At first, Chinese authorities in her village in Xinjiang removed the crescents from the mosque, Auken told me. Then the imam and the boy responsible for the call to prayers disappeared into custody. Authorities began requiring everyone in the village to gather for the weekly Chinese flag-raising ceremony; on one occasion, police hit an elderly woman, telling her to take off her headscarf. Authorities confiscated prayer mats and copies of the Quran.
Chinese authorities have long imposed pervasive restrictions on peaceful religious practice. In Xinjiang, a northwestern region in which over half the population is Muslim, people cannot wear long beards, veils, or anything deemed “extremist” attire. Children are prohibited from learning about religion, even at home. People are not allowed to go to Mecca unless they join state-organized pilgrimages.
But these controls have dramatically stepped up since late 2016, and Auken’s experience is not unique. The government says it must eliminate terrorist threats by “eradicating ideological viruses” of some “incorrect” Islamic beliefs and non-Chinese identities.
The increasingly powerful Chinese state is achieving that goal through human rights violations, with a wide variety of repressive tactics on an unprecedented scale. Beijing has mobilized a million officials in Xinjiang to spy on people through intrusive “homestay” programs, is encouraging neighbors to spy on each other, and has affixed QR codes on homes to monitor residents’ conduct. The authorities collect biometric data, such as DNA and voice samples, including from children.
Officials use questionnaires to pore over people’s everyday behavior, inputting the results in a big data program: Do they smoke, do they drink? Any indications of religious piousness, along with “storing lots of food in one’s home,” or owning fitness equipment, can be construed as signs of “extremism.” The government’s religious restrictions are now so stringent that it has effectively outlawed the practice of Islam. And having a family member living abroad in one of the official list of 26 “sensitive” – that is, according to Beijing, predominantly Muslim – countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia can be enough to get one interrogated.
Credible estimates say a million people are being indefinitely held without any legal authority in “political education camps” until their daily routine of learning Mandarin and singing songs in praise of the Chinese Communist Party are deemed to have made them “politically qualified.”
Outside those camps, people are required to attend political indoctrination meetings and, for some, Mandarin classes. In order to go from one town to the next, people have to apply to the police for permission and go through numerous checkpoints. Authorities have recalled passports from people in the region, and prohibited communication with people outside the country, including relatives.
There has been comparatively little international outrage over what may be among the world’s most draconian and comprehensive control over Muslim life. None of the 26 “sensitive” countries appear to have publicly protested that designation or China’s treatment of Muslims, even though some had criticized the US travel ban on visitors from several Muslim countries. When we wrote to Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the abuses of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, the ministry responded by praising the good relationship between China and Kazakhstan.
While some foreign governments, parliament members, and United Nations officials have expressed concerns about rights violations in Xinjiang, few have appeared to consider imposing significant costs, such as targeted sanctions or visa bans, that might make Beijing change course.
Xinjiang’s crisis is symptomatic of the deepening repression across China under President Xi Jinping. In March, Xi scrapped the term limits for the presidency, and restructured the central government bureaucracy to give the Chinese Communist Party—and himself—greater power. The Chinese government’s abuses have extended to foreigners. Its global power has largely protected it from international scrutiny, and a failure of concerned governments to push back against this repression will only embolden Beijing at home and abroad.
Chinese police already know this. Recently an officer called a Turkic Muslim living in the United States, telling him to return to China, and threatening to snatch him if he refused. It may not be now, the officer said, “but this is just a matter of time.”