US envoy decries lack of foreign response to China’s attack on Islam

Valid critique (and understatement of their human rights record):

The US envoy on religious liberty has said he is “disappointed” at the response of governments in the Islamic world to China’s mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims, suggesting they had been threatened by Beijing.

Sam Brownback, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said some majority-Muslim states did not want to draw attention to their own human rights record. He was hopeful that the more Muslim populations around the world heard about the imprisonment of an estimated more than 1 million Uighurs, the more they will put pressure on their governments to speak out.

The Trump administration has severely criticised Beijing for its campaign against Islam in Xinjiang province, western China, where more than two dozen mosques and Islamic shrines have been razed since 2016. But Washington, in the midst of a tense trade dispute with China, has yet to impose sanctions, and Brownback said he could not say whether any punitive measures were pending.

Meanwhile, Washington’s closest allies in the Islamic world – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt – have been silent in the face of the mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang.

At the beginning of March, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation passed a resolution which praised China for “providing care to its Muslim citizens”.

The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has also defended China’s “right to carry out anti-terrorism and counter extremism work for its national security”.

In an interview with the Guardian, Brownback said that the US has been “in discussion” with Riyadh about its response to China, but did not single out the Saudis for criticism, arguing it was an issue for the whole Islamic world.

He applauded Turkey for taking a outspoken approach, and “a number of western countries that have spoken out aggressively on this”.

But Brownback, a former Kansas governor, added: “I have been disappointed that more Islamic countries have not spoken out. I know the Chinese have been threatening them and but you don’t back down to somebody that does that. That just encourages more actions.

“If China is not stopped from doing this they’re going to replicate and push this system out in their own country and to other authoritarian regimes,” he said.

Brownback did not specify what kind of threats China is alleged to have made, but after the Turkish foreign ministry called the incarceration of Uighurs a “great shame for humanity”, China scaled down diplomatic ties and warned of damaged economic relations.

Brownback suggested another reason for reticence of some governments in the Islamic world was they felt vulnerable on their own record on religious rights.

“I think a number of who are concerned about their own human rights record and then they’re saying look: we don’t want people criticizing us [so] we’re not going to criticize somebody else,” he said.

But Brownback said he was hopeful that governments would increasingly come under pressure from their own people to take a stand on the abuses in China.

“I think as more information gets out and particularly as it gets out to the population in some of these places that you’ll see more of their governments act and react,” he said.

Source: US envoy decries lack of foreign response to China’s attack on Islam

Revealed: new evidence of China’s mission to raze the mosques of Xinjiang

Dramatic and reprehensible:

Around this time of the year, the edge of the Taklamakan desert in far western China should be overflowing with people. For decades, every spring thousands of Uighur Muslims would converge on the Imam Asim shrine, a group of buildings and fences surrounding a small mud tomb believed to contain the remains of a holy warrior from the eighth century.

Pilgrims from across the Hotan oasis would come seeking healing, fertility, and absolution, trekking through the sand in the footsteps of those ahead of them. It was one of the largest shrine festivals in the region. People left offerings and tied pieces of cloth to branches, markers of their prayers.

Visiting a sacred shrine three times, it was believed, was as good as completing the hajj, a journey many in underdeveloped southern Xinjiang could not afford.

Before and after images of the Imam Asim Shrine. Credit: Digital Globe/ Planet Labs

But this year, the Imam Asim shrine is empty. Its mosque, khaniqah, a place for Sufi rituals, and other buildings have been torn down, leaving only the tomb. The offerings and flags have disappeared. Pilgrims no longer visit.

It is one of more than two dozen Islamic religious sites that have been partly or completely demolished in Xinjiang since 2016, according to an investigation by the Guardian and open-source journalism site Bellingcat that offers new evidence of large-scale mosque razing in the Chinese territory where rights groups say Muslim minorities suffer severe religious repression.

Using satellite imagery, the Guardian and Bellingcat open-source analyst Nick Waters checked the locations of 100 mosques and shrines identified by former residents, researchers, and crowdsourced mapping tools.

Out of 91 sites analysed, 31 mosques and two major shrines, including the Imam Asim complex and another site, suffered significant structural damage between 2016 and 2018.

Of those, 15 mosques and both shrines appear to have been completely or almost completely razed. The rest of the damaged mosques had gatehouses, domes, and minarets removed.

A further nine locations identified by former Xinjiang residents as mosques, but where buildings did not have obvious indicators of being a mosque such as minarets or domes, also appeared to have been destroyed.

Uprooted, broken, desecrated

In the name of containing religious extremism, China has overseen an intensifying state campaign of mass surveillance and policing of Muslim minorities — many of them Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking group that often have more in common with their Central Asian neighbours than their Han Chinese compatriots. Researchers say as many as 1.5 million Uighurs and other Muslims have been involuntarily sent to internment or re-education camps, claims that Beijing rejects.

Campaigners and researchers believe authorities have bulldozed hundreds, possibly thousands of mosques as part of the campaign. But a lack of records of these sites — many are small village mosques and shrines — difficulties police give journalists and researchers traveling independently in Xinjiang, and widespread surveillance of residents have made it difficult to confirm reports of their destruction.

The locations found by the Guardian and Bellingcat corroborate previous reports as well as signal a new escalation in the current security clampdown: the razing of shrines. While closed years ago, major shrines have not been previously reported as demolished. Researchers say the destruction of shrines that were once sites of mass pilgrimages, a key practice for Uighur Muslims, represent a new form of assault on their culture.

Three-way composite of Jafari Sadiq shrine.
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Three-way composite of Jafari Sadiq shrine. Photograph: Planet Labs

“The images of Imam Asim in ruins are quite shocking. For the more devoted pilgrims, they would be heartbreaking,” said Rian Thum, a historian of Islamat the University of Nottingham.

Before the crackdown, pilgrims also trekked 70km into the desert to reach the Jafari Sadiq shrine, honouring Jafari Sadiq, a holy warrior whose spirit was believed to have travelled to Xinjiang to help bring Islam to the region. The tomb, on a precipice in the desert, appears to have been torn down in March 2018. Buildings for housing the pilgrims in a nearby complex are also gone, according to satellite imagery captured this month.

Before and after imagery of the Jafari Sadiq shrine. L-R Dec 10 2013, April 20, 2019.
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Before and after imagery of the Jafari Sadiq shrine. L-R Dec 10 2013, April 20, 2019. Photograph: Google Earth/ Planet Labs

“Nothing could say more clearly to the Uighurs that the Chinese state wants to uproot their culture and break their connection to the land than the desecration of their ancestors’ graves, the sacred shrines that are the landmarks of Uighur history,” said Thum.

‘When they grow up, this will be foreign to them’

The Kargilik mosque, at the centre of the old town of Kargilik in southern Xinjiang, was the largest mosque in the area. People from various villages gathered there every week. Visitors remember its tall towers, impressive entryway, and flowers and trees that formed an indoor garden.

The mosque, previously identified by online activist Shawn Zhang, appears to have been almost completely razed at some point in 2018, with its gatehouse and other buildings removed, according to satellite images analysed by the Guardian and Bellingcat.

Three locals, staff at nearby restaurants and a hotel, told the Guardian that the mosque had been torn down within the last half year. “It is gone. It was the biggest in Kargilik,” one restaurant worker said.

Another major community mosque, the Yutian Aitika mosque near Hotan, appears to have been removed in March of last year. As the largest in its district, locals would gather here on Islamic festivals. The mosque’s history dates back to 1200.

Despite being included on a list of national historical and cultural sites, its gatehouse and other buildings were removed in late 2018, according to satellite images analysed by Zhang and confirmed by Waters. The demolished buildings were likely structures that had been renovated in the 1990s.

Two local residents who worked near the mosque, the owner of a hotel and a restaurant employee, told the Guardian the mosque had been torn down. One resident said she had heard the mosque would be rebuilt but smaller, to make room for new shops.

“Many mosques are gone. In the past, in every village like in Yutian county would have had one,” said a Han Chinese restaurant owner in Yutian, who estimated that as much as 80% had been torn down.

“Before, mosques were places for Muslims to pray, have social gatherings. In recent years, they were all cancelled. It’s not only in Yutian, but the whole Hotan area, It’s all the same … it’s all been corrected,” he said.

Activists say the destruction of these historical sites is a way to assimilate the next generation of Uighurs. According to former residents, most Uighurs in Xinjiang had already stopped going to mosques, which are often equipped with surveillance systems. Most require visitors to register their IDs. Mass shrine festivals like the one at Imam Asim had been stopped for years.

Removing the structures, critics said, would make it harder for young Uighurs growing up in China to remember their distinctive background.

“If the current generation, you take away their parents and on the other hand you destroy the cultural heritage that reminds them of their origin … when they grow up, this will be foreign to them,” said a former resident of Hotan, referring to the number of Uighurs believed detained in camps, many of them separated from their families for months, sometimes years.

“Mosques being torn down is one of the few things we can see physically. What other things are happening that are hidden, that we don’t know about? That is what is scary,” he said.

The ‘sinicisation’ of Islam

China denies allegations it targets Muslim minorities, constrains their religious and cultural practices, or sends them to re-education camps. In response to questions about razed mosques, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he was “not aware of the situation mentioned”.

“China practices freedom of religion and firmly opposes and combats religious extremist thought… There are more than 20 million Muslims and more than 35,000 mosques in China. The vast majority of believers can freely engage in religious activities according to the law,” he said in a faxed statement to the Guardian.

Demolished mosque in the old town of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China.
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A demolished mosque in the old town of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, China. Photograph: Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

But Beijing is open about its goal of “sinicising” religions like Islam and Christianity to better fit China’s “national conditions”. In January, China passed a five-year plan to “guide Islam to be compatible with socialism”. In a speech in late March, party secretary Chen Quanguo who has overseen the crackdown since 2016 said the government in Xinjiang must “improve the conditions of religious places to guide “religion and socialism to adapt to each other”.

Removing Islamic buildings or features is one way of doing that, according to researchers.

“The Islamic architecture of Xinjiang, closely related to Indian and Central Asian styles, puts on public display the region’s links to the wider Islamic world,” said David Brophy, a historian of Xinjiang at the University of Sydney. “Destroying this architecture serves to smooth the path for efforts to shape a new ‘sinicised’ Uighur Islam.”

Experts say the razing of religious sites marks a return to extreme practices not seen since the Cultural Revolution when mosques and shrines were burned, or in the 1950s when major shrines were turned into museums as a way to desacralise them.

Today, officials describe any changes to mosques as an effort to “improve” them. In Xinjiang, various policies to update the mosques include adding electricity, roads, news broadcasts, radios and televisions, “cultural bookstores,” and toilets. Another includes equipping mosques with computers, air conditioning units, and lockers.

“That is code to allow them to demolish places that they deem to be in the way of progress or unsafe, to progressively yet steadily try to eradicate many of the places of worship for Uighurs and Muslim minorities,” said James Leibold, an associate professor at La Trobe University focusing on ethnic relations.

Critics say authorities are trying to remove even the history of the shrines. Rahile Dawut, a prominent Uighur academic who documented shrines across Xinjiang, disappeared in 2017. Her former colleagues and relatives believe she has been detained because of her work preserving Uighur traditions.

Dawut said in an interview in 2012: “If one were to remove these … shrines, the Uighur people would lose contact with earth. They would no longer have a personal, cultural, and spiritual history. After a few years we would not have a memory of why we live here or where we belong.”

Source: Revealed: new evidence of China’s mission to raze the mosques of Xinjiang

China’s Detention Camps for Muslims Turn to Forced Labor

Speaks for itself:

Muslim inmates from internment camps in far western China hunched over sewing machines, in row after row. They were among hundreds of thousands who had been detained and spent month after month renouncing their religious convictions. Now the government was showing them on television as models of repentance, earning good pay — and political salvation — as factory workers.

China’s ruling Communist Party has said in a surge of upbeat propaganda that a sprawling network of camps in the Xinjiang region is providing job training and putting detainees on production lines for their own good, offering an escape from poverty, backwardness and the temptations of radical Islam.

But mounting evidence suggests a system of forced labor is emerging from the camps, a development likely to intensify international condemnation of China’s drastic efforts to control and indoctrinate a Muslim ethnic minority population of more than 12 million in Xinjiang.

Accounts from the region, satellite images and previously unreported official documents indicate that growing numbers of detainees are being sent to new factories, built inside or near the camps, where inmates have little choice but to accept jobs and follow orders.

“These people who are detained provide free or low-cost forced labor for these factories,” said Mehmet Volkan Kasikci, a researcher in Turkey who has collected accounts of inmates in the factories by interviewing relatives who have left China. “Stories continue to come to me,” he said.

China has defied an international outcry against the vast internment program in Xinjiang, which holds Muslims and forces them to renounce religious piety and pledge loyalty to the party. The emerging labor program underlines the government’s determination to continue operating the camps despite calls from United Nations human rights officials, the United States and other governments to close them.

A satellite image taken in September shows an internment camp in Xinjiang. The buildings in the upper left corner appear to be of a design commonly used by factories.CreditTerraserver/Digital Globe

The program aims to transform scattered Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities — many of them farmers, shopkeepers and tradespeople — into a disciplined, Chinese-speaking industrial work force, loyal to the Communist Party and factory bosses, according to official plans published online.

These documents describe the camps as vocational training centers and do not specify whether inmates are required to accept assignments to factories or other jobs. But pervasive restrictions on the movement and employment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, as well as a government effort to persuade businesses to open factories around the camps, suggest that they have little choice.

Independent accounts from inmates who have worked in the factories are rare. The police block attempts to get near the camps and closely monitor foreign journalists who travel to Xinjiang, making it all but impossible to conduct interviews in the region. And most Uighurs who have fled Xinjiang did so before the factory program grew in recent months.

But Serikzhan Bilash, a founder of Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights, an organization in Kazakhstan that helps ethnic Kazakhs who have left neighboring Xinjiang, said he had interviewed relatives of 10 inmates who had told their families that they were made to work in factories after undergoing indoctrination in the camps.

They mostly made clothes, and they called their employers “black factories,” because of the low wages and tough conditions, he said.

Mr. Kasikci also described several cases based on interviews with family members: Sofiya Tolybaiqyzy, who was sent from a camp to work in a carpet factory. Abil Amantai, 37, who was put in a camp a year ago and told relatives he was working in a textile factory for $95 a month. Nural Razila, 25, who had studied oil drilling but after a year in a camp was sent to a new textile factory nearby.

“It’s not as though they have a choice of whether they get to work in a factory, or what factory they are assigned to,” said Darren Byler, a lecturer at the University of Washington who studies Xinjiang and visited the region in April.

He said it was safe to conclude that hundreds of thousands of detainees could be compelled to work in factories if the program were put in place at all of the region’s internment camps.

The Xinjiang government did not respond to faxed questions about the factories, nor did the State Council Information Office, the central government agency that answers reporters’ questions.

The documents detail plans for inmates, even those formally released from the camps, to take jobs at factories that work closely with the camps to continue to monitor and control them. The socks, suits, skirts and other goods made by these laborers would be sold in Chinese stores and could trickle into overseas markets.

Kashgar, an ancient, predominantly Uighur area of southern Xinjiang that is a focus of the program, reported that in 2018 alone it aimed to send 100,000 inmates who had been through the “vocational training centers” to work in factories, according to a plan issued in August.

That figure may be an ambitious political goal rather than a realistic target. But it suggests how many Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities may be held in the camps and sent to factories. Scholars have estimated that as many as one million people have been detained. The Chinese government has not issued or confirmed any figures.

“I don’t see China yielding an inch on Xinjiang,” said John Kamm, the founder of the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that lobbies China on human rights issues. “Now it seems we have entrepreneurs coming in and taking advantage of the situation.”

The evolution of the Xinjiang camps echoes China’s “re-education through labor” system, where citizens once were sent without trial to toil for years. China abolished “re-education through labor” five years ago, but Xinjiang appears to be creating a new version.

Retailers in the United States and other countries should guard against buying goods made by workers from the Xinjiang camps, which could violate laws banning imports produced by prison or forced labor, Mr. Kamm said.

While the bulk of clothes and other textile goods manufactured in Xinjiang ends up in domestic and Central Asian markets, some makes its way to the United States and Europe.

Badger Sportswear, a company based in North Carolina, last month received a container of polyester knitted T-shirts from Hetian Taida, a company in Xinjiang that was shown on a prime-time state television broadcast promoting the camps.

The program showed workers at a Hetian Taida plant, including a woman who was described as a former camp inmate. But the small factory did not appear to be on a camp site, and it is unclear whether it made the T-shirts sent to North Carolina.

Ginny Gasswint, a Badger Sportswear executive, said the company had ordered a small amount of products from Xinjiang, and used Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, a nonprofit certification organization, to ensure that its suppliers meet standards.

Seth Lennon, a spokesman for Worldwide, said that Hetian Taida had only recently enrolled in its program, and the organization had no information on possible coerced labor in Xinjiang. “We will certainly look into this,” he said.

Repeated calls over several days to Wu Hongbo, the chairman of Hetian Taida, went unanswered.

Satellite imagery suggests that production lines are being built inside some internment camps.

A state television broadcast promoting the internment camps showed textile workers at a company named Hetian Taida. The company shipped T-shirts to North Carolina last month.

Images of one camp featured in the state television broadcast, for example, show 10 to 12 large buildings with a single-story, one-room design commonly used for factories, said Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The buildings are surrounded by fencing and security towers, indicating that they are heavily guarded like the rest of the camp.

“It seems unlikely that any detainee would be able to go to any building that they were not taken to,” Mr. Ruser said.

Commercial registration records also show at least a few companies have been established this year at addresses inside internment camps. They include a printing factory, a noodle factory and at least twoclothing and textile manufacturers at camps in rural areas around Kashgar. Another clothing and bedding manufacturer is registered in a camp in Aksu in northwestern Xinjiang.

The government’s effort to connect the internment camps with factories emerged this year as the number of detainees climbed and Xinjiang faced rising costs to build and run the camps.

Many camps were once called “transformation through education centers” by the government, reflecting their mission: inducing inmates to cast aside Islamic devotion and accept Communist Party supremacy.

But since August, the Chinese government has defended the camps by arguing that they are job training centers that will help lift detainees and their families out of poverty by giving them the skills to join China’s economic mainstream. Many rural Uighurs speak little Chinese, and language training has been advertised as one of the main purposes of the camps.

Yet the practical training in the camps often appears to be rudimentary, said Adrian Zenz, a social scientist at the European School of Culture and Theology who has studied the campaign.

An early hint of the factory labor program came in March when Sun Ruizhe, the president of the China National Textile and Apparel Council, described it to senior industry representatives, according to a transcript of his speech that was posted on industry websites.

Mr. Sun said that Xinjiang planned to recruit from three main sources to increase the textile and garment sector’s work force by more than 100,000 in 2018: impoverished households, struggling relatives of prisoners and detainees, and the camp inmates, whose training “could be combined with developing the textile and apparel section.”

In April, the Xinjiang government began rolling out a plan to attract textile and garment companies. Local governments would receive funds to build production sites for them near the camps; companies would receive a subsidy of $260 to train each inmate they took on, as well other incentives.

In remarks in October defending the camps, a top official in Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, said the government was busy preparing “job assignments” for inmates formally finishing indoctrination and training. A budget document this year from Yarkant, a county in Kashgar, said the camps were responsible for “employment services.”

The inmates assigned to factories may have to stay for years.

Mr. Byler said a relative of a Uighur friend was sent to an indoctrination camp in March and formally released this fall. But he was then told he had to work for up to three years in a clothing factory.

A government official, Mr. Byler said, suggested to his friend’s family that if the relative worked hard, his time in the factory might be reduced.

The Chinese state media has praised the centers as leading wayward people toward modern civilization. It also reports that the workers are generously paid.

“The training will turn them from ‘nomads’ into skilled marvels,” the official Xinjiang Daily said last month. “Education and training will make them into ‘modern people,’ useful to society.”

Source: China’s Detention Camps for Muslims Turn to Forced Labor

In remote Xinjiang province, Uighurs are under siege

Good long piece by the Globe’s Beijing correspondent on Xinjiang and Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs, China’s Muslim minority:

That the “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region” is religiously and culturally unique, however, is beyond dispute. Islam arrived in the ninth century, largely displacing Buddhism. Today, many Uighurs are intellectually and linguistically oriented west toward Central Asia and the Middle East – watching Iranian music videos and reading Turkish news sites – rather than east toward coastal China.

Their home territory has, however, experienced tremendous change since the Communist Revolution in 1949. Briefly an independent state in the early 20th century, Xinjiang has in the past few decades become home to vast numbers of ethnic Chinese, many of them sent here by government settlement policies.

They now outnumber the Uighurs, and continue to arrive, drawn by untrammelled space and the jobs that flow from a land rich in resources.But the wealth hasn’t necessarily benefited the Uighur population. As the region’s oil and gas flow east, local filling stations routinely run short, with lineups 150 cars long.

In remote Xinjiang province, Uighurs are under siege – The Globe and Mail.