Show no mercy: The tragedy in China’s Xinjiang

In 2012, media across the world speculated that Xi Jinping who hadn’t yet assumed the Chinese presidency would “be more tolerant of Muslim Uighurs in the western region of Xinjiang.”
Eight years on, Xinjiang, formally an autonomous region of China, is practically the largest internment camp in the world today. Its worsening condition is the direct consequence of Xi’s decisions.
In 2014, after undertaking a brief tour of Xinjiang, Xi instructed the cadres of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to “show absolutely no mercy” to its Uighur Muslim population.
The regime that now decries any allusion to the genesis of the coronavirus as bigoted then proceeded to describe Islam as a “virus”. And according to a party document, its prescription for the eradication of this pathogen was the swift “hospitalisation” of Muslims in indoctrination camps.
In 2016, the CPC began building a maze of prisons for this purpose and called them vocational training centres. Over the past three years, it has herded more than a million people — from teenagers to the very elderly — into them.
If that fact wasn’t scary enough, Beijing isn’t simply detaining people to scare them into submission: it is torturing them in order to break them from within. Its objective is not only to obtain political subjugation but to achieve psychological debilitation — to efface from the mental makeup of the Turkic people of Xinjiang their sense of themselves.
According to the testimony of a former detainee, up to 20 prisoners are packed into every cell. Heads shaved, hands and feet bound at all times, they are permanently watched by cameras.
Their day begins at 6am and ends after midnight. Their meals consist of gruel — except on Friday, the holiest day of the week for Muslims, when they are served pork, forbidden by Islam — and they are granted two minutes a day to relieve themselves in a communal bucket. The remaining hours are devoted to the performance of rituals intended to purge them of their religious and ethnic identity.
All the detainees must master Mandarin; soak themselves in party propaganda; atone for who they are by confessing to their existence as a crime; and endlessly chant slogans pledging subservience to Han supremacy: I love China! Thank you, Communist Party! I love Xi Jinping!
The CPC recruits men from the interior and dispatches them, as imperial China once did, on colonial adventures to Xinjiang.
Inmates are made to sit on chairs embedded with metal spikes, starved, and suspended from ceilings and flogged with electric truncheons; their fingernails are prised with pliers, their skin is pierced with needles, and their bodies are pumped with mysterious medicine.
“Good” behaviour cannot bring relief from this ordeal because it is impossible for the captives to know what defines “good” behaviour. Nor is there a standard for what constitutes a lapse.
Beyond the camps, Xinjiang — the size of Britain, France, and Spain combined — is in a state of persistent siege. There are checkpoints — including outside banks, schools, petrol stations, mosques — and they are at all times recording particulars of the Muslims passing through them. The checkpoints are outfitted with the technology to collect and log the digital information stored inside the mobile phones of the passersby. CCTV capable of facial recognition captures everything and sifts the minorities.
Muslims in the area are compelled at the threat of detention to download an app called Jing Wang — “clean internet” — which sweeps their phones, scans every variety of file, chronicles all the activity, and sends a user-specific report to a government database.
A government programme called ‘Integrated Joint Operations Platform’ analyses all this material using artificial intelligence to profile Muslim individuals and communities, predict crime and direct police to specific locations where it anticipates trouble.
China’s Ministry of Public Security is right now perfecting a process known as DNA phenotyping that will enable it to sketch the faces of the Uighurs using the blood samples collected without the knowledge of the people it is profiling. As it is, every detail of almost every single Muslim — blood type, weight, height, travel history, family tree, electricity usage — is available to the police in Xinjiang at the touch of a screen. The doors of some Muslim homes are stamped with QR codes which, when scanned by the authorities, display all the details of the people inside.
Any hint of piety — abjuring alcohol, growing facial hair, reading the Koran — can land a Muslim in the camps. State employees caught speaking the Uighur language in public are classified as unpatriotic “two-faced persons”. There is no emancipation even in death as the CPC, in addition to destroying and disfiguring Muslim places of worship, also razes their graves.
Xi, the most powerful leader of China since Mao, intensified these indignities, but he did not inaugurate them. The Calvary of the Turkic peoples of Xinjiang predates the existence of the People’s Republic of China by long centuries. 60% of what we call “China” is peopled by minorities: beginning in Inner Mongolia in the northeast and culminating in Tibet in the southwest, it is a buffer zone that fortifies the Han core. Xinjiang, like Tibet, is not so much a constituent part of China as China’s colonial outpost. And China has been labouring for longer than a millennium to overpower this region on the Eurasian crossroads.