China’s far-northwestern region of Xinjiang has revised legislation to provide a legal basis for internment camps where up to one million Muslims are being held amid mounting international criticism.
New clauses adopted by the regional government officially permit the use of “education and training centres” to reform “people influenced by extremism.”
Chinese authorities deny that the internment camps exist but say petty criminals are sent to vocational “training centres.” Former detainees in the centres say they were forced to denounce Islam and profess loyalty to the Communist Party in what they describe as political indoctrination camps.
“It’s a retrospective justification for the mass detainment of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang,” said James Leibold, a scholar of Chinese ethnic policies at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. “It’s a new form of re-education that’s unprecedented and doesn’t really have a legal basis, and I see them scrambling to try to create a legal basis for this policy.”
The revisions, published Tuesday, say government agencies at the county level and above “may establish occupational skills education and training centres, education transformation organizations and management departments to transform people influenced by extremism through education.”
A new clause directs the centres to teach the Mandarin language and provide occupational and legal education, as well as “ideological education, psychological rehabilitation and behaviour correction.”
The original legislation announced in 2017 banned the wearing of veils, “extreme speech and behaviour” and the refusal to listen to public radio and television broadcasts.
U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday called for a stronger response to the Chinese government’s repression and asked the FBI to investigate claims of intimidation against certain immigrant communities in the United States.
The remarks, coinciding with an annual rights report by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, were the latest signal of more assertive U.S. statements on Chinese rights issues as the Trump administration presses its trade battles with Beijing.
The report asserts that the Chinese crackdown “may be the largest incarceration of an ethnic minority population since World War II, and that it may constitute crimes against humanity.”
Last week, Vice President Mike Pence made a speech calling for a fundamental reset of U.S.-China ties.
It’s a new form of re-education that’s unprecedented and doesn’t really have a legal basis
The congressional commission — a bipartisan group created by Congress to monitor developments in human rights and other issues in China — used this year’s report to highlight the persecution of Chinese Uighurs, a Muslim minority in Xinjiang.
The commission’s co-chairmen, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., unveiled a bill that seeks to condemn the Chinese crackdowns in Xinjiang and urged the U.S. government to consider sanctions against Chinese leaders.
Rubio also said he would nominate a jailed Uighur scholar, Ilham Tohti, for the Nobel Peace Prize and urge the International Olympic Committee to review China’s plans to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
In a letter addressed to FBI Director Christopher Wray, Rubio and Smith called on the agency to look into allegations that the Chinese Communist Party is harassing and intimidating diaspora communities, including Uighurs with family in Xinjiang, on U.S. soil.
“Members of the Uyghur diaspora community in the United States have indicated that they are unwilling to appear at public events, including congressional hearings, out of fear that they will be surveilled and their family members in China punished as a result. This is unacceptable,” the letter reads, using a variation of the spelling of “Uighur.”
The letter also asks the FBI to set up an anonymous tip line to “counter brazen Chinese government threats and influence operations on U.S. soil.”
The moves on Capitol Hill come at a time when China is doubling down on its Xinjiang policies in the face of international pressure.
The updated law represented the first time that China has attempted to provide some semblance of legal justification for the detention centres, which have been operating secretly for years outside China’s judicial system.
Is the situation really as bad as they say?
Until recently, China had simply denied the existence of the centres despite extensive documentary evidence, first-person accounts and satellite images showing their buildup across Xinjiang – a huge swath of land bordering Central Asia.
In recent weeks, Chinese officials and state media have offered full-throated defences of the government’s actions in Xinjiang, often by warning about the danger of Islamic extremism.
But the new law appeared to characterize behaviours such as not watching Chinese television and not smoking as evidence of radicalization.
On Monday, Communist Party officials in the Xinjiang regional capital urged cadres via social media to fight an ideological battle against the trend of approving foods for halal certification. Allowing more foods to be labeled halal could promote the spread of Islamic practice and ultimately lead to the “mire of religious extremism,” the state-run Global Times newspaper said in an article about the campaign.
The next day, Tianshan — a news portal run by the Xinjiang government — published a fiery essay hailing the region’s crackdown as an “emancipation of the mind.”
“Recently, some Western countries have gotten worked up like a shrill housewife threatening to impose ‘sanctions’ on China,” the essay read. “Is the situation really as bad as they say?”
La Trobe University’s Leibold believes that the revisions are an attempt to deflect international criticism. China is up for review by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in November.
“Regardless of these revisions, I still believe the practice of coercively detaining Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang in “education through transformation centres” not only violates Chinese law but also international legal norms against the extrajudicial deprivation of liberty,” Leibold said.