Illustration by Hannah Robinson

After the New York Times article of November 16 2019 concerning ethnic minority detention camps in the north-west region of China, the spotlight was once again turned on the conflict between the central government in Beijing and the mainly Muslim Uighur minority. When talking about this issue, however, we should consider the history which has led to the current situation.

In July 2009 in the city of Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, violent clashes between Uighurs, Han (China’s majority ethnic group) and the police forces took place. In 2014, as also reported in the New York Times article, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited the region and in the same year promoted the campaign against the minorities, which his government refers to as a “people’s war on terror”. In 2015 the government confirmed that it had forcibly repatriated 109 Uighurs from Thailand, where 400 of them had fled in order to seek refuge in Turkey. The following year, Officer Chen Quanguo, known for his hard approach to public order in Tibet, another area where there is a strong desire for independence, was appointed to lead the region.

In 2017 the situation worsened. In March an anti-extremism law was introduced in the area, banning the growth of beards and the wearing of the veil. This year, leaked documents confirmed that the Uighurs are being forcibly held in detention camps. The United Nations Commission on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has argued that up to 2 million Muslims, around 1 million of whom are likely to be Uighurs (other Muslim minorities make up the rest) may have been subjected to oppression in China. Last October, the first call for aid from European institutions came when EU Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska reported on the massive and arbitrary deportations of certain minorities in Xinjiang.

However, the figures concerning the actual number of detainees should be regarded with caution – as ChinaFile reports, there simply is not enough information to give a definite number.

The number of camps in the region is another contested issue. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute had drawn up a set of structures which, in their opinion, functioned as prison camps, while Adrian Zenz (a social sciences lecturer at Germany’s European School of Culture and Theology whose work has drawn attention to the detentions and conditions in the camps) has estimated there to be around 1,200 camps. But it is hard to identify a precise number, considering the lack of information about the current situation in the camps (and their organisation) as well as insufficient Chinese government collaboration.

So when discussing the current situation in Xinjiang we must use caution and distinguish between two different populations, those who were in detention and those who attended “re-education” programs on a partial basis. Detainment and re-education are both horrific – all the more reason to report accurately, for baseless and potentially inaccurate speculation on figures is irresponsible and unhelpful, and therefore possibly dangerous to the cause of helping those who are suffering.