The Globe and Mail: Christians among those targeted in Xinjiang

The Globe and Mail


Chinese authorities are sending Christian Uyghurs and even members of the Han Chinese majority to internment camps in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, an indication that the regime’s indoctrination strategy is broader than previously understood.

Most of the hundreds of thousands of people – perhaps more than a million – sent to a sprawling network of centres for political indoctrination and vocational training are Muslims, members of minority groups such as Uyghurs and Kazakhs, according to former detainees and instructors. Beijing has said the centres are being used to stamp out extremism.

But six accounts from people who have recently lived in the region or have family there – three Christian Westerners, a lawyer, a Chinese petitioner and a Uyghur family living in France – reveal that others are also being incarcerated.

Some are Uyghurs who have converted to Christianity. Others are Han Chinese – the ethnic group that comprises more than 90 per cent of China’s population – who have challenged local authorities by petitioning for official redress, as well as people considered politically unreliable.

The reports indicate that Beijing’s campaign in the region goes beyond the stated goal, published in an August white paper on Xinjiang, of countering “the breeding and spread of terrorism and religious extremism.” The strategy claimed to be focused on quelling Islamic radicalization rather than a unique cultural group inside China.

A man in a torture position used in
Xinjiang’s camps.
(Photo: ChinaAid Stock Image)

But “all signs point to cultural assimilation” as the chief goal of the Chinese campaign, said Timothy Grose, a scholar at Terre Haute, Ind.’s Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology who studies Uyghur culture and is the author of an upcoming book about Uyghurs who study elsewhere in China. What is taking place in Xinjiang is an “accelerated, comprehensive and violent program to jettison meaningful markers of Uyghur identity, such as language, Islam and tangible connections to Central Asia, and replace them with elements of a Han-centric Chinese culture.”

Indeed, “even secular, atheist and Christian Uyghurs are being targeted, I believe, because their milieu has still been largely shaped by Central Asian and Islamic norms.”

Over the past year, Uyghurs living outside China have documented the incarceration of dozens of scholars, artists, musicians and other cultural leaders who have been taken to facilities that China calls vocational skills and training centres but which foreign critics call re-education camps.

In a July white paper, Chinese authorities directly linked Islamic belief with the spread of separatist ideology by what it called “anti-China forces attempting to split China.”

But the incarceration of Christians on extremism grounds underpins an argument that Chinese authorities have used extremism as a cover to conduct a broader campaign of sinification, irrespective of religion.

“We know of at least 14 Christians” who have been taken away by authorities in Xinjiang, said Robert Paix, a Christian businessman who has lived and worked in the region, in part to share his faith. “Islam is just one of the matrix of problems the Chinese government has with Uyghur people,” he said.

In Xinjiang, “any ideology which really captures someone’s conscience that is other than the [Communist] Party is a threat,” Mr. Paix said. “So in essence, it doesn’t matter what religion it is – or even if it was a non-religious ideology.”

Xinjiang is home to an estimated 11 million Uyghurs, a people whose customs, language, architecture and art are among the most distinct of the country’s 55 official minorities.

One Westerner who lived in the regional capital, Urumqi, with his family described the case of a Christian Uyghur woman who lived with a Han Chinese roommate. The Uyghur woman spoke Mandarin and ran a business teaching English. But in December, 2017, police took her from her apartment, put her in a prison uniform and handed her clothes, glasses and national identification card back to her roommate, said the source, a Christian whose identity The Globe and Mail is not disclosing out of concern for the safety of the person’s friends in Xinjiang.

Police said they had found questionable content on her computer, according to the source.

“The sentencing basically was very quick. From what we could understand, it was just ‘You are a terrorist,’ and there was a document that she had to sign – basically like a confession.”

Christian Uyghurs likely number only in the thousands, according to foreigners who have lived in the region. Most Uyghurs are practising Muslims or maintain cultural ties to that faith.

But from what the Westerner could see, the incarceration of Uyghurs “did not seem religious in nature. It seemed just from our experience there that the religious extremist angle was being used to really just suppress the entire people group and culture.”

Another Christian, Gulbahar Haitiwaji was incarcerated for two years, her family said. “She converted to Christianity several years ago and eschews violence,” her husband, Kerim Haitiwaji, told religious liberty magazine Bitter Winter early this year. “There is no reason to imprison her. She is not a danger to China.” The family has declined further public statements since Ms. Hatiwaji was released, and she is now with her husband and daughter in France.

Any responsible government must “remove the malignant tumour of terrorism and extremism” and ensure its people “enjoy a peaceful and harmonious social environment,” the State Council Information Office wrote in an August white paper. It defended Xinjiang’s indoctrination and training apparatus as a “deradicalization” project in line with international principles, providing free education to trainees who “have fallen under the influence and control of religious extremism.”

At the same time, the construction of a system of internment centres has provided local authorities new options for punishment outside the formal legal system – even for people who are ethnic Chinese.

Authorities can send people to the centres for making statements deemed contrary to government dictates; for spreading politically unwelcome thoughts among colleagues; and for posting politically incorrect views to Chinese social-media platform WeChat, according to a lawyer who has travelled in the region and whose identity is not being disclosed because describing the camps could lead to his own incarceration.

The Globe reviewed documents collected by a Chinese human-rights activist that described the case of a Chinese man in Xinjiang who spent years fighting embezzlement charges that dated back to 2004. He disappeared last year but reappeared this spring.

“I studied for seven months,” he said in a recorded interview with an activist reviewed by The Globe. “Studying” is a common word to describe time in indoctrination facilities. “There are Han people” in such centres, he added.

Gulzira Auelhan, an ethnic Kazakh and former detainee, told The Globe this year that she had seen four ethnic Chinese people in the centre where she was held.

Political enforcement has been employed against Uyghurs, too. One Uyghur woman who recently left Xinjiang described how her father-in-law had been sentenced to eight years in prison for “distributing incorrect political views.” The charges were rooted in an incident that, authorities said, occurred more than two decades earlier, when he was working at a government office and complained that ethnic Chinese farmers were receiving a larger allocation of water than ethnic Uyghurs. He was held for 10 months before being tried and sentenced in a single day of court proceedings, the woman said.

The woman’s identity is not being revealed because she fears retribution against members of her family still in Xinjiang. The Globe verified elements of her account with a Canadian family member and with a Western embassy that helped her leave China.

She spoke out, she said, because “I want the world to know how insane it is” for Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

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