Report on ‘Polis Project- Mapping the Uighur Detention Camps’

The Polis Project by Suchitra Vijayan is a venture into the world of research journalism that regularly reports resistances and oppressions across the globe. In one of the Dispatches (episode -21), Alison Killing and Aydin Anwar are invited to discuss the violence against Uighur- Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China. The episode draws attention to the yet to be widely talked about humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang region of China where Uighur Muslims of East Turkistan are kept in detention camps to be ‘re-educated’ and ‘de-radicalized’ by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Anindita Ghosh reports on this discussion, held on 2nd October, 2020.

Alison Killing is an architect and open source investigator with specialization in geo spatial analysis. She has recently published two story – length articles on Buzz feed News with co- contributors, Megha Rajagopalan and Christo Buschek. Part one ‘Built to last’ and part two ‘Blanked-Out Spots On China’s Maps Helped Us Uncover Xinjiang’s Camps’ is an investigation work based on several satellite images revealing a growing infrastructure for detention and incarceration of Uighur Muslims. She has also published ‘What They Saw: Ex-Prisoners Detail The Horrors Of China’s Detention Camps’ along with other story length articles with the contributors detailing her investigation work at Xinjiang. In the episode, Killing details her methodology of years as she begins in 2018. It has been increasingly difficult for independent journalists to work in Xinjiang as they faced several covert and overt threats from the Chinese State. Interestingly, Killing and her team had a breakthrough when they noticed that there were discrepancies in the satellite imagery tiles in the proximity of one of the known incarceration camps as they used Baidu Maps, a Chinese mapping platform. They concluded that they could replicate the blank tile phenomenon and look at other camps whose locations were already known to see if a pattern can be drawn. With a few hurdles, they identified hundreds of blank tiled locations bearing the hallmarks of detention centers.

China has discreetly built many internment camps in the last three years and escalated its campaign against Muslim minorities like Uighurs and Kazaks from makeshift buildings for incarceration like erstwhile schools, hospitals and prison to permanent infrastructure for detention. Alison Killing’s investigation of China’s internment camp system using satellite images and interviews with former detainees has helped identify close to 300 such camps. China has established an organized network to identify, detain and incarcerate hundreds Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in what is considered to be the largest- detention of ethnic and religious minorities since the Second World War. As all this continues in the name of curbing violent terrorism and separatism, detainees are subjected to torture, hunger, overcrowding, solitary confinement, forced birth control, forced sterilization, brainwashing programs focusing on Communist Party propaganda, forced to learn and speak Chinese, forced labour, forced to memorize Communist Party propaganda, lack of medical care and a range of other abuses that counts as gross human rights violation.

The other discussant, Aydin Anwar is an Uighur- American activist from Duke University who is spreading awareness about the Uighur detention camps and the problems faced by her community in China. She is a part of the ‘Save Uighur’ project, a legal and educational project to create awareness about the predicament of Uighur people. Her activism has been action based where she has suggested several ways to register protest against the Chinese state for their violence against Uighurs and other Muslim Minorities in China. She urges to boycott Chinese or Chinese-made products made by Uighur forced labour and to spread the word on their suffering along with building interest groups and networks to pressure their local governments to lower their reliance on China.  She suggests that we can inquire about Uighur exiles in our country and organize communities to help them or lobby for issuing passports and seek international refuge for Uighur asylum seekers. She encourages involving the Universities and raise awareness on campuses and reflect on the university’s relationship with Chinese state and students along with background checks for Chinese researchers. We can conduct open forums and seminars to discuss the humanitarian crisis in China towards the Uighurs by the CCP and seek university funding for Uighur/Turkistani studies and scholarships for exiled Uighur students and scholars. She suggests that we must insist our affiliated universities cut ties from Chinese bodies violating academic freedoms and spreading false propaganda and demand to divest from China. 

Anwar notes how the government aided migration and settlement of millions of Han Chinese in the Xinjiang region formerly populated by the Uighur Muslims has been a violent change in the demography of the area as more and more Uighurs are detained and transported to mainland China to be disciplined. The CCP has demolished several ancient mosques and Islamic sanctuaries citing Han Chinese settlement as a reason. These settlers function as continuous reminders of the erasure and surveillance of the Uighur Muslims. Apart from demographic engineering and ethnic cleansing, the CCP program of destroying Uighur culture is to uproot East Turkistanis and reduce them to people with no heritage or discernible history, and to imprison them in panopticons with Han colonialist wardens at guard. Many former prisoners during interviews have recounted how they were beaten unconscious by the prison authorities or forced to wear heavy weight for months tied to their necks for uttering Bismillah in sleep.

Several Uighur women and men have been raped, forcibly sterilized and their bodies used for organ harvesting Uighurs are punished with longer prison time for minor crimes like promoting the headscarves or possessing audio recordings of the Quran on their computer or for saying the Muslim greetings likke Assalāmu Alaykum and Insha’Allah. Yet the lack of concern around the growing atrocities has been a matter of international shame for the global community.

Suchitra Vijayan has summarized and drawn our interest by inviting Alison Killing and Aydin Anwar to speak about the Uighur Detention camps in China. As the discussant presented a moving yet succinct picture of the crisis, the audience is left with the urge to learn more and dig deeper to understand to be of help. Here is a link to the discuss on the channel, Polis Project- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=430xMLoWZHY

Anindita Ghosh is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She can be reached at aghosh39@uic.edu.

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