The mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) “has nothing to do with terrorism,” and is part of a war Beijing is waging on religion, according to Washington’s counter-terrorism czar.
In an interview with RFA’s Uyghur Service, Ambassador Nathan Sales, the U.S. State Department’s Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, dismissed China’s claims that its vast network of internment camps in the region—where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.5 million people since April 2017—is part of a vocational training program that is saving those influenced by religious extremism.
“In addition to the people who are in custody and these forced labor camps there are millions more who are subjected to political re-indoctrination in daytime facilities,” he said.
“The scope of this campaign is so vast and so untargeted that it simply has nothing to do with terrorism. Instead, what’s going on is the Chinese Communist Party is waging war on religion. It is trying to stamp out the ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious identities of the people that it’s been targeting.”
Sales also rejected statements from Beijing recently reiterated at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva by XUAR vice governor Erkin Tuniyaz that internment camps in the region had allowed detainees to “gain access to modern knowledge and enhance their employability.”
“You don’t need to send people who have jobs to vocational training centers,” he said.
“Again, the scope of the detentions and the scope of the measures that have been applied to people outside the camps is simply so vast and overwhelming that it belies any claim that this is counter-terrorism or a targeted job training program. It’s repression, plain and simple.”
Regardless, he added, counter-terrorism cannot be used as a pretext for advancing what he called “a domestic agenda of political or religious or ethnic repression,” and said the U.S. is “deeply concerned” by the Chinese government’s “misuse” of the issue to achieve its goals in the XUAR.
Sales stressed that the mass detentions and restrictions on religion in the region are only part of a larger attack by Beijing on an entire culture.
Specifically, he highlighted reports of children of detainees being placed in state-run orphanages, where they are taught only Chinese, regularly have their names changed, and are “effectively being separated from the cultural and linguistic heritage … from which they come,” as an example of how authorities hope to force Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the XUAR to assimilate into Han Chinese culture.