Notre Dame on fire ...
In summer 2018, I remember talking to my friends while working on an article about the estimated 1 million Muslim minorities, mostly Uighurs, held in reeducation camps in China’s Xinjiang region. None of those friends had heard about the situation, and they were shocked to learn that concentration camps had reemerged with merely a blip on the world’s radar.
It’s been difficult to pin down facts and figures about the camps as communication between Xinjiang and the rest of the world has been largely cut off. Chinese officials initially denied the existence of the camps, but intrepid journalists began investigating them. Researchers used government tenders, job ads, and Google Earth to determine the size and scope of the camps. Members of the Uighur diaspora posted images of missing family members on social media. As the evidence mounted, Chinese officials began claiming the camps were vocational training centers for Muslim minorities with terrorist tendencies.
Despite the injustice of the forced detentions, the world was slow to respond. Muslim countries remained silent, fearful of losing lucrative Chinese investments. Western countries crafted strongly worded statements against the camps, but seemingly took little action.
In the past few months, however, it seems the tide is turning. Major leaks of classified government documents from the region revealed that the Chinese government had planned the massive crackdown on Xinjiang and was willing to use any tactic necessary to rid the region of religious extremism. The U.S. House of Representatives then passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act on Dec. 3, a bill that condemns the mass detentions and recommends sanctions on Communist officials responsible for the camps. The bill also blocks U.S. tech companies from selling technology to China that could contribute to the surveillance state.
In mid-November, The New York Times reported it had obtained 400 pages of leaked Chinese government documents about Xinjiang. The trove included a classified directive that provided local officials with a script to help them explain to Uighur students studying outside the region why their parents were missing when they returned home. The authorized answer: “They’re in a training school set up by the government.” Officials were told to warn students that their behavior could shorten or extend their relatives’ detention.
The leaked documents also provided a glimpse into the motivation for the crackdown: Private speeches by President Xi Jinping in 2014 called for the government to show “absolutely no mercy” in the “struggle against terrorism, infiltration, and separatism.” That speech came weeks after Uighur militants stabbed 150 people at a train station in Kunming, killing 31. Xi called for the party to use tools of “dictatorship” to eradicate radical Islam in the region. He likened extremism to a virus that needed treatment.
A little more than a week later, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published another trove of government documents—dubbed the “China Cables”—that included operation manuals for the reeducation camps. The documents from 2017 described how dormitory rooms had to be double locked and how camps required patrols, guard posts, video surveillance, and alarms to keep detainees from escaping. The manuals discussed how to keep the camps a secret, how to indoctrinate the detainees, and when to allow them to see relatives.
“It really shows that from the onset, the Chinese government had a plan for how to secure the vocational training centers, how to lock in the ‘students’ into their dorms, how to keep them there for at least one year,” Adrian Zenz, a leading German researcher of the camps, told ICIJ. He estimates Chinese authorities have detained between 900,000 and 1.8 million people in Xinjiang since the spring of 2017.
In response to the recent leaks and the U.S. bill, China launched a propaganda campaign claiming to show the “truth” about Xinjiang and how the vocational training centers are necessary to fight terrorism. Videos posted on YouTube in various languages depicted graphic terrorist attacks by Uighur extremists.
Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir claimed the reports were “pure fabrication” but wouldn’t say how many people had been placed in the camps. He claimed all the students in the “vocational education centers” have completed their courses and “returned to society."
Yet Zenz wrote in Foreign Policy that, according to other leaked documents, after finishing indoctrination courses Uighurs are involuntarily sent to labor-intensive sweatshops, even though many of them are highly skilled intellectuals, scientists, or businesspeople. Spreadsheets from Xinjiang’s Yarkant County reveal most factory workers earned less than minimum wage and nearly half of them are over 40. The oldest worker is 74.
“The combination of full-time work and centralized elder care and child care is to ensure family members spend more time in state-controlled settings than with each other, under constant surveillance and control,” Zenz wrote.
A photo went viral recently that showed two women burning banned books outside a library in Gansu province. The library said in a post that it had “cleaned up illegal and religious publications” by removing 65 books, which its staff then destroyed. Authorities later said they would punish the staff members, although such illegal publications are still banned from libraries in the country.
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On Nov. 17, police surrounded the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hung Hom and launched one of the fiercest confrontations with protesters since Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations began in June. Protesters’ Molotov cocktails, bricks, and bows and arrows went up against police officers’ tear gas, rubber bullets, and sponge grenades.
During a siege that lasted nearly two weeks, police arrested more than 1,000 protesters from the campus. Other protesters made daring escapes, crawling through sewers, rappelling from a bridge to awaiting motorcycles, or scaling fences. Participating in a riot carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, so some students holed up on campus for days, hoping to avoid arrest.
By Saturday, Nov. 23, about 30 protesters remained inside the PolyU campus. But although they tried to stay hidden, they were not forgotten: Outside a police cordon by the university, a group of 30 people gathered and prayed for the safety of protesters still trapped inside. Participants wept and raised their hands as they prayed and sang, “Shalom, my friends.”
Pastor Roy Chan, the founder of Protect the Children, led the prayer meeting at Hung Hom station. The meeting included a Q&A on the situation at PolyU, and attendees asked how many people were still inside the school, whether they had enough food, and how they were faring. “Even if there’s just one student left, we still keep praying for them and that God—with His protection—would help those students, so they can leave safely,” Chan said, clutching a small wooden cross.
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On Sunday morning before church, Pastor Youngman Chan arrived at his local polling station—a Catholic elementary school in Kowloon—surprised to find a long line snaking down the block. Last year, he was able to walk right into the building, but now he had to wait 45 minutes in order to cast his vote for the local district council elections.
This was the first time Hong Kongers had gone to the polls since the pro-democracy protests began in June, and many viewed it as a referendum on the movement. “For pro-establishment supporters, it’s a fight for survival,” Chan said as he waited in line with his wife. “For pro-democracy supporters, it’s a time to show the opinion of the people.”