China’s cost-free gulag for Muslims


Guard towers stand on the perimeter wall of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng in western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on April 23, 2021. China’s discriminatory detention of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity, the U.N. human rights office said in a long-awaited report released on Aug. 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

China’s prolonged detention of more than 1 million Muslims in Xinjiang represents the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi era. Yet, disturbingly, China has incurred no international costs.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, the brain behind the scheme, and his inner circle have faced no consequences for sustaining the Muslim gulag since at least March 2017. Despite two successive U.S. administrations describing the unparalleled repression in Xinjiang as “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” Western actions against China have largely been symbolic.

The just-released report on Xinjiang by the United Nations’ human rights office cites serious human-rights violations there and recommends that Beijing take “prompt steps to release all individuals arbitrarily deprived of their liberty” in that sprawling ethnic-minority homeland.

Yet this report, paradoxically, is a fresh reminder that China has escaped scot-free, with little prospect that it will be held to account for its mass internment of Muslim minorities, including expanding detention sites in Xinjiang since 2019. The Xinjiang repression also includes forced sterilization and abortion, torture of detainees, slave labor and draconian curbs on freedom of religion and movement.

The report’s release came after nearly a yearlong delay and just minutes before the four-year term of Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, ended. U.N. investigators had compiled the Xinjiang report almost a year ago, but Bachelet kept stalling its release, despite growing pressure from Western countries.

In May, after lengthy discussions with Beijing on arrangements, Bachelet undertook a controversial official visit to China, the first by a U.N. high commissioner for human rights since 2005. During her tenure, Bachelet – a former Chilean president and political detainee under dictator Augusto Pinochet – stayed mum on the Chinese repression in Xinjiang (and Tibet). She said nothing on the crackdown in Xinjiang even when she briefly visited that region during her restrictive China tour, which glossed over abuses by Xi’s regime.

Bachelet had earlier acknowledged that she was under “tremendous pressure” over the report, with China asking her to bury it. The eventual release of the report, minutes before Bachelet’s retirement at midnight on Aug. 31, indicated that she did not want her successor or temporary replacement to take credit for publishing it. Failing to release the report would have left a glaring black mark on her tenure.

Days before her retirement, Bachelet sent a copy of the report to Beijing because, as she explained in a Sept. 1 statement, she “wanted to take the greatest care to deal with the responses and inputs received from the (Chinese) government last week.” In response to the 48-page U.N. assessment, China wrote a 131-page rebuttal, with its foreign ministry calling the report a “farce.”

China has been emboldened by the international community’s indifference and indulgence. It successfully hosted the 2022 Winter Olympics, probably the most divisive games since the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, which helped strengthen the hands of Germany’s Adolf Hitler.

Underscoring China’s growing economic power and geopolitical clout, even Muslim countries, by and large, have remained shockingly silent on the Xinjiang repression. As if that weren’t bad enough, the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation in March honored Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as a speaker at its foreign ministers’ forum in Pakistan.

Xi’s Muslim gulag has made a mockery of the 1948 Genocide Convention, to which China acceded in 1983 (with the rider that it does not consider itself bound by Article IX, the clause allowing any party in a dispute to lodge a complaint with the International Court of Justice). The Genocide Convention requires its parties, which include the United States, to “prevent and punish” acts of genocide.

Chinese authorities have subjected Uyghur and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang, including ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, to Orwellian levels of surveillance and control over many details of life. As Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo warned, China is weaponizing biotechnology to “pursue control over its people and its repression of members of ethnic and religious minority groups.”

The Xinjiang repression is aimed at indoctrinating not just political dissidents and religious zealots but entire Muslim communities by imposing large-scale deprogramming of Islamic identities. A gulag archipelago of 380 internment camps (or “reeducation hospitals,” as Beijing calls them) has become integral to this larger assault on Islam.

It is against this background that the carefully worded U.N. report warns that, “The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups … and deprivation more generally of fundamental rights enjoyed individually and collectively, may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” The report cited “patterns of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” in the detention centers, including “credible” allegations of sexual violence.

The U.N. report may carry the imprimatur of the world’s only truly universal organization and its member states, yet China was quick to pour scorn on it. Just as it rubbished a 2016 international arbitral tribunal ruling that invalidated its territorial claims in the South China Sea, China ridiculed the U.N. report, calling it a pack of “disinformation and lies.”Could long COVID finally make us take chronic pain seriously?It’s crucial to reintegrate Taiwan into the ICAO

The 1945-46 Nuremberg Military Tribunal, set up after Germany’s surrender in World War II, prosecuted those involved in crimes against humanity, the same crimes now being perpetrated in Xinjiang. Yet, with China a rising power, there seems little prospect that Chinese officials behind the Muslim gulag will face similar justice.

Indeed, just as China responded to the tribunal’s ruling by accelerating its expansionism in the South China Sea, including militarizing the region, it could step up its repression in Xinjiang until it manages to fully Sinicize and tame Muslim groups.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press). Follow him on Twitter @Chellaney.