Uyghurs as “backward,” so the language students especially devoured books about Black Americans like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama. The paper, co-written with an unnamed Stanford professor, reveals the Uyghur valued learning about a society in which members of a minority could hold power.

But the English-language schools were shut, and teachers Byler knew were detained, after a 2014 visit by President Xi Jinping.

Even though most attendees at the SFU conference demanded anonymity, Byler introduced one local Uyghur who was willing to be interviewed because he has already gone public as an activist. Now a high-school science teacher in Surrey, Kabir Qurban came to Canada with his family from Afghanistan as a refugee.

Since he has become a high-profile activist in Canada, including with his own websites, Qurban said that sometimes he has attended Uyghur events, such as weddings, where attendees have asked that he not sit at the same table with them.

In this era of facial recognition technology, the Uyghur Canadians fear Chinese authorities could catch them together in a photo with the staunch critic of China. That could easily lead to a brother, sister, mother or father back in Xinjiang getting harassed by police. Or worse.

“It’s unfortunate,” Qurban said, “but I have to respect their stance.”

Source: Douglas Todd: SFU prof targeted by China for groundbreaking Uyghur research

Human rights? China won that Winter Olympics battle. Almost.

Time for Canadian Olympians and sport officials to speak up:

When three-time Olympian Gus Kenworthy took the remarkable, perhaps even brave decision to speak out against “human rights atrocities” while still in China at the Winter Games, the self-proclaimed “loud and obnoxious” British skier also proved that other athletes, had they chosen, perhaps could have used their Olympic platform to pipe up, too.

Because Kenworthy wasn’t hauled away and imprisoned, as Chinese critics of the ruling Communist Party routinely are. Doing so would have generated exactly the sort of global focus on the Chinese government’s authoritarian methods that it sought to avoid while global sports’ biggest show was in town. 

And with the notable exception of Kenworthy, China largely accomplished that mission. 

Olympians with any qualms about chasing medals in a country accused of genocide against its Muslim Uyghur population and of other abuses kept their views on those topics to themselves for the durations of their stay. And perhaps for good reason: They faced vague but, as it turned out, undeployed Chinese threats of punishment, constant surveillance and the sobering example of tennis star Peng Shuai’s difficulties after she voiced allegations of forced sex against a Communist Party official.

“We have seen an effective silencing of 2,800 athletes, and that’s scary,” said Noah Hoffman, a former U.S. Olympic skier and board member of the Global Athlete advocacy group pushing for Olympic reform.

Kenworthy, speaking to The Associated Press before his 8th-place finish in the halfpipe final on the Games’ penultimate day, laid out why.

“We’re in China, so we play by China’s rules. And China makes their rules as they go, and they certainly have the power to kind of do whatever they want: Hold an athlete, stop an athlete from leaving, stop an athlete from competing,” he said.

“I’ve also been advised to sort of tread lightly while I am here and that’s what I am trying to do.”

Immediately after competing, however, the proudly gay athlete’s gloves came off. 

He prefaced criticism with praise for China’s “incredible job with this Olympics” and carefully calibrated his words. But unlike other Olympians, he couldn’t bite his tongue until he got home. Kenworthy aimed jabs not only at the host country’s rights abuses and “poor stance on LGBTQ rights” but also at other athletes he said try “to appeal to the masses” and avoid ruffling feathers. 

“I’ve already kind of accepted that that’s not what I’m gonna do,” he said. “I’m just gonna speak my truth.” 

In fairness, Olympians found themselves squeezed on all sides in Beijing. Campaigners abroad hoped they would spark global outrage over the imprisonment in re-education camps of an estimated 1 million people or more, most of them Uyghurs. China, backed to the hilt by the International Olympic Committee, didn’t want critical voices to be heard. And their own voices told athletes to focus, focus, focus on the pursuit of Olympic success that they, their coaches and families sacrificed for.

The sweep and vagueness of a Chinese official’s threat before the Games of “certain punishment” for “any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit” appeared to have a particularly sobering effect on Beijing-bound teams. Campaigners who met with athletes in the United States in the weeks before their departure, lobbying them about Uyghurs and the crushing of dissent in Tibet and Hong Kong, noticed the chill.

“Prior to the statement, we had been engaging with quite a few athletes,” said Pema Doma, campaigns director at Students for a Free Tibet. They “were expressing a lot of interest in learning more and being engaged in the human rights issue.” 

Afterward, “there was a very, very distinct difference” and “one athlete even said to an activist directly: ‘I’ve been instructed not to take anything from you or speak to you,’” she said in a phone interview.

Other concerns also weighed on Olympians, way beyond the usual anxieties that often come with travel to a foreign land, away from home comforts.

Warnings of possible cyber-snooping by Chinese security services and team advisories that athletes leave electronic devices at home were alarming for a generation weaned on social media and constant connectivity with their worlds. 

Also wearing were daily coronavirus tests that were mandatory — and invasive, taken with swabs to the back of the throat — for all Olympians, locked inside a tightly policed bubble of health restrictions to prevent infection spreads. The penalty for testing positive was possible quarantine and missed competition, a terrible blow for winter athletes who often toil outside of the limelight, except every four years at the Games.

“Who knows where those tests go, who handles the results,” Kenworthy said. “It’s definitely in the back of the mind.”

“And there’s like all the cybersecurity stuff. It is concerning,” he told The AP.

Often, athletes simply blanked when asked about human rights, saying they weren’t qualified to speak on the issue or were focused on competition, and hunkered down. 

On Twitter, Dutch speedskater Sanne in ’t Hof blocked, unblocked and then blocked again a Uyghur living in the Netherlands who posted critical comments of Olympians in what he called “genocide” Games. Mirehmet Ablet shared a screengrab with The AP showing that the skater had barred him from accessing her account, where she tweeted that she “enjoyed every second!′ of her first Olympics. Ablet’s brother was arrested in 2017 in the Uyghur homeland of Xinjiang in far western China, and Ablet doesn’t know where he’s now held.

Other athletes also were effusive in praising their China experience. “Nothing short of amazing,” said U.S. speedskating bronze-medal winner Brittany Bowe. 

Hoffman, who competed for the U.S. at the 2014 and 2018 Games, said internal politics within teams may also have dissuaded athletes from speaking critically. Coaches can bench athletes who bring unwanted attention and “there’s pressure from your teammates to not cause a distraction,” he said in a phone interview. Athletes with self-confidence dented by sub-par performances may also have felt that they’d lost any platform.

“There’s lots of really subtle pressure,” Hoffman said. 

He expects some athletes won’t be critical once home, so as to not disrespect the cheerful and helpful Games workers.

But he’s hopeful others will speak up on their return and that “we do get a chorus.” 

Feeling unmuzzled, some already are. 

Back in Sweden with his two gold medals in speedskating, Nils van der Poel told the Aftonbladet newspaper that although he had “a very nice experience behind the scenes,” hosting the Games in China was “terrible.” He drew parallels with the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi Germany and Russia hosting the Sochi Olympics before seizing control of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. 

“It is extremely irresponsible,” van der Poel said, ”to give it to a country that violates human rights as clearly as the Chinese regime does.”

Source: Human rights? China won that Winter Olympics battle. Almost.

China’s high-tech repression of Uyghurs is more sinister — and lucrative — than it seems, anthropologist says

Keeps on getting worse:

When people started to disappear in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang in 2014, then-PhD student Darren Byler was living there, with a rare, ground-level view of events that would eventually be labelled by some as a modern-day genocide.

The American anthropologist, who learned Chinese and Uyghur languages, witnessed a digital police state rise up around him, as mass detention and surveillance became a feature of life in Xinjiang. He spent years experiencing and gathering testimony on the impact.

“It’s affected all of society,” he told CBC’s Ideas.

Since those early days of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s so-called “People’s War on Terror,”Human Rights Watch says at least one million Uyghur and other Muslims in Xinjiang have been arbitrarily detained in what China calls “re-education” or “vocational training” camps, in prisons or “pre-trial detention” facilities. 

Survivors have recounted being tortured and raped in the camps, scruitinized by the gaze of cameras 24/7, and perhaps most crucially, forced to learn how to be Chinese and unlearn what it is to be Uyghur. 

Countless of their children, says HRW, are forced to do the same in residential boarding schools. 

China — currently in the Olympic spotlight and steering clear of such topics — routinely denies accusations, including from Canada’s House of Commons, that its treatment of Uyghurs amounts to genocide. 

China declared its campaign in 2014 after a series of violent attacks that it blamed on Uyghur extremists or separatists. 

But what all Uyghurs are now facing is more sinister and lucrative than that, said Byler, now an assistant professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

It is, he said, a modern-day colonial project that operates at the nexus of state surveillance, mass detention and huge profits, and is enabled by high tech companies using ideas and technology first developed in the West.

Byler calls it “terror capitalism,” a new frontier of global capitalism that is fuelled by the labelling of a people as dangerous, and then using their labour and most private personal data to generate wealth.

“When we’re talking about a frontier of capitalism, you’re talking about turning something that previously was not a commodity into a commodity,” he said. 

“So in this context, it’s Uyghur social life, Uyghur behaviour, Uyghur digital histories that are being extracted and then quantified, measured and assessed and turned into this pattern data that is then made predictable.”

The process Byler describes involves forced harvesting of people’s data and then using it to improve predictive artificial intelligence technology. It also involves using the same population as test subjects for companies developing new tech. In other words, Xinjiang serves as an incubator for new tech.

Also critical is using those populations as unpaid or cheap labour in a resource-rich area considered a strategic corridor for China’s economic ambitions.

“As I started to think more about the technology systems that were being built and understand the money that was flowing into this space, I started to think about it as more of a kind of security industrial complex that was funding technology development and research in the region,” Byler told CBC’s Ideas.

Byler said research shows that tech companies working with Chinese state security tend to flourish and innovate, thanks largely to access to the huge troves of data collected by various levels of government.

David Yang, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, conducted such research using thousands of publicly available contracts specifically for facial recognition technology procured by mostly municipal governments all over China. 

A contracted firm with access to government data “steadily increased its product innovation not just for the government, but also for the commercial market,” for the next two years, said Yang. 

‘Health check’

Surveillance is a feature of everyday life in Xinjiang, so the personal data crucial to the profits is constantly being collected.

Central to the harvesting is a biometric ID system introduced there in 2017 requiring citizens to provide fingerprints, facial imagery, iris scans and DNA samples.

There are also turnstiles, checkpoints and cameras everywhere, and citizens are required to carry smartphones with specific apps.

“It’s the technology that really pervades all moments of life,” said Byler. “It’s so intimate. There’s no real outside to it.”

It was in 2017 that Alim (not his real name) returned to Xinjiang from abroad to see his ailing mother. His arrest upon landing in China was the start of what he said was a descent into powerlessness — and the involuntary harvesting of his data. 

Alim, now in his 30s, spoke to IDEAS on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals against remaining family in Xinjiang.

At the police station at home, as part of what he was told was a “health check,” Alim had a DNA sample taken and “multiple pictures of my face from different sides … they made me read a passage from a book” to record his voice.

“Right before the voice recording, I had an anxiety attack, realizing that I’m possibly going to be detained for a very long time,” Alim said.

The warrant for Alim’s arrest said he was “under suspicion of disrupting the societal order.” 

In a crowded and airless pre-trial detention facility, he said he was forced to march and chant Communist Party slogans. 

“I was just a student visiting home, but in the eyes of the Chinese government, my sheer identity, being a male Uyghur born after the 1980s, is enough for them to detain me.” 

Once released through the help of a relative, Alim found that his data haunted him wherever he went, setting off police alarms whenever he swiped his ID. 

“I basically realized I was in a form of house arrest. I felt trapped.”

Global connections

While the Xinjiang example is extreme, it is still an extension of surveillance that has become the norm in the West, too, but where consent is at least implicitly given when we shop online or use social media.

And just as the artificial intelligence technology used for surveillance in Xinjiang or elsewhere in China has roots in the computer labs of Silicon Valley and Big Tech companies in the West, new Chinese iterations of such technology are also being exported back into the world, selling in countries like Zimbabwe and the Philippines, said Byler.

China may be the site of “some of the sharpest, most egregious manifestations of tech oppression, but it’s by no means the only place in the world,” said lawyer and anthropologist Petra Molnar, who is associate director with the Refugee Law Lab at  York University in Toronto.

One such place is the modern international border, not only in the U.S. but also in Europe, where Molnar is studying how surveillance technology affects migrant crossings.

Molnar said China’s avid investment in artificial intelligence is creating an “arms race” that carries risks of “normalizing surveillance” in competing countries with stricter human rights laws. 

“How is this going to then impact average individuals who are concerned about the growing role of Big Tech in our society?” she said from Athens.

“It seems like we’ve skipped a few steps in terms of the kind of conversations that we need to have as a public, as a society, and especially including the perspectives of communities and groups who are the ones experiencing this.” 

‘A lot more nuance to this story’

Despite human rights concerns, other countries are loath to condemn China over Xinjiang because it is such an important part of the global economy, said Byler.

But he points out that he focuses on the economics of Xinjiang partly “to destabilize this easy binary of ‘China is bad and the West is good.'”

China’s “People’s War on Terror” should be seen as an extension of the “war on terror” that originated in the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks and is now a global phenomenon, said Byler.

“If we want to criticize China, we also have to criticize the ‘war on terror.’ We have to criticize or think carefully about capitalism and how it exploits people in multiple contexts,” he said. 

“There’s actually a lot more nuance to the story.”

The West’s complicity, he said, begins with “building these kinds of technologies without really thinking about the consequences.” 

Byler’s observations on the ground form the basis of two books he’s authored on the situation in Xinjiang — and of his policy suggestions to lawmakers, including Canadian MPs, about the repression in Xinjiang. 

He’s called on lawmakers to demand China’s leaders immediately abolish the re-education detention system and release all detainees. He’s also called for economic sanctions on Chinese authorities and technology companies that benefit from that process and for expediting asylum for Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims from China.

“I am a scholar at the end of the day,” said the Vancouver-based anthropologist.

“Maybe I can nudge people to think in ways that advocate for change. It takes many, many voices and I’m just trying to do my best with what I know how.”

Source: China’s high-tech repression of Uyghurs is more sinister — and lucrative — than it seems, anthropologist says

Multiculturalism in China from melting pot to pressure cooker

Interesting characterization of the different periods of recent Chinese history and approaches:

Headlines on re-education camps in Xinjiang and a forced switch to Mandarin as the language of instruction in Inner Mongolian primary schools have brought concern in the international community about the wellbeing of China’s ethnic minorities.

The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) minority policies have been evolving since 1949, but forced linguistic and cultural assimilation campaigns last peaked during the Cultural Revolution. In its early years, the PRC adopted the Soviet model of multinational state-building, in which being ‘Chinese’ meant ‘socialist in content while nationalist in form’. Minorities could maintain their indigenous languages and cultures in their autonomous areas so long as they remained loyal to the PRC.

Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, China gradually switched to a Chinese model of a unified Chinese nation with diversity, largely imitating the US model. This model aims to assimilate minorities into the Chinese mainstream through economic development and cultural inclusion. The government is targeting the economic gap between minority communities and the majority Han ethnicity by opening up Western China while dispatching minorities to work in coastal China.

The cultural inclusion is theoretically two-way, requiring minorities to learn Mandarin and Han culture while elevating minority cultures as part of a unified Chinese culture in state television programs and at events such as the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But some question whether China can become a melting pot. The Chinese model started to come under pressure during the leadership of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, due to ethnic riots in Xinjiang and self-immolation protests in Tibet in 2009.

Shortly after succeeding Hu, Xi began showcasing what the unified Chinese nation should look like under his reign. At the Second Work Conference on Xinjiang in May 2014, he asked ethnic groups to develop an awareness of the state, citizenship and community of the unified Chinese nation. At the Sixth Work Conference on Tibet in 2015, he said this awareness involves five identifications: with the state, the unified Chinese nation, Chinese culture, the Party and Chinese socialism.

All aspects of Xi’s minority policies were elevated as a single working slogan, ‘to forge the awareness of the community of the unified Chinese nation’, a principle further espoused in an amendment to the PRC Constitution in 2018. The impact of this new policy is demonstrated in Xi’s speech at the Third Work Conference on Xinjiang in September 2020. There he told officials that, of the five identifications, Chinese culture is the most fundamental. Xi’s policy has been understood and implemented by the Chinese government in three essential ways.

First, learning to speak Mandarin is considered critical in the identification with the unified Chinese nation. In recent years, minorities in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and other minority communities have been coerced into learning Mandarin. Resistance to this approach leads to punishments, including re-education camps, detentions, job loss and financial retribution. Bilingual teaching and research has become a political taboo in Xinjiang and other minority areas, with the government forcing academic journals on the topic to close and scholars to instead research Mandarin education.

Second, Chinese culture is understood as being that of the Han majority culture, and it is increasingly criminal to suggest otherwise. The documentary The War in the Shadows describes how editors and publishers associated with Uyghur and Kazakh language textbooks for primary and secondary schools were recently sentenced to death or life in prison. Their alleged crime is to have included in the textbooks a high percentage of indigenous material and readings regarding historic figures who were not from today’s China or who rebelled against Han oppressors.

Third, earlier this year, the Legal Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress ruled unconstitutional any items in local autonomous laws which support the use of minority languages in local schools as a medium of instruction. In their first constitutionality ruling, the committee accused them of violating the constitutional article on Putonghua promotion.

These headlines are just the tip of the iceberg of China’s coercive and accelerated assimilation program. Under Xi, the country is becoming not so much a melting pot as a pressure cooker.

Minglang Zhou is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Chinese Program and the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

China’s Crackdown on Muslims Extends to a Resort Island

Relentless pressures and crackdowns…

The call to prayer still echoes through the alleys of Sanya’s nearly 1,000-year-old Muslim neighborhood, where crescent-topped minarets rise above the rooftops. The government’s crackdown on the tiny, deeply pious community in this southern Chinese city has been subtle.

Signs on shops and homes that read “Allahu akbar” — “God is greatest” in Arabic — have been covered with foot-wide stickers promoting the “China Dream,” a nationalistic official slogan. The Chinese characters for halal, meaning permissible under Islam, have been removed from restaurant signs and menus. The authorities have closed two Islamic schools and have twice tried to bar female students from wearing head scarves.

The Utsuls, a community of no more than 10,000 Muslims in Sanya, are among the latest to emerge as targets of the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign against foreign influence and religions. Their troubles show how Beijing is working to erode the religious identity of even its smallest Muslim minorities, in a push for a unified Chinese culture with the Han ethnic majority at its core.

The new restrictions in Sanya, a city on the resort island of Hainan, mark a reversal in government policy. Until several years ago, officials supported the Utsuls’ Islamic identity and their ties with Muslim countries, according to local religious leaders and residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid government retaliation.

The party has said its restrictions on Islam and Muslim communities are aimed at curbing violent religious extremism. It has used that rationale to justify a clampdown on Muslims in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, following a series of attacksseven years ago. But Sanya has seen little unrest.

The tightening of control over the Utsuls “reveals the real face of the Chinese Communist campaign against local communities,” said Ma Haiyun, an associate professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland who studies Islam in China. “This is about trying to strengthen state control. It’s purely anti-Islam.”

The Chinese government has repeatedly denied that it opposes Islam. But under Xi Jinping, its top leader, the party has torn down mosques, ancient shrines and Islamic domes and minarets in northwestern and central China. Its crackdown has focused heavily on the Uighurs, a Central Asian Muslim minority of 11 million in Xinjiang, many of whom have been held in mass detention camps and forced to renounce Islam.

The effort to “sinicize Islam” accelerated in 2018 after the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a confidential directive ordering officials to prevent the faith from interfering with secular life and the state’s functions. The directive warned against “Arabization” and the influence of Saudi Arabia, or “Saudi-ization,” in mosques and schools.

In Sanya, the party is going after a group with a significant position in China’s relations with the Islamic world. The Utsuls have played host to Muslims from around the country seeking the balmy climes of Hainan Province, and they have served as a bridge to Muslim communities in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

The Utsuls’ Islamic identity was celebrated for years by the government as China pushed for stronger links with the Arab world. Such links have been key to Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, a program to finance infrastructure projects across the world and increase Beijing’s political sway in the process.

The Utsuls have become “an important base for Muslims who have moved abroad to find their roots and investigate their ancestors,” said a government notice in 2017 hailing the role of Islam in Hainan in the Belt and Road plan. “To date, they have received thousands of scholars and friends from more than a dozen countries and regions, and are an important window for cultural exchanges among peoples around the South China Sea.”

Genghis Khan’s memory is erased from view as China cracks down on Mongolian culture

Yet one more example of Chinese government repression of ethnic minorities:

One of history’s most influential figures has been drawn into a Chinese government campaign to impose ethnic conformity on people of Mongolian descent.

Genghis Khan, the 12th-century conqueror, has long been both an icon of the Mongolian people and a rallying figure for nationalists. Now he is becoming a symbol of Beijing’s new effort to put pressure on its Mongolian population, as authorities across the country are demanding greater adherence to a centrally defined notion of what it means to be Chinese.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party of China has made it harder for ethnic minorities to maintain unique languages, identities and belief systems – a policy that also includes a push to expunge foreign influences from religion, philosophy and schools. Genghis Khan’s standing among Mongolians has long made him a source of disquiet for the Chinese government. “Genghis Khan is a god in Mongolians’ minds,” said Ulzidelger Jagchid, an ethnic Mongolian from China who is now an activist living abroad. “The government fears that Mongolians, with this belief in a god, will come together and unite.” Beijing, he said, “wants to lower the position of Genghis Khan in Mongolians’ world.”Zoom/Pan

In Hulunbuir, a small administrative centre of China’s Inner Mongolia region, in the midst of sprawling grasslands, plaques describing the warrior’s exploits have been removed and defaced in the area around an oboo, a sacred site built around a stone from his birthplace. One rock formerly held a tablet with a quote from Anandyn Amar, a former Mongolian prime minister and independence advocate who called Genghis Khan a leader who had made the Mongolian people “famous across the Four Seas.” A series of other plaques, displayed until recently below a lengthy stone frieze depicting his birth and exploits, have disappeared; only their dark outlines remain on the concrete below.

It is not clear who is responsible or whether their removal was an instance of historical negationism or an act of protest against the government. Some plaques still on display show signs of having been painted over and subsequently cleaned. The propaganda office in Hulunbuir did not respond to a faxed Globe and Mail request for comment.

But the alteration and vandalism of a site devoted to Genghis Khan inside China comes after local authorities banned unilingual, Mongolian instruction in schools, supplanting it with bilingual – Mandarin and Mongolian – education that, people in Hulunbuir say, has dramatically reduced the classroom time devoted to a language that is still used in many homes. About 6.5 million ethnic Mongolians live in China today. Similar education policies have been used to enforce conformity in other areas of China with large culturally distinct minorities, including Tibet and Xinjiang.

The bilingual education policy prompted a rare series of public protests across Inner Mongolia this fall, with parents and students boycotting classes for more than a week in Hulunbuir. Authorities responded with arrests and firings. A number of Communist Party members were ordered to attend “the Party school for education and training.” When some refused, they were expelled from the Party.

It has been followed by other signs of a deepening crackdown on Mongolian culture.

Last month, the Château des ducs de Bretagne history museum in France postponed an exhibit about Genghis Khan and his empire that had been planned in partnership with the Inner Mongolia Museum in China. Before the exhibit could open, the French museum said, the Chinese Bureau of Cultural Heritage demanded changes, including the removal of the words “Genghis Khan,” “Empire” and “Mongol.” The bureau instead proposed its own plan for the exhibit, which sought “the complete disappearance of Mongol history and culture in favour of a new official narrative,” the museum said.

Schools in Inner Mongolia have continued to display Mongolian script, according to pictures seen by The Globe. But activists say images of Genghis Khan have been removed, although The Globe was sent a photo of a portrait that remains in one school in the region.

Communist China has gone to war with Genghis Khan before.

During the bloody tumult of the Cultural Revolution, worship of the Mongol emperor was outlawed and some of his relics destroyed. Mao Zedong mocked him as a short-lived ruler who knew “no more than hunting eagles.” Subsequent Chinese policies have actually sought to recast and embrace him as a Chinese leader.

But for ethnic Mongolians, Genghis Khan remains very important, said a Mongolian woman in Hulunbuir, adding that all Mongolian families have an image of him in their homes.

The Globe is not identifying Mongolians in Hulunbuir because those who criticize government policy in China face serious reprisals.

At least two museums in the region with Genghis Khan and Mongolian culture exhibits are currently not open to visitors. In Manzhouli, the Zhalainuo’er Museum says it is doing renovations in response to a forest fire that took place Oct. 1 near a city almost 1,400 kilometres away. In Ordos, the display halls at the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan are also closed. A worker said infrastructure upgrades are under way. Outdoor areas with religious significance remain open.

Another museum dedicated to “The Secret History of the Mongols,” which state media called the only museum of its kind when it opened last year, says it only accepts pre-screened visitors.

In Hulunbuir, classes have resumed. An apparently new police station now sits outside the gate of a local middle school. Large characters on an electronic sign inside proclaim: “10,000 people of one mind, unity is strength.”

But resentment simmers.

One young Mongolian man in Hulunbuir said – in flawless Chinese – that when he was a student, classes were conducted entirely in Mongolian and that Mandarin was a minor subject. Many families still sought Mandarin lessons for their children because the language offered better employment prospects.

Now, however, there is no way to resist a government intent on enforcing a single vision of what it means to be Chinese, the young man said.

But what can’t be taught in school can be taught at home, he said, vowing to raise his future children with a knowledge of their ancestral tongue.

“Maintaining the Mongolian language to me is a must. It’s a symbol of our people,” he said.

Genghis Khan, meanwhile, remains a spiritual ballast, he said.


China Targets Muslim Scholars And Writers With Increasingly Harsh Restrictions

Yet another example of Chinese government repression:

This spring, 14 men were brought into police offices, where, one by one, they were subjected to weeks of questioning about their online correspondence and political views.

Their offense? Buying Islamic books.

The men were detained in Yiwu, China, an international commercial hub on the country’s wealthy east coast and home to a growing community of Muslims. The detentions are emblematic of increasingly harsh restrictions targeting spiritual and educational life for Muslims in China.

Once focused on giving minorities limited cultural autonomy, China’s ethnic policy has shifted in the last decade toward an approach that favors complete assimilation with China’s Han ethnic majority in language and religious practice. Muslims in China now fear that religious freedoms are regressing to those in the days of the Cultural Revolution, a decade of severe political and religious persecution in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Every household would burn their religious books in case they were searched. Shredders were sold out. People would flush the book ashes down the toilet, sometime clogging the pipes,” one Chinese Muslim publisher says of that era. “The persecution we are facing now is worse than that time.”

The publisher, who has fled China and continues to publish books from abroad, requested anonymity because at least 40 of his relatives have been detained or sentenced to prison for their religious beliefs or connection to him. Many in his publishing network have been arrested or fled the country.

“The state only wants its garden to have one type of flower,” he says. “The red ones. Green, blue or white flowers: if they are not red, they will be cut down.”

Targeting scholars and writers

“Intellectuals are the bearers of tradition. They’re looked up to as the arbiters, the judges of what is the the real Islam, and so they make an attractive target for a government that is interested in either controlling cultural expression or trying to completely reengineer it,” says Rian Thum, who studies Islam in China as a senior research fellow at Britain’s University of Nottingham.

China is home to about 23 million practicing Muslims, according to its 2010 census, the most recent count — less than 2% of the country’s population. Most are Uighur — a Turkic ethnic group — or labeled as Hui, ethnically and linguistically indistinguishable from China’s Han ethnic majority. Chinese Muslims are most densely clustered in the northwestern regions of Gansu, Ningxia and Xinjiang, but live across the country, as they have for more than a millennium.

Last year, NPR reported that authorities had forced nearly all mosques in Ningxia and the eastern province of Henan to “renovate” by removing their domes and Arabic script. Demolitions have since extended to mosques in Zhejiang and Gansu provinces. But practicing Muslims say the most heavy-handed restrictions have targeted the intangible channels through which they have preserved their faith in China for centuries.

Beginning in 2018, new religious restrictions shuttered hundreds of Arabic language and Islamic schools across Ningxia and Zhengzhou, Henan’s capital. Imams must now take political education classes as part of a revamped certification program. The program also mandates that they can only serve in the region where their household is registered, effectively disbarring hundreds of itinerant imams.

The restrictions have only intensified since then. Mosque demolitions have spread. The intellectual heart of China’s Islamic community has largely been silenced as scholars, writers, religious leaders and their families are under constant state surveillance. A once-thriving academic and religious exchange between Chinese Muslims and centers across the Middle East and South Asia has halted, as those having business or religious ties abroad are subject to Chinese state harassment and detention.

“What dominates Muslim [government] cadres is the [Communist] party line and the official version of Islam promoted by government agencies and organizations,” says Ma Haiyun, an assistant professor at Frostburg State University, where he studies Islam in China. “The result of this restriction is to make traditional discourses on Islam more commercial, patriotic and Chinese.”

“We lived like ghosts”

The door to Qingzhen Shuju — Islam Books — remains padlocked, the shop full of stacks of books in their unopened packaging.

Located in an upscale university neighborhood in Beijing, the bookstore and its accompanying website were a prominent publisher of Islamic philosophy works and the newest Arabic works translated into Chinese — until publisher Ma Yinglong (no relation to Ma Haiyun) was arrested in 2017 on charges of illegal publishing and terrorism. Two people close to him say he remains in detention in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region.

A second influential publisher, Ma Zhixiong (no relation to either Ma), ran a prolific imprint called Tianma Publishing from China’s southwestern Yunnan province until he too was imprisoned for selling illegal books, in 2015. He was released on probation this year.

“The printing plant was closed and our equipment and all books were confiscated. In the first days [of my imprisonment], I was almost completely cut off from the outside world,” Ma Zhixiong wrote in an essay widely circulated this fall among chat groups on the Chinese WeChat app. “During my prison days, human dignity disappeared. Every day, people had to take off their clothes for inspection and to hold our heads while squatting down while being interrogated… We lived like ghosts.”

The two publishers were a critical link in a world of writers, publishers and bookstores, the backbone for religious studies in China. Their arrests are evidence of a crackdown widening from its epicenter in Xinjiang, where authorities have detained hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, sentencing some to lengthy prison terms for practicing Islam.

Despite international criticism, Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared the detention and security policies in Xinjiang “entirely correct” and a “success” at a September meeting of party officials. “We must persevere in Sinicizing the direction of our country’s religions,” he said.

The crushing of China’s Muslim writing community is a marked reversal from a period of literary openness after economic and political reforms took hold in the 1980s.

Despite some restrictions, Muslim writers thrived in the laissez-faire atmosphere of those decades. For example, unable to get the commercial book codes — similar to an ISBN number — allotted to state-sanctioned publishers for state-approved volumes, writers and editors self-published their works and distributed them by mail to readers and religious bookstores that were ubiquitous for decades outside larger mosques.

“Many people have been oppressed for their speech in China but among the Muslim community, those who get into trouble for their writing or publishing have gone unnoticed,” a prominent Chinese Muslim writer tells NPR.

He fled China last year after friends warned that police were seeking to detain him. He requested anonymity out of concern for the safety of his immediate family, almost all of whom remain in China.

He and hundreds of other Chinese Muslims used to moderate online forums and events and curated websites that discussed issues of scripture and philosophy. By 2016, those sites were shut down or censored within China’s Great Firewall. They moved to WeChat, where the writer now runs chat groups of 500 people each, but doing so requires constant vigilance: “Even on WeChat,” he says, “it is a continuous process of continually being shut down by censors and starting a new group.”

WeChat would also ensnare the 14 people detained in Yiwu earlier this year; all had purchased this writer’s books on history, scripture and philosophy through the app.

“They interrogated them about their relationship with several Muslim intellectuals and overseas Chinese Muslims. The police had printed out the text records everyone had had on WeChat with writers and publishers,” said a friend of one of those detained, who requested anonymity to avoid detention for speaking out. “Now the police say every time they travel, they have to report to them beforehand when they are leaving and where they are going.”

As for China’s Muslim community leaders, “There are no imams who dare to speak out,” says a scholar who leads a Quran reading group in northwestern China. “You can renounce your state-given imam certification and leave the mosque in order to speak out — but then you can be sure you will be constantly monitored.”

“They know what you are up to”

Beginning in 2017, Chinese Muslims outside Xinjiang watched with dread as hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority, were detained and sent either to “reeducation centers” or prison.

Soon after, Xinjiang security officers began fanning out to other provinces to send Hui Muslims with identity documents registered in Xinjiang back to the region.

One of those forcibly returned to Xinjiang was a young Hui woman who taught at a religious school in a mosque outside Xinjiang, after completing a theological studies degree at Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar University. Last December, Xinjiang police abruptly detained her and brought her back to her hometown of Tacheng.

“We asked them, why send 30 men to apprehend a young woman and her infant at 11 at night. It was unbelievable,” says a fellow teacher who asked to remain anonymous and keep his location withheld because he was detained and questioned after speaking to NPR.

He learned in March that the woman had been slapped with a seven-year prison sentence but doesn’t know on what charges.

Four Hui Muslims born in Xinjiang told NPR they managed to change the registration of their identity documents, called hukou, to another province before 2017, as restrictions on Uighurs and practicing Muslims in Xinjiang became more draconian.

Others moved abroad, but even outside China, Xinjiang security officials continue to harass them through WeChat.

“My hometown police somehow knew that I had even moved apartments this year,” says one Hui Muslim now living in Egypt who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from Chinese security officials. The police officers send “friendly” messages weekly, the person says, full of smiley faces, heart emojis and stickers, but their intent is clear: “It is meant to show they know what you are up to and to remind you of where you are from.”

Efforts to co-opt Muslim leaders

Xinjiang policing has even reached a beachside city on Hainan, a Chinese tropical island province in the South China Sea. Home to a small community of historically Muslim Utsuls, Hainan’s warm climes have begun attracting retirees and vacationers from other provinces during the winter months, including large numbers of Hui Muslims.

Last February, during Lunar New Year holidays, two Xinjiang public security officers set up a table at one of the six mosques in the city of Sanya to register identification documents of everyone who attended Friday prayers, according to two people who attended prayers that day. One of them evaded registration by slipping out through a side door.

In September, at the start of the fall semester, public schools in predominantly Utsul neighborhoods in Sanya began banning female students from wearing headscarves to class. Videos shared with NPR show the female students being cordoned outside the Tianya Utsul Elementary School because they refused to comply.

Local Communist Party regulations now ban party members from practicing Islam and call for increased governance of Muslim neighborhoods in Sanya, according to the South China Morning Post.

Chinese security forces have also been seeding the ranks of local branches of the Islamic Association of China, a state-run body which organizes the only officially permitted hajj pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia.

One Islamic scholar says his son was approached by Chinese security officers this year, shortly before his son’s promotion as imam of a mosque and membership in the Islamic Association. NPR is not disclosing his name or location because he was detained and questioned after speaking with NPR.

“They offered [him] a full civil servant’s salary and pension for the work and an appointment as board member of a local state company if he secretly worked for them,” the scholar says.

His son refused the offer.

Source: China Targets Muslim Scholars And Writers With Increasingly Harsh Restrictions

Why the World Should Care About Language in Inner Mongolia

Yet another example of Chinese government repression and attempts at cultural genocide:

On August 26 China passed a law to sideline teaching in the Mongolian language in the region of Inner Mongolia (also referred to as Southern Mongolia). This measure, which sparked immediate protests, will create irreparable losses not just for ethnic Mongolians, but also for many cultures around the world.

What is at stake here is not just the spoken language, but an 800-year-old script with a multicultural lineage that emanated from the golden era of the Silk Route.

Mongolian, as a language, is still widely spoken in independent Mongolia, but the “Mongolian script” was largely lost after the Russians introduced Cyrillic in the 1940s, when Stalin sought to control the country as a buffer against China. This makes the Inner Mongolians, who are currently under Chinese rule, the last custodians of the script. For academics, historians, linguists, and cultural aficionados, the Mongolian script holds the key to historical links between cultures that were forged during the Silk Route era and earlier. Understanding this connection might help people realize that this is not Mongolia’s fight alone.

For decades, China’s ongoing efforts to assimilate its minorities had it cracking down harshly on the religions, and languages of Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongolians. These are all largely nomadic cultures that were propagators of multicultural exchanges at the height of the Silk Route era.

Like the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, who have been struggling against Chinese hegemony, Mongolians have been protesting since August, but punitive measures taken by the Chinese government leave Mongolians with little choice but to concede.

“This is the final blow to our culture,” said Enghebatu Togochog, director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.  “The world should know that it is not simply a language issue. This strikes at the very heart and existence of our national identity. If we lose our language we lose everything. We’ve already lost political autonomy, our nomadic way of life, and our environment. This is cultural genocide.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, in the independent state of the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR), a democratic revolution in 1990 pushed for a switch from Russian Cyrillic to the old Mongolian script. That idea, however, received little interest and gained no traction. Parents saw it as a hindrance to their children’s future prospects at the time. But the recent protests in the Inner Mongolian region have made Mongolians in the MPR realize what they failed to in 1990. The significance and threat to their cultural, intellectual, and literary heritage is now being viewed through a new lens.

“Public opinion in MPR has changed drastically since China’s crackdown on Inner Mongolia,” said Otgonsuren Jargaliin, an outer Mongolian teacher, linguist, and environmental activist. “Mongolians now see the urgent need to preserve and protect this ancient script and not take it for granted. They now appreciate that 80 years of Cyrillic is not on par with 800 years of a writing that is our lineage and ancestry.”

She pointed out that as recently as last week MPR National Television was now carrying subtitles not only in Cyrillic, but also in the old Mongolian script, which was a new development.

The Mongolian Script

The story of the Mongolian script starts with Genghis Khan. In 1204 he appointed the Uyghur scholar Tatatunga to develop a unifying script after he established his empire. The new Mongolian script was adapted from an old Uyghur script.

The Uyghurs today are Turkic-speaking Muslims, descended from the Uyghur Khaganate, a nomadic kingdom in Mongolia, which was predominantly Manichaean and then later Buddhist. It lasted from 744 to 840 CE. It was while they were Manicheans that the Uyghurs adopted their script from the Sogdians. By the 16 century, however, the Uyghurs had transitioned to the Arabic script and were no longer using their own.

The Sogdians, meanwhile, were the remnant traders of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire, who capitalized on economic opportunities along the Silk Route from the fourth to ninth centuries. Like many Silk Route traders, they exported not just material goods but fashion, culture, religion, arts, and language. Their script had its roots in Aramaic.

The Uyghurs replaced the Sogdians as custodians of the script from the eighth to the beginning of the 13th century, when Genghis Khan introduced it to his new empire, the largest contiguous one the world had ever seen. As the lingua franca of the Mongolian Empire, the script was used widely connecting east with west, the Pacific to the Mediterranean.

The history of the script, therefore, offers a well documented evolution of a writing that originated from the ancient Mesopotamian civilization, and traveled across time and cultures through the Silk Route. The script’s history tells us how people from vast geographical backgrounds were connected, often not out of choice, but nevertheless linked through trade and travel. It shows us how our ancestries and heritages are all interlinked and interconnected.

The indigenous nomadic tribes from different cultures, along with traders from different regions and countries, brought a broader understanding of a socio-cultural world through their free movement along the Silk Route. Unlike China’s nationalistic ideology, they were not confined to a specific religion, nationality, ethnicity, language, or geographical boundary. This was what promoted cultural connectivity and created an era of great cultural exchange.

Today China is trying to recreate its idea of a Silk Route through its “One Belt, One Road” foreign policy and economic strategy, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative. But what China fails to recognize is that the success of the original Silk Route was due to its recognition and acceptance of the many cultures it spanned and encountered. Cultural legacies were embraced and valued rather than wiped out along the way in the name of uniformity. The Belt and Road Initiative can’t replicate the success of the Silk Route if it persecutes the very people and cultures, like the Mongolians, that made the original routes last for centuries.

The irony is that, in trying to recreate the Silk Road through its nationalistic lens, China may once again end up with something that is just another “Made in China” imitation.

Source: Why the World Should Care About Language in Inner Mongolia

In China’s Xinjiang, Forced Medication Accompanies Coronavirus Lockdown

News from China and the Uighurs gets worse and worse:

When police arrested the middle-aged Uighur woman at the height of China’s coronavirus outbreak, she was crammed into a cell with dozens of other women in a detention center.

There, she said, she was forced to drink a medicine that made her feel weak and nauseous, guards watching as she gulped. She and the others also had to strip naked once a week and cover their faces as guards hosed them and their cells down with disinfectant “like firemen,” she said.

“It was scalding,” recounted the woman by phone from Xinjiang, declining to be named out of fear of retribution. “My hands were ruined, my skin was peeling.”

The government in China’s far northwest Xinjiang region is resorting to draconian measures to combat the coronavirus, including physically locking residents in homes, imposing quarantines of more than 40 days and arresting those who do not comply. Furthermore, in what experts call a breach of medical ethics, some residents are being coerced into swallowing traditional Chinese medicine, according to government notices, social media posts and interviews with three people in quarantine in Xinjiang.

There is a lack of rigorous clinical data showing traditional Chinese medicine works against the virus, and one of the herbal remedies used in Xinjiang, Qingfei Paidu, includes ingredients banned in Germany, Switzerland, the U.S. and other countries for high levels of toxins and carcinogens.

The latest grueling lockdown, now in its 45th day, comes in response to 826 cases reported in Xinjiang since mid-July, China’s largest caseload since the initial outbreak. But the Xinjiang lockdown is especially striking because of its severity, and because there hasn’t been a single new case of local transmission in over a week.

Harsh lockdowns have been imposed elsewhere in China, most notably in Wuhan in Hubei province, where the virus was first detected. But though Wuhan grappled with over 50,000 cases and Hubei with 68,000 in all, many more than in Xinjiang, residents there weren’t forced to take traditional medicine and were generally allowed outdoors within their compounds for exercise or grocery deliveries.

The response to an outbreak of more than 300 cases in Beijing in early June was milder still, with a few select neighborhoods locked down for a few weeks. In contrast, more than half of Xinjiang’s 25 million people are under a lockdown that extends hundreds of miles from the center of the outbreak in the capital, Urumqi, according to an AP review of government notices and state media reports.

Even as Wuhan and the rest of China has mostly returned to ordinary life, Xinjiang’s lockdown is backed by a vast surveillance apparatus that has turned the region into a digital police state. Over the past three years, Xinjiang authorities have swept a million or more Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities into various forms of detention, including extrajudicial internment camps, under a widespread security crackdown.

After being detained for over a month, the Uighur woman was released and locked into her home. Conditions are now better, she told the AP, but she is still under lockdown, despite regular tests showing she is free of the virus.

Once a day, she says, community workers force traditional medicine in white unmarked bottles on her, saying she’ll be detained if she doesn’t drink them. The AP saw photos of the bottles, which match those in images from another Xinjiang resident and others circulating on Chinese social media.

Authorities say the measures taken are for the well-being of all residents, though they haven’t commented on why they are harsher than those taken elsewhere. The Chinese government has struggled for decades to control Xinjiang, at times clashing violently with many of the region’s native Uighurs, who resent Beijing’s heavy-handed rule.

“The Xinjiang Autonomous Region upheld the principle of people and life first….and guaranteed the safety and health of local people of all ethnic groups,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a press briefing Friday.

Xinjiang authorities can carry out the harsh measures, experts say, because of its lavishly funded security apparatus, which by some estimates deploys the most police per capita of anywhere on the planet.

“Xinjiang is a police state, so it’s basically martial law,” says Darren Byler, a researcher on the Uighurs at the University of Colorado. “They think Uighurs can’t really police themselves, they have to be forced to comply in order for a quarantine to be effective.”

Not all the recent outbreak measures in Xinjiang are targeted at the Uighurs and other largely Muslim minorities. Some are being enforced on China’s majority Han residents in Xinjiang as well, though they are generally spared the extrajudicial detention used against minorities. This month, thousands of Xinjiang residents took to social media to complain about what they called excessive measures against the virus in posts that are often censored, some with images of residents handcuffed to railings and front doors sealed with metal bars.

One Han Chinese woman with the last name of Wang posted photos of herself drinking traditional Chinese medicine in front of a medical worker in full protective gear.

“Why are you forcing us to drink medicine when we’re not sick!” she asked in a Aug. 18 post that was swiftly deleted. “Who will take responsibility if there’s problems after drinking so much medicine? Why don’t we even have the right to protect our own health?”

A few days later she simply wrote: “I’ve lost all hope. I cry when I think about it.”

After the heavy criticism, the authorities eased some restrictions last week, now allowing some residents to walk in their compounds, and a limited few to leave the region after a bureaucratic approval process.

Wang did not respond to a request for interviews. But her account is in line with many others posted on social media, as well as those interviewed by the AP.

One Han businessman working between Urumqi and Beijing told the AP he was put in quarantine in mid-July. Despite having taken coronavirus tests five times and testing negative each time, he said, the authorities still haven’t let him out – not for so much as a walk. When he’s complained about his condition online, he said, he’s had his posts deleted and been told to stay silent.

“The most terrible thing is silence,” he wrote on Chinese social media site Weibo in mid-August. “After a long silence, you will fall into the abyss of hopelessness.”

“I’ve been in this room for so long, I don’t remember how long. I just want to forget,” he wrote again, days later. “I’m writing out my feelings to reassure myself I still exist. I fear I’ll be forgotten by the world.”

“I’m falling apart,” he told the AP more recently, declining to be named out of fear of retribution.

He, too, is being forced to take Chinese traditional medicine, he said, including liquid from the same unmarked white bottles as the Uighur woman. He is also forced to take Lianhua Qingwen, a herbal remedy seized regularly by U.S. Customs and Border patrol for violating FDA laws by falsely claiming to be effective against COVID-19.

Since the start of the outbreak, the Chinese government has pushed traditional medicine on its population. The remedies are touted by President Xi Jinping, China’s nationalist, authoritarian leader, who has advocated a revival of traditional Chinese culture. Although some state-backed doctors say they have conducted trials showing the medicine works against the virus, no rigorous clinical data supporting that claim has been published in international scientific journals.

“None of these medicines have been scientifically proven to be effective and safe,” said Fang Shimin, a former biochemist and writer known for his investigations of scientific fraud in China who now lives in the United States. “It’s unethical to force people, sick or healthy, to take unproven medicines.”

When the virus first started spreading, thousands flooded pharmacies in Hubei province searching for traditional remedies after state media promoted their effectiveness against the virus. Packs of pills were tucked into care packages sent to Chinese workers and students overseas, some emblazoned with the Chinese flag, others reading: “The motherland will forever firmly back you up”.

But the new measures in Xinjiang forcing some residents to take the medicine is unprecedented, experts say. The government says that the participation rate in traditional Chinese medicine treatment in the region has “reached 100%”, according to a state media report. When asked about resident complaints that they were being forced to take Chinese medicine, one local official said it was being done “according to expert opinion.”

“We’re helping resolve the problems of ordinary people,” said Liu Haijiang, the head of Dabancheng district in Urumqi, “like getting their children to school, delivering them medicine or getting them a doctor.”

With Xi’s ascent, critics of Chinese traditional medicine have fallen silent. In April, an influential Hubei doctor, Yu Xiangdong, was removed from a hospital management position for questioning the efficacy of the remedies, an acquittance confirmed. A government notice online said Yu “openly published inappropriate remarks slandering the nation’s epidemic prevention policy and traditional Chinese medicine.”

In March, the World Health Organization removed guidance on its site saying that herbal remedies were not effective against the virus and could be harmful, saying it was “too broad”. And in May, the Beijing city government announced a draft law that would criminalize speech “defaming or slandering” traditional Chinese medicine. Now, the government is pushing traditional Chinese remedies as a treatment for COVID-19 overseas, sending pills and specialists to countries such as Iran, Italy, and the Philippines.

Other leaders have also spearheaded unproven and potentially risky remedies – notably U.S. President Donald Trump, who stumped for the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which can cause heart rhythm problems, despite no evidence that it’s effective against COVID-19. But China appears to be the first to force citizens – at least in Xinjiang – to take them.

The Chinese government’s push for traditional medicine is bolstering the fortunes of billionaires and padding state coffers. The family of Wu Yiling, the founder of the company that makes Lianhua Qingwen, has seen the value of their stake more than double in the past six months, netting them over a billion dollars. Also profiting: the Guangdong government, which owns a stake in Wu’s company.

“It’s a huge waste of money, these companies are making millions,” said a public health expert who works closely with the Chinese government, declining to be identified out of fear of retribution. “But then again – why not take it? There’s a placebo effect, it’s not that harmful. Why bother? There’s no point in fighting on this.”

Measures vary widely by city and neighborhood, and not all residents are taking the medication. The Uighur woman says that despite the threats against her, she’s flushing the liquid and pills down the toilet. A Han man whose parents are in Xinjiang told the AP that for them, the remedies are voluntary.

Though the measures are “extreme,” he says, they’re understandable.

“There’s no other way if the government wants to control this epidemic,” he said, declining to be named to avoid retribution. “We don’t want our outbreak to become like Europe or America.”

Source: In China’s Xinjiang, Forced Medication Accompanies Coronavirus Lockdown

Secret documents reveal inner workings of China’s mass detention camps for Uyghurs, other minorities

No longer any opportunity to deny on the part of China and its supporters. Cultural genocide in practice and the degree of organization, the bureaucratic precision, and the attention to detail are reminiscent of the Nazi Germany’s physical genocide of Jews, Roma and others:

The watch towers, double-locked doors and video surveillance in the Chinese camps are there “to prevent escapes.” Uyghurs and other minorities held inside are scored on how well they speak the dominant Mandarin language and follow strict rules on everything down to bathing and using the toilet, scores that determine if they can leave.

“Manner education” is mandatory, but “vocational skills improvement” is offered only after a year in the camps.

Voluntary job training is the reason the Chinese government has given for detaining more than a million ethnic minorities, most of them Muslims. But a classified blueprint leaked to a consortium of news organizations shows the camps are instead precisely what former detainees have described: Forced ideological and behavioural re-education centres run in secret.

The classified documents lay out the Chinese government’s deliberate strategy to lock up ethnic minorities even before they commit a crime, to rewire their thoughts and the language they speak.

The papers also show how Beijing is pioneering a new form of social control using data and artificial intelligence. Drawing on data collected by mass surveillance technology, computers issued the names of tens of thousands of people for interrogation or detention in just one week.

Taken as a whole, the documents give the most significant description yet of high-tech mass detention in the 21st century in the words of the Chinese government itself. Experts say they spell out a vast system that targets, surveils and grades entire ethnicities to forcibly assimilate and subdue them – especially Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic minority of more than 10 million people with their own language and culture.

“They confirm that this is a form of cultural genocide,” said Adrian Zenz, a leading security expert on the far western region of Xinjiang, the Uighur homeland. “It really shows that from the onset, the Chinese government had a plan.”

Zenz said the documents echo the aim of the camps as outlined in a 2017 report from a local branch of the Xinjiang Ministry of Justice: To “wash brains, cleanse hearts, support the right, remove the wrong.”

‘Like a movie’: In Xinjiang, new evidence that China stages prayers, street scenes for visiting delegations

China has struggled for decades to control Xinjiang, where the Uyghurs have long resented Beijing’s heavy-handed rule. After the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Chinese officials began justifying harsh security measures and religious restrictions as necessary to fend off terrorism, arguing that young Uyghurs were susceptible to the influence of Islamic extremism. Hundreds have died since in terror attacks, reprisals and race riots, both Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched what he called a “People’s War on Terror” when bombs set off by Uighur militants tore through a train station in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, just hours after he concluded his first state visit there.

“Build steel walls and iron fortresses. Set up nets above and snares below,” state media cited Xi as saying. “Cracking down severely on violent terrorist activities must be the focus of our current struggle.”

In 2016, the crackdown intensified dramatically after Xi named Chen Quanguo, a hardline official transferred from Tibet, as Xinjiang’s new head. Most of the documents were issued in 2017, as Xinjiang’s “War on Terror” morphed into an extraordinary mass detention campaign using military-style technology.

The practices largely continue today. The Chinese government says they work.

“Since the measures have been taken, there’s no single terrorist incident in the past three years,” said a written response from the Chinese Embassy in the United Kingdom. “Xinjiang is much safer … The so-called leaked documents are fabrication and fake news.”

The statement said that religious freedom and the personal freedom of detainees was “fully respected” in Xinjiang.

The documents were given to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists by an anonymous source. The ICIJ verified them by examining state media reports and public notices from the time, consulting experts, cross-checking signatures and confirming the contents with former camp employees and detainees.

They consist of a notice with guidelines for the camps, four bulletins on how to use technology to target people, and a court case sentencing a Uighur Communist Party member to 10 years in prison for telling colleagues not to say dirty words, watch porn or eat without praying.

The documents were issued to rank-and-file officials by the powerful Xinjiang Communist Party Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the region’s top authority overseeing police, courts and state security. They were put out under the head official at the time, Zhu Hailun, who annotated and signed some personally.

The documents confirm from the government itself what is known about the camps from the testimony of dozens of Uyghurs and Kazakhs, satellite imagery and tightly monitored visits by journalists to the region.

Erzhan Qurban, an ethnic Kazakh who moved back to Kazakhstan, was grabbed by police on a trip back to China to see his mother and accused of committing crimes abroad. He protested that he was a simple herder who had done nothing wrong. But for the authorities, his time in Kazakhstan was reason enough for detention.

Qurban told the AP he was locked in a cell with 10 others last year and told not to engage in “religious activities” like praying. They were forced to sit on plastic stools in rigid postures for hours at a time. Talk was forbidden, and two guards kept watch 24 hours a day. Inspectors checked that nails were short and faces trimmed of moustaches and beards, traditionally worn by pious Muslims.

Those who disobeyed were forced to squat or spend 24 hours in solitary confinement in a frigid room.

“It wasn’t education, it was just punishment,” said Qurban, who was held for nine months. “I was treated like an animal.”


On February 18, 2017, Zhu, the Han Chinese official who signed the documents, stood in chilly winter weather atop the front steps of the capital’s city hall, overlooking thousands of police in black brandishing rifles.

“With the powerful fist of the People’s Democratic Dictatorship, all separatist activities and all terrorists shall be smashed to pieces,” Zhu announced into a microphone.

With that began a new chapter in the state’s crackdown. Police called Uyghurs and knocked on their doors at night to take them in for questioning. Others were stopped at borders or arrested at airports.

In the years since, as Uyghurs and Kazakhs were sent to the camps in droves, the government built hundreds of schools and orphanages to house and re-educate their children. Many of those who fled into exile don’t even know where their children or loved ones are.

The documents make clear that many of those detained have not actually done anything. One document explicitly states that the purpose of the pervasive digital surveillance is “to prevent problems before they happen” – in other words, to calculate who might rebel and detain them before they have a chance.

This is done through a system called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform or IJOP, designed to screen entire populations. Built by a state-owned military contractor, the IJOP began as an intelligence-sharing tool developed after Chinese military theorists studied the U.S. army’s use of information technology in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There’s no other place in the world where a computer can send you to an internment camp,” said Rian Thum, a Xinjiang expert at the University of Nottingham. “This is absolutely unprecedented.”

The IJOP spat out the names of people considered suspicious, such as thousands of “unauthorized” imams not registered with the Chinese government, along with their associates. Suspicious or extremist behaviour was so broadly defined that it included going abroad, asking others to pray or using cellphone apps that cannot be monitored by the government.

The IJOP zoomed in on users of “Kuai Ya,” a mobile application similar to the iPhone’s Airdrop, which had become popular in Xinjiang because it allows people to exchange videos and messages privately. One bulletin showed that officials identified more than 40,000 “Kuai Ya” users for investigation and potential detention; of those, 32 were listed as belonging to “terrorist organizations.”

“They’re scared people will spread religion through `Kuai Ya,“’ said a man detained after police accused him of using the app. He spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to protect himself and his family. “They can’t regulate it … So they want to arrest everyone who’s used `Kuai Ya’ before.”

The system also targeted people who obtained foreign passports or visas, reflecting the government’s fear of Islamic extremist influences from abroad and deep discomfort with any connection between the Uyghurs and the outside world. Officials were asked to verify the identities even of people outside the country, showing how China is casting its dragnet for Uyghurs far beyond Xinjiang.

In recent years, Beijing has put pressure on countries to which Uyghurs have fled, such as Thailand and Afghanistan, to send them back to China. In other countries, state security has also contacted Uyghurs and pushed them to spy on each other. For example, a restaurateur now in Turkey, Qurbanjan Nurmemet, said police contacted him with videos of his son strapped to a chair and asked him for information on other Uyghurs in Turkey.

Despite the Chinese government’s insistence that the camps are vocational training centres for the poor and uneducated, the documents show that those rounded up included party officials and university students.

After the names were collected, lists of targeted people were passed to prefecture governments, who forwarded them to district heads, then local police stations, neighbour watchmen, and Communist Party cadres living with Uighur families.

Some former detainees recalled being summoned by officers and told their names were listed for detention. From there, people were funnelled into different parts of the system, from house arrest to detention centres with three levels of monitoring to, at its most extreme, prison.

Experts say the detentions are a clear violation of China’s own laws and constitution. Maggie Lewis, a professor of Chinese law at Seton Hall University, said the Communist Party is circumventing the Chinese legal system in Xinjiang.

“Once you’re stamped as an enemy, the gloves go off,” she said. “They’re not even trying to justify this legally … This is arbitrary.”

The detention campaign is sweeping. A bulletin notes that in a single week in June 2017, the IJOP identified 24,612 “suspicious persons” in southern Xinjiang, with 15,683 sent to “education and training,” 706 to prison and 2,096 to house arrest. It is unknown how typical this week might be. Local officials claim far less than a million are in “training,” but researchers estimate up to 1.8 million have been detained at one point or another.

The bulletins stress that relationships must be scrutinized closely, with those interrogated pushed to report the names of friends and relatives. Mamattursun Omar, a Uighur chef arrested after working in Egypt, was interrogated in four detention facilities over nine months in 2017. Omar told the AP that police asked him to verify the identities of other Uyghurs in Egypt.

Eventually, Omar says, they began torturing him to make him confess that Uighur students had gone to Egypt to take part in jihad. They strapped him to a contraption called a “tiger chair,” shocked him with electric batons, beat him with pipes and whipped him with computer cords.

“I couldn’t take it anymore,” Omar said. “I just told them what they wanted me to say.”

Omar gave the names of six others who worked at a restaurant with him in Egypt. All were sent to prison.


The documents also detail what happens after someone is sent to an “education and training centre.”

Publicly, in a recent white paper, China’s State Council said “the personal freedom of trainees at the education and training centres is protected in accordance with the law.” But internally, the documents describe facilities with police stations at the front gates, high guard towers, one-button alarms and video surveillance with no blind spots.

Detainees are only allowed to leave if absolutely necessary, for example because of illness, and even so must have somebody “specially accompany, monitor and control” them. Bath time and toilet breaks are strictly managed and controlled “to prevent escapes.” And cellphones are strictly forbidden to stop “collusion between inside and outside.”

“Escape was impossible,” said Kazakh kingergarten administrator Sayragul Sauytbay, a Communist Party member who was abducted by police in October 2017 and forced to become a Mandarin camp instructor. “In every corner in every place there were armed police.”

Sauytbay called the detention centre a “concentration camp … much more horrifying than prison,” with rape, brainwashing and torture in a “black room” were people screamed. She and another former prisoner, Zumrat Dawut, also told the ICIJ detainees were given medication that made them listless and obedient, and every move was surveilled.

AP journalists who visited Xinjiang in December 2018 saw patrol towers and high walls lined with green barbed wire fencing around camps. One camp in Artux, just north of Kashgar, sat in the middle of a vast, empty, rocky field, and appeared to include a police station at the entrance, workshops, a hospital and dormitories, one with a sign reading “House of Workers” in Chinese.

Recent satellite imagery shows that guard towers and fencing have been removed from some facilities, suggesting the region may have been softening restrictions in response to global criticism. Shohrat Zakir, the governor of Xinjiang, said in March that those detained can now request time and go home on weekends, a claim the AP could not independently verify.

The first item listed as part of the curriculum is ideological education, a bold attempt to change how detainees think and act. It is partly rooted in the ancient Chinese belief in transformation through education – taken before to terrifying extremes during the mass thought reform campaigns of Mao Zedong.

“It’s the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, except now it’s powered by high-tech,” said Zenz, the researcher.

By showing students the error of their former ways, the centres are supposed to promote “repentance and confession,” the directive said. For example, Qurban, the Kazakh herder, was handcuffed, brought to an interview with a Han Chinese leader and forced to acknowledge that he regretted visiting abroad.

The indoctrination goes along with what is called “manner education,” where behaviour is dictated down to ensuring “timely haircuts and shaves,” “regular change of clothes” and “bathing once or twice a week.” The tone, experts say, echoes a general perception by the Han Chinese government that Uyghurs are prone to violence and need to be civilized – in much the same way white colonialists treated indigenous people in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

“It’s a similar kind of saviour mentality – that these poor Uyghurs didn’t understand that they were being led astray by extremists,” said Darren Byler, a scholar of Uighur culture at the University of Washington. “The way they think about Uyghurs in general is that they are backward, that they’re not educated … these people are unhygienic and need to be taught how to clean themselves.”

Students are to be allowed a phone conversation with relatives at least once a week, and can meet them via video at least once a month, the documents say. Trainers are told to pay attention to “the ideological problems and emotional changes that arise after family communications.”

Mandarin is mandated. Beijing has said “the customs of all ethnic groups and the right to use their spoken and written languages are fully protected at the centres.” But the documents show that in practice, lessons are taught in Mandarin, and it is the language to be used in daily communication.

A former staffer at Xinjiang TV now in Europe was also selected to become a Mandarin teacher during his month-long detention in 2017. Twice a day, detainees were lined up and inspected by police, and a few were questioned in Mandarin at random, he told the AP. Those who couldn’t respond in Mandarin were beaten or deprived of food for days. Otherwise, speaking was forbidden.

One day, the former teacher recalled, an officer asked an old farmer in Mandarin whether he liked the detention centre. The man apologized in broken Mandarin and Uighur, saying it was hard for him to understand because of his age. The officer strode over and struck the old man’s head with a baton. He crumpled to the ground, bleeding.

“They didn’t see us as humans,” said the former teacher, who declined to provide his name out of fear of retribution against his family. “They treated us like animals – like pigs, cows, sheep.”

Detainees are tested on Mandarin, ideology and discipline, with “one small test per week, one medium test per month, and one big test per season,” the documents state. These test scores feed into an elaborate point system.

Detainees who do well are to be rewarded with perks like family visits, and may be allowed to “graduate” and leave. Detainees who do poorly are to be sent to a stricter “management area” with longer detention times. Former detainees told the AP that punishments included food deprivation, handcuffing, solitary confinement, beatings and torture.

Detainees’ scores are entered in the IJOP. Students are sent to separate facilities for “intensive skills training” only after at least one year of learning ideology, law and Mandarin.

After they leave, the documents stipulate, every effort should be made to get them jobs. Some detainees describe being forced to sign job contracts, working long hours for low pay and barred from leaving factory grounds during weekdays.

Qurban, the Kazakh herder, said after nine months in the camp, a supervisor came to tell him he was “forgiven” but must never tell what he had seen. After he returned to his village, officials told him he had to work in a factory.

“If you don’t go, we’ll send you back to the centre,” an official said.

Qurban went to a garment factory, which he wasn’t allowed to leave. After 53 days stitching clothes, he was released. After another month under house arrest, he finally was allowed to return to Kazakhstan and see his children. He received his salary in cash: 300 Chinese yuan, or just under $42.

Long an ordinary herder who thought little of politics, Qurban used to count many Han Chinese among his friends. Now, he said, he’s begun to hate them.

“I’ve never committed a crime, I’ve never done anything wrong,” he said. “It was beyond comprehension why they put me there.”

Source: The directives