Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Why isn’t there more outrage over China’s actions in Xinjiang?

China has been effective at limiting the international damage from revelations that it has sent as many as 1 million people, most of them Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority, to what it calls vocational training camps — and what others call reeducation camps.

vocational skills education center
Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Dabancheng in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China.
REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Far from prying eyes, officials are separating parents and children in a barren border region and herding them into institutions. In this case, you might not find kids who are hungry, dirty and sick. You would find a different kind of abuse. 

The government says it’s trying to “maintain social stability and peace,” and that it is putting children in boarding schools that are “taking the place of the parents.” A researcher says they “provide the ideal context for a sustained cultural re-engineering of minority societies.” In other words, brainwashing. 

If Americans weren’t focused (quite rightly) on the dismal conditions in facilities such as the migrant detention center in Clint, Texas, perhaps there would be more outrage over Chinese actions in its northwest Xinjiang region, where it has detained an estimated 1 million adults in the last several years. New reporting has helped to clarify what is happening to children in the area. 

There are differences, of course, in what the Americans and the Chinese are doing. For one thing, the children in question in the United States are foreign citizens; in Xinjiang, they are Chinese citizens. But the two cases seem to reveal something essential about each country at this moment: In the United States, it’s the chaos and almost casual cruelty as policy; in China, it’s the obsession with control and conformity.

Article continues after advertisement

China has been quite effective at limiting the international damage from revelations that it has sent so many people, most of them Uighurs, a Turkic and Muslim minority, to what it calls vocational training camps in Xinjiang — and what others call reeducation camps. Establishing a high-tech police state has created a pervasive sense of fear that discourages people from communicating with the outside world. The government makes it next to impossible for foreign journalists to report in the area. China uses its economic might to ensure that countries think twice about criticizing it.

According to this backgrounder by the Council on Foreign Relations, China “has come to characterize any expression if Islam in Xinjiang as extremist, a reaction to past independence movements and occasional outbursts of violence.” Its response has been to confine vast numbers in these camps. Most of the detainees have been charged with no crime. But they also have no legal means to challenge their detention.

Among those who have exposed China’s campaign in Xinjiang is Adrian Zenz, a German researcher who mines obscure corners of the internet for official Chinese documents. Zenz is a story all by himself. According to the Wall Street Journal, he is a born-again Christian who works out of a house in a Stuttgart suburb, funding most of his research himself with a side gig doing coding. He says he feels “led by God” to exposure China’s treatment of Uighurs. He has testified before Congress, the Canadian Parliament and U.N. agencies.

With so many adults locked up, the BBC collaborated with Zenz to try to find out what is happening to Muslim children in the region. In its report, published July 4, the network said China is “deliberately separating Muslim children from their families, faith and language” in Xinjiang. 

In many cases, parents have been detained. Documents indicate that in one township, both parents of more than 400 children have been sent to the camps or to prison. In other cases, parents were doing business, studying, visiting family or engaged in another activity outside of China when the crackdown in Xinjiang began several years ago. Trapped on the outside, with those still in Xinjiang too fearful to communicate, they don’t know what is happening to their children.

Zenz has uncovered clues pointing to a massive education effort — of a particular kind. The number of children in kindergarten in Xinjiang has shot up, and almost all of the increase is made up of Uighurs and children from other Muslim minorities. Kindergarten attendance in Xinjiang used to be below the national average; now it is by far the highest. 

There is also a school construction boom that includes lots of dormitory space. In one area of southern Xinjiang, two new middle schools were built in little more than a year – each one three times the size of the average Chinese school. In the same area, authorities sent 2,000 children from surrounding villages into a third giant boarding facility, also for middle-school students. 

Documents show that local authorities track students whose parents in “vocational training” in order to identify those who might need subsidies, counseling or other services. In case that sounds enlightened, other documents make clear that authorities are trying to eradicate the use of Uighur and other local languages in the schools. There is a points-based punishment system for students — and teachers — who use anything other than Chinese.

There also is serious surveillance, including perimeter alarms and 10,000-volt electric fences. 

Article continues after advertisement

“I think the evidence for systematically keeping parents and children apart is a clear indication that Xinjiang’s government is attempting to raise a new generation cut off from original roots, religious beliefs and their own language,” Zenz told the BBC. 

These kids may be fed and clothed. But Zenz has a term for what he’s uncovered. He calls it “cultural genocide.”