Trump Silent On Mass Detentions, As China Razes Muslim Communities To Build A Loyal City (#GotBitcoin?)
In this old Silk Road city in western China, a state security campaign involving the detention of vast numbers of people has moved to its next stage: demolishing their neighborhoods and purging their culture. Trump Silent On Mass Detentions, As China Razes Muslim Communities To Build A Loyal City
Authorities take down once-bustling Uighur neighborhoods to create a compliant economic hub.
Two years after authorities began rounding up Urumqi’s mostly Muslim ethnic Uighur residents, many of the anchors of Uighur life and identity are being uprooted. Empty mosques remain, while the shantytown homes that surrounded them have been replaced by glass towers and retail strips like many found across China.
Food stalls that sold fresh nang, the circular flatbread that is to Uighur society what baguettes are to the French, are gone. The young men that once baked the nang have disappeared, as have many of their customers. Uighur-language books are missing from store shelves in a city, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region, that has long been a center of the global Uighur community.
Supplanting the Turkic culture that long defined large parts of Urumqi is a sanitized version catering to Chinese tourists. On a recent morning in the Erdaoqiao neighborhood, the once-bustling heart of Uighur Urumqi, nang ovens were nowhere to be seen—but souvenir shops sold nang-shaped pocket mirrors, nang bottle openers and circular throw pillows with covers printed to look like nang.
The transformation of Urumqi (pronounced u-RUUM-chi) is the leading edge of a campaign by China’s ruling Communist Party to forcibly assimilate the Uighurs. Beijing says the detentions combat terrorism and the demolition, along with billions of dollars of investment in the region, is bringing development.
“Ethnic unity is the lifeline of all ethnic groups in China and the foundation of economic progress in Xinjiang,” the region’s governor, Shohrat Zakir, told China’s annual legislative session last week.
The party’s goal, experts say, is to reinforce its control in Xinjiang by remaking the long recalcitrant region in its own image, and to secure it as a hub for President Xi Jinping’s global development ambitions.
When plans for Urumqi’s urban overhaul were announced in 2017, the party-controlled Xinjiang Daily said the government would offer compensation to residents forced to move, and planned new residential districts “designed with full consideration of the customs and convenience of all ethnic groups.” The Urumqi and Xinjiang governments didn’t respond to requests for comment about the urban overhaul.
China’s Communist Party has waged an aggressive campaign in Xinjiang to counter what it says are violent, extremist tendencies among the region’s 14 million Turkic Muslims, most of them Uighurs.
To realize its “deradicalization” goals, authorities have detained what United Nations experts say have been as many as a million Muslims in a network of internment camps—and subjected the rest to mass digital surveillance. Chinese leaders characterize the camps as vocational training centers, promoting them as an innovation in the global war on terror and disputing the one-million figure.
“We can’t have a culture anymore,” said a Uighur resident of Urumqi who works at a state-owned resources company. He said he stopped visiting his local mosque after officials came to his house to confiscate his Quran. “No one goes any more. It’s too dangerous,” he said.
By squeezing some expressions of Uighur identity and turning others into cultural kitsch, the government is trying to weaken ethnic bonds, said Darren Byler, who studies Uighur migration at the University of Washington.
Since the post-Mao reform period began in the 1980s, Urumqi has seen bombings, protests and other acts of ethnic strife. Riots in 2009 left close to 200 dead and many more injured.
Since then, the party has grown steadily more forceful in trying to snuff off out a long-simmering Uighur separatist movement. Beijing says the separatists are motivated by radical Islam and blames them for the riots and a series of attacks in the years following.
Scholars and human-rights activists say much of the violence has been a response to heavy-handed policing, restrictions on religion and perceptions among Uighurs of being marginalized in what they see as their homeland.
“A lot of people have left,” said an employee at a once-popular live-music bar in one of Urumqi’s Uighur-dominated districts. With barely a dozen customers on a recent Saturday night, he declined to explain where the people had gone. “That’s political. I can’t say,” he said.
Moments later, three men, one equipped with a body camera, entered the bar and wrote down the identification card numbers of the Uighur customers. The employee said the men had been sent by local officials, and that such inspections were routine.
Urumqi served as a garrison town for much of its roughly 250-year history, and its residents are mostly members of China’s Han majority, with Uighurs over the past decade accounting for around 13% of the city’s people.
But in a single year, 2017, Urumqi’s official population fell by 15%—to 2.2 million from 2.6 million the year before, the first drop in more than three decades.
That was the year, in May 2017, that city police began rounding up local Uighurs and taking them to detention camps, residents said. Around the same time, they said, authorities in Urumqi forced Uighur migrants from other parts of Xinjiang to return to their hometowns. The Urumqi government has yet to release a new population breakdown by ethnicity.
As Uighurs were forced out of the city, government money flowed in. Beijing wants Urumqi to serve as a hub for the Belt and Road Initiative, Mr. Xi’s plan to build infrastructure across Eurasia and elsewhere in an updating of Silk Road trade routes. Last year, the city approved a $6 billion airport expansion and broke ground on $4 billion in construction projects in the city’s suburbs, including a Belt and Road industrial park.
Total investment in infrastructure, factories and other fixed assets topped 202 billion yuan ($30 billion) in 2017, up 25% over the previous year, and grew a further 9% in the first 10 months of 2018, according to official data.
The Urumqi government also earmarked 70 billion yuan ($10 billion) last year to demolish and rebuild the city’s shantytowns, which housed large numbers of Uighur migrants from southern Xinjiang. Authorities see young migrant men, the same group that baked the city’s nang, as instigators of violence and ripe targets for radicalization.
One settlement reduced to rubble is Heijiashan, once a low-rise jumble of makeshift houses built around a market and two mosques. Before being flattened over the course of 2017 and 2018, it was a center of Uighur migrant life in the city, said the University of Washington’s Mr. Byler.
“On Fridays, 5,000 to 10,000 people would come for the prayer,” Mr. Byler said.
On a recent visit, the mosques still stood in the shadows of rising apartment towers, but appeared abandoned. While attempting to film them, Journal reporters were detained and taken to a nearby police station.
Summoned by police, a district propaganda official said the government had taken care not to raze the mosques. “That shows the government’s respect for Islam,” said the official, a Mr. Xing.
The city had more than 400 mosques as late as 2015, according to state media. Several have been closed down or repurposed in recent years, while those still in service are surrounded by razor wire and surveillance cameras, with only a trickle of elderly worshipers.
Chinese authorities have lately started to release some detainees and put them under house arrest, according to Gene Bunin, a Russian-American who lived in Urumqi and who helps maintain a database of members of minority groups who have gone missing in Xinjiang. Mr. Bunin said he began receiving reports of the releases from detainees’ friends and relatives in December, following a wave of criticism of the camps in international media and at the U.N.
The Communist Party’s aim isn’t to eradicate Uighurs, according to Adrian Zenz, an expert in Chinese ethnic policy. Instead, he says, the party wants to strip the influence of Islam from Uighur culture to present the semblance of cultural diversity without the substance.
“It was supposed to be automatic. With material progress, the masses should be rescued from the opium of religion,” Mr. Zenz said. “The current regime is trying to lend history a hand.”
Authorities in Xinjiang are also looking to promote tourism, which would bring more investment and help eradicate the poverty they say nurtures radicalism.
North of downtown Urumqi, tourists can pose for pictures under a towering sculpture of a nang and purchase more than 150 varieties of the staple from industrial kitchens at a new 2.2 million square-foot Nang Culture Industry Park.
“Staff wear white, and their squeaky clean image bumps up the ‘attractiveness index’ not a small amount,” a local Communist Party-controlled newspaper said in a story on the park in January.
The tourism effort can also be seen in the transformation of the former Uighur commercial center, Erdaoqiao. The neighborhood was the site of the worst violence during the 2009 riots. In November 2017, when the Journal visited to document the reach of Beijing’s surveillance state, Erdaoqiao hummed with activity and tension.
A year later, it resembled a theme park.
A pair of pedestrian promenades guarded by large security gates have replaced streets previously dense with cars, pedestrians and police outposts. Around a large central bazaar, the sounds of commerce conducted in Uighur have given way to a loudspeaker broadcast offering cheerful greetings in Mandarin and English.
“Hello, dear tourists!” says the recorded voice, inviting visitors to enjoy “the magnificent reappearance of the commercial hub of the Silk Road.”
The German Data Diver Who Exposed China’s Muslim Crackdown
Scholar digging online revealed scope of detentions; ‘I feel very clearly led by God to do this’.
Research by a born-again Christian anthropologist working alone from a cramped desk in this German suburb thrust China and the West into one of their biggest clashes over human rights in decades.
Doggedly hunting down data in obscure corners of the Chinese internet, Adrian Zenz revealed a security buildup in China’s remote Xinjiang region and illuminated the mass detention and policing of Turkic Muslims that followed. His research showed how China spent billions of dollars building internment camps and high-tech surveillance networks in Xinjiang, and recruited police officers to run them.
His most influential work began in February last year, after a Chinese diplomat denied reports about the camps and advised journalists to take Beijing at its word.
Mr. Zenz decided to take up the challenge and prove the diplomat wrong using the Chinese government’s own documents.
“I got really irked by that,” the 44-year-old German scholar said. “I said, ‘OK fine, I’m going to look this up.’ ”
Mr. Zenz uncovered a trail of bidding papers, budget plans and other documents that rights groups, scholars and diplomats say prove the extent of the construction of the camps as part of a Communist Party campaign to forcibly assimilate ethnic Uighurs and other minority groups.
Mr. Zenz’s initial estimate that the camps have held as many as 1 million people has been accepted by the U.S. and some other governments, though rejected by China. He has testified before U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.
Chinese diplomats stopped denying the existence of the camps in August, and began defending them as vocational training centers necessary to fight terrorism. It was a rare about-face that experts and activists said Mr. Zenz’s work helped bring about.
“He’s managed to get a tremendous amount of traction,” said James Leibold, an expert on China’s ethnic policies at La Trobe University in Australia who has worked with Mr. Zenz. “The ultimate thing is to see the Chinese government change its approach on this.”
Some other researchers have also uncovered critical aspects of the Chinese campaign and illustrated how unconventional approaches can often be effective, and increasingly necessary, in shedding light on events Chinese authorities prefer to cover up.
Shawn Zhang, a Chinese law student in Vancouver, matched satellite images from Google Earth with details in construction bid documents, providing visual evidence to confirm 66 internment sites.
Gene Bunin, a Russian-American who dropped out of a mathematics Ph.D. program in Switzerland, had studied and lived in Xinjiang. Working with activists in Kazakhstan, he has led an effort to collect testimony from relatives of ethnic Kazakhs and Uighurs who have gone missing in China’s campaign.
Mr. Zenz, though he has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, is also an outsider. He isn’t a specialist in Xinjiang and only visited once, more than a decade ago. He funds most of his research himself, using income from a side job coding for a German videostreaming startup.
His rigorous trawling through government sources has been indispensable, Mr. Bunin said, “because that’s the kind of evidence that China has the most trouble refuting.”
China has struggled for decades to eradicate a sporadically violent separatist movement among some of Xinjiang’s 12 million Uighurs. After a spate of terrorist attacks five years ago that Beijing attributed to the influence of radical Islam, President Xi Jinping ordered a new crackdown.
The resulting effort combined policing, surveillance and indoctrination. Chinese authorities initially kept the campaign a secret, but in recent months have portrayed the camps as an innovation in counterterrorism, organizing tightly controlled tours of certain facilities for selected diplomats and journalists.
Chinese authorities have never directly addressed the findings by Mr. Zenz and the others. The Xinjiang government and China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment on the scholar’s work.
Mr. Zenz, who wrote his dissertation on Tibetan education, said he has an affinity for China’s minority groups because they seem more open spiritually. A lapsed Catholic, he said he embraced Christianity after an encounter with a Korean-American Baptist pastor while on a university year abroad at American University in Washington. His faith pushes him forward, said Mr. Zenz, who wrote a book re-examining biblical end-times with his American father-in-law in 2012.
“I feel very clearly led by God to do this. I can put it that way. I’m not afraid to say that,” says Mr. Zenz. “With Xinjiang, things really changed. It became like a mission, or a ministry.”
Much of his research has been done from a house on the corner of Immanuel Kant and Herman Hesse streets in Korntal, outside Stuttgart. Until recently, he taught research methods at the European School of Culture and Theology.
In 2016, Mr. Zenz found caches of job-recruitment advertisements online that added up to a buildup of police forces in Tibetan areas of China. The discovery caught the attention of Mr. Leibold, who asked if he could find similar data related to Xinjiang.
“He was sending me emails at three in the morning saying, ‘Look at this’ and ‘There’s tons of stuff here,’” Mr. Leibold said.
Working with Mr. Leibold and others, Mr. Zenz began publishing research that unveiled a security buildup in Xinjiang.
After he came across the denial of the camps by the Chinese consul-general in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Mr. Zenz threw himself into researching the facilities. In a report published last May by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, he estimated they collectively held anywhere from 100,000 to slightly more than a million people.
The high end of his estimate became widely cited, including by experts on a United Nations panel that criticized the camps in August. It also generated controversy—with some scholars questioning its accuracy—and dismissive statements from China.
To arrive at the estimate, Mr. Zenz extrapolated from a partial tally of detainees attributed in Japanese media reports to a Xinjiang security official. He cross-referenced that with testimony from former detainees and the documents he unearthed indicating the size and number of camps.
“It was like collecting puzzle pieces,” he says.
In March, at a U.N. panel in Geneva, Mr. Zenz provided a higher, upper-range estimate of 1.5 million. He said the number is speculative, based on continued expansion of detention facilities and pervasive accounts from Uighur exiles with relatives in detention.
“The entire middle-age range is being interned and re-educated,” he says. “It’s absolutely massive.”
China’s government is purging websites of the documents Mr. Zenz has relied on, making his work more challenging. And he said he is sometimes overwhelmed by media requests and government invitations.
He also recognizes it is rare for an academic to shape global discourse and feels that burden. “A lot of the work I do is unemotional, working with data,” he said. “But there have been moments that I’ve been moved to tears.”
U.S. To Restrict Visas for Chinese Officials Linked To Abuse of Muslim Minorities
U.S. officials cite mass detentions, pervasive surveillance in the decision.
The U.S. is imposing visa restrictions on Chinese officials linked to the abuse of Muslim minority groups in China’s Xinjiang region, where as many as a million people are detained in camps.
The visa restrictions—which will limit the ability of affected Chinese officials to travel to the U.S.—come a day after the U.S. imposed export restrictions against more than two dozen Chinese firms for having a role in government policies toward minorities.
Both moves come as U.S.-China trade talks are slated to resume Thursday in Washington.
The State Department said the visa restrictions will apply to designated Chinese government and Communist Party officials, along with their families. China has engaged in a crackdown on what it sees as a long-simmering separatist movement led by the region’s Muslim Uighur population.
Western scholars estimate more than one million Turkic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been arbitrarily detained in China’s Xinjiang region over the past few years.
State Department officials didn’t respond to when asked whether the action was linked to the trade talks. The State Department didn’t identify by name any Chinese official affected by the new visa restrictions.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday called on China to cease mass detentions and surveillance of minorities in the Xinjiang region, along with other alleged rights abuses.
Mr. Pompeo said afterward on Twitter: “China has forcibly detained over one million Muslims in a brutal, systematic campaign to erase religion and culture in Xinjiang.”
Chinese embassy officials in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Beijing dismissed the export restrictions action Monday by the Commerce Department.
“The accusations by the U.S. side are merely made-up pretexts for its interference,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, told reporters, according to a transcript provided on Tuesday by the Chinese embassy in Washington. Mr. Geng added that China is pursuing “counter-terrorism and de-radicalization measures in Xinjiang … aimed to eradicate the breeding soil of extremism and terrorism.”
In the Commerce Department action Monday, U.S. officials added 28 Chinese companies and other entities to an export blacklist, citing their role in Beijing’s repression of Muslim minorities in northwest China.
Targets of the Commerce Department action included video-surveillance and facial-recognition giants Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology, Megvii Technology Inc. and SenseTime Group Ltd., which the U.S. said “have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance” against Muslim minority groups.
“The U.S. Government and Department of Commerce cannot and will not tolerate the brutal suppression of ethnic minorities within China,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross tweeted on Monday. U.S. stocks fell afterward. News of the visa restrictions accelerated Tuesday’s U.S. stock market declines.
The muted response in Beijing suggested China may is looking to narrow the scope of its negotiations with the U.S. to trade matters and put thornier national-security issues on a separate track in a bid to break the deadlock.
“Delaying or cancelling talks would have simply exacerbated an already difficult situation,” said Jake Parker, vice president of the U.S.-China Business Council.
Participating in the trade talks will be China’s top trade envoy, Liu He, along with Commerce Minister Zhong Shan, central bank governor Yi Gang and Vice Agricultural Minister Han Jun, China’s Ministry of Commerce said.
The U.S. team will be led by Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
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