Back in August, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg wrote a column calling out discrimination in China, going so far as to state that “Jim Crow is alive and well” in the Middle Kingdom. He also noticed that from the US, little attention and moral outrage has been devoted to these discriminatory practices due to what he states is “because many refuse to be distracted from their constant watch for Islamophobia here.” In other words, the United States is not interested in Islamophobia around the world, because they are too interested in Islamophobia at home and thus pay little attention to the atrocities committed in China.
The merits of his Islamophobia diagnosis aside, Goldberg is wrong about how much attention China’s abuses are receiving, especially from the much-decried mainstream media. He cites recently published numbers from the UN that “China is holding millions of Muslim Uighurs in a sprawling gulag of ‘counter-extremism centers’ and ‘re-education camps for political and cultural indoctrination.’” But I doubt that investigation would have been conducted, or as widely circulated, had it not been for vigorous reporting by numerous media organizations and investigations by human rights groups.
In this case, the process of reporting, investigating and public denunciation have actually shown the power of media at its best, and prompted action from lawmakers in Washington, responses from China and nearly daily calls for action or explanation.
The most egregious policies implemented in China are in the northwest Xinjiang province, where there is a high population of Muslim Uighurs, as noted by Goldberg. The ethnically Turkic people have long butted heads with the authorities and the racist policies are not a recent phenomenon but rather an ongoing system that has been amplified substantially this year, extended abroad and become a testing ground for new technologies that could allow for an Orwellian level of surveillance.
In August, Rian Thum offered a summary of the history of Xinjiang back to the conquest of the region by the Qing dynasty in 1759. It was later annexed by the People’s Republic of China following the civil war and decimated by Mao’s policies. Especially since 2001, the fear of Muslim terrorism has allowed China leeway to tighten its grasp. There have been periodic uprisings since then, most recently in 2009 when Uighurs attacked and killed almost 200 ethnic Han in the region, leading to executions and the beginning of the crackdown seen today. The severity of the current situation is almost certainly related to the appointment of Communist Party secretary for the region, Chen Quanguo, who since 2016 has implemented similar policies as he did earlier in Tibet to contain unrest.
The early methods were less about suppressing Uighurs and more about dilution. Ethnic Han Chinese were incentivized to move to Xinjiang and were given better jobs and greater opportunity. This has evolved in recent years, since 2009 and especially since 2016 to include restrictions on traveling within China and abroad, discouraging or banning Uighur language, banning religious garments such as veils and practices such as fasting during Ramadan. However, recently the most prominent extensions of the crackdown are in two forms: mass detention and mass surveillance.
And the two are related. The state surveillance system measures citizens “trustworthiness” and based on those measures, some may be deemed in need of “Re-education” which would prompt internment in one of the massive, opaque detention centers recently constructed in Xinjiang. In the last year or so, the growth of these camps has drawn attention of the media, and numerous outlets have begun reporting and investigating. This is a task easier said than done in China where press freedom is rated simply as “Not Free” by Freedom House. Journalists have interviewed former detainees for firsthand accounts, or the relatives of detainees who have lost contact with loved ones often for months at a time (some never to resurface). Academics have used satellite images to map the expansion of camps, and Human Rights groups have used interviews and surveys to estimate how many have been detained in the region and outline the myriad “re-education” techniques used in the camps.
Below is a chronicle of some of the work done by those journalists, organizations and researchers in recent months and the outcomes of the investigations, reporting and exposure.
In June of this year, Adrian Zenz described in Foreign Affairs how the Chinese state measures “trustworthiness” based on two sets of principles. First is ethnocultural, which is “measured by distance from the core of Han culture, language, and ethnicity.” The second is nationalistic, requiring alignment with 12 socialist principles outlined by the Communist party that include sufficient patriotism and, as Zenz notes, the principles are related to Confucian values which emphasize “social harmony under autocratic yet benevolent leadership.”
The way the state enforces these principles is by “marrying old-fashioned manpower—such as armed police and neighborhood committees of the sort that fueled East Germany’s police state—with high-tech, networked surveillance equipment.” Upon entering mosques citizens may be required to have ID scanned. Social media is scanned such that just quoting the Quran on messaging and social networking app WeChat may prompt a visit by authorities and even detention, as reported by The Economist. Regular visits and interviews by authorities have become common for many and police checkpoints have popped up across the province, as have checkpoints to enter book stores or train stations. As the surveillance state expands though, security and police forces will be replaced by CCTV cameras that use facial recognition to track movement and whereabouts of as many people as possible.
As this surveillance and data collection has been refined, China has begun implementing a Social Credit System that provides a single number to quantify each person’s trustworthiness. This surveillance and measurement are the basis for the mass detention occurring. Those who are not trustworthy enough – they have a low social credit score – may disappear for weeks or even months, likely into one of the many detention centers, approximately mapped by Thum in Foreign Policy. There may be hundreds of thousands of the camps.
Information from those formerly detained include reports of torture, and pledging allegiance to President Xi Jingping and the Communist Party. One prisoner was not allowed to eat until he did so. Worse so, “82-year-old Muhammad Salih Hajim, a respected religious scholar, died in detention in Urumqi,” according to The Economist. When parents are interned “younger children are sent to de facto orphanages known as ‘child welfare guidance centers’ and older children are sometimes sent to state-run vocational schools.” The terrible conditions of the orphanages include small children being “locked up like farm animals in a shed.” This reporting from The Atlantic, Financial Times and Radio Free Asia.
The Social Credit Score that could land a Uighur in one of these detention centers is already alarming. The Atlantic states that the score “will likely weigh far more data than the Western fico score,” and that authorities are already “publishing the names of jaywalkers in local media and even sending them to their employers” and punishments will be inflicted on “people who associate with dissidents or critics, who circulate a petition or hold up a protest sign, or who simply wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Additionally, poor scores “can lead to bans from travel, certain schools, luxury hotels, government positions, and even dating apps.”
This Orwellian system is being most fervently deployed in Xinjiang, as well as other autonomous regions such as Tibet, but the CCP plans to deploy it on a nation wide scale, starting in cities. In 2005, Beijing launched a surveillance network called Skynet and in 2015, the succeeding system was launched, called Sharp Eyes. And it is unlikely to stop there. Already the Social Credit system uses complex algorithms to function, but there are substantial advances to be made to these techno-authoritarian policies using Artificial Intelligence, which is not as far off as it might seem.
In addition to the technological boundlessness, China is seeking to take its system international. It is extending repression of Uighurs to those abroad, either studying or working. This not only includes peripheral countries but also those in Europe and the United States. China coerces expats to come home by threatening family members or by creating travel document issues. It will force citizens abroad to come home to renew visas or passports, but only grant them a one-way ticket. The Atlantic reported on the price citizens of Xinjiang can pay for their relatives abroad, telling the story of one “academic who promotes Uighur culture and [is] a vocal critic of China’s policies toward his people” who lives in the United States because returning home is likely to land him in a camp, where several family members already are. Additionally, “relatives have deleted him as a social-media contact and refuse to be in touch… because communicating with a Uighur abroad could make them look suspicious to authorities.”
Beijing is using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional multilateral body, to extend the Uighur control to neighboring countries in Central Asia. The SCO policies mirror China’s in Xinjiang, focusing on the “three evils” of “combating extremism, terrorism and separatism,”
to the Financial Times. This summer, it was revealed that China would also be tracking its citizens who make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Not only does Beijing want to international-ize this model for its own purposes but wants to export it for use by other authoritarian regimes. This is already being started in several South American and Arab countries. Lily Kuo of The Guardian has reported on the implementation of the Xinjiang system in the region, most forcefully in Kazakhstan.
Although the repression is getting worse, there are signs of progress. In 2005 Human Rights Watch uncovered a “multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity aimed at Xinjiang’s Uighurs.” Even at the time it was revealed that “peaceful activists who practice their religion in a manner deemed unacceptable by state authorities or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials are arrested, tortured, and at times executed.” But the scaling of the system and volume of detention, especially this year, have seemed to mobilize the international community prompting more action when HRW released a similar report this February.
The most widely circulated estimates for the number detained in re-education centers are between a hundred thousands and a million but other rights groups have shown that it may be as high as three million. Awful as that may sound, the brazenness may prove emboldening for governments, and multilateral institutions to react strongly. The reports by media and rights organizations has prompted a report from the United Nations affirming the findings of those groups, a significant step toward punishing China for such actions.
In Xinjiang, the UN cites “numerous reports” of abuse including detention, surveillance, travel restrictions, forces repatriation, and banning of native languages. The UN briefing is not as comprehensive as HRW or media reports, but the authority of the UN is important. Simply bringing these transgression officially into the purview of the UN led to the first official response from China: a denial of all allegations.
But any response is significant given the earlier dismissals received by media investigations such as the Wall Street Journal: “China’s Foreign Ministry referred questions about targeting Uighurs overseas to other ministries. China’s Ministry of Public Security and State Council Information Office didn’t respond to requests for comment, and the Ministry of State Security, the top intelligence agency, wasn’t reachable for comment. Xinjiang police referred questions to the Xinjiang government, which didn’t reply.”
More important than China’s response was the response of American lawmakers. In August, following the UN report, 17 members of congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin calling for sanctions of Chinese officials and businesses involved in the policies and equipment used for surveillance and detentions. This followed an April letter from Senator Macro Rubio and Representative Chris Smith that called the Xinjiang system “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world,” and asked for the US ambassador to China to determine the necessity of sanctions.
Additionally, the media has grown more aggressive in reporting and seeking specificity. In September, Chris Buckley of the New York Times reported from Hotan in Xinjiang. His work confirmed and magnified the earlier, second hand reports from the media. In Hotan, Buckley found a city that “feels as if under siege by an invisible enemy.” More specifically, residents live among “Fortified police outposts and checkpoints dot the streets every few hundred yards. Schools, kindergartens, gas stations and hospitals are garlanded in barbed wire. Surveillance cameras sprout from shops, apartment entrances and metal poles.” Buckley has also reported on the Chinese officials involved in perpetrating the detentions, including those singled out by US lawmakers for possible sanctioning. This included chronicling the history of Chen Quanguo in Tibet, and the methods he brought with him to Xinjiang.
Buckley’s on the ground reporting from China, along with his colleagues throughout the media have helped draw extensive attention to the issues in Xinjiang, bringing the transgressions into mainstream discussion. Even comedian John Oliver used a 20-minute segment of his HBO show Last Week Tonight to shed light for his audience. The YouTube clip of the segment has over 6 million views.
The denial following the UN report prompted only further fervor from investigators, reporters and lawmakers including Buckley’s reporting from Hotan, and Kuo from Kazakhstan, and the European Union joining Washington in expressing concern. This increased assertiveness by the media and pressure from lawmakers has made clear that initial response (or silence) from Beijing would not be enough. The Hong Kong based South China Morning Post, which had remained somewhat quiet on the issue (it is owned by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba) even began reporting on Uighurs in America speaking out.
This pressure prompted an acknowledgement from Beijing of the existence of the camps. This unfortunately led not to a reversing of course but an attempt to legalize and further obscure the true purpose of the crackdown.
It is unfortunate that the mass surveillance, mass detention and social credit system of China has taken so long to become a mainstream discussion point and become an issue on the desk of UN and western government officials. But it is important to recognize that today sanctions are being prepared and UN committees are discussing how to react, and that was only possible because of the work of numerous media organizations. The uncovering and response to human rights violations started with reports from The Atlantic, the New York Times, The Guardian and many other news outlets. Academics and researchers wrote lengthy pieces describing the infractions in the pages of magazines such as Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy.
This prompted reaffirmations and further digging from human rights groups such Human Rights Watch and China Human Rights Defenders. The United Nations acknowledged and verified these findings, sparking the first response from the Chinese government, and leading quickly to a request for sanctions by American lawmakers. The attempts to evade responsibility and double down on the program by Beijing has only emboldened critics, activists and journalists to continue pushing and pressuring.
The media in China does not have the capacity, will or allowance to do such reporting, and initiate such a chain reaction. Western freedom of press in this case extended to some of the world’s most acutely subjugated, in a country among the world’s least free. The media may be imperfect, but this process of investigation and action shows the role of the media at its best. It unfortunately may be immaterial if international pressure is not enough to dissuade China from continuing oppression, but if not for free media, it is unlikely any of the above information would be available to us and certain that China’s Jim Crow would persist.