By Joyce Li
Image credit: ABC Net
Currently, there are approximately a million Uighur Muslims being held in concentration camps in Xinjiang, an autonomous region located in northwest China. This is a fact backed up by satellite images, refugee testimonies, and several government data leaks, all of which prove not only the establishment of these camps, but that they exist to strip Uighur Muslims of their culture and indoctrinate them with government propaganda. This information is available everywhere, from credible, non-biased news sources like The Economist, to activist organizations like the Human Rights Watch condemning the camps, to social media infographics that everyone has probably come across at least once.
Yet there are still people, both inside and outside of mainland China, defending these camps. On July 3rd, 2020, Yilan Batista published an article claiming that everything the public thinks they know about the camps is wrong. Drawing information from a number of Chinese news sources and public statements, she claims that Islamophobia does not play a role in the concentration camps, which are, in fact, “re-education centers” meant to combat the terrorist sentiments of Uighur separatist groups that pose a threat to Chinese citizens. According to her, the news published by western countries is merely anti-China propaganda meant to “manufacture public consent for looming violence against China” to protect “American capitalist, imperialist, and racist interests that are shared by both [political] parties.”
Though Batista’s article was not posted to a reputable news source, Batista herself is a highly influential member of the social media activism community, with 50.7K followers on her Instagram page, @asian.actiivist. Her article has since been used as a source of information for a number of social media infographics that further perpetuate the idea that the news of the camps in Xinjiang are, at best, badly researched and at worst, sinophobic propaganda.
Batista has been criticized for her views by a number of her former followers, but it is clear both in her article and her defense of it on her Instagram page that she supports China in good faith. This is likely because she believes Chinese news sources instead of American or other western ones, which she claims are trying to push for war with China. She even discredits witness testimony because she suspects that Uighur activists work for the CIA, or are at least funded by them.
While none of her views are supported by any information sources considered credible in the west, there are many people who are susceptible to them. Older Chinese immigrants, for example, are often more comfortable with Chinese-language news sources and resent seeing their country of origin badly represented in western media. Many young westerners, especially Americans, are critical of mainstream news or the American government because of the role these establishments played in concealing information from the public during the United States’ past human rights violations in countries like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. And for a short period of time, as someone who fell into both groups, influenced by both my Chinese immigrant parents and my suspicion of the United States government, I myself believed this narrative. But having since reevaluated all the information I’ve gathered about the Uighurs’ situation, I can no longer hold these beliefs.
When the western narrative of the oppressive concentration camps is compared to the Chinese narrative of the humane re-education centers, there is clearly no way of reconciling the two. One party must be spreading a falsification, and the other, whatever its intentions may be, is telling the truth. And when looking at all the evidence that has been made available, I am inclined to believe that the western version of the story is true, regardless of the United States’ motives in telling it.
One factor that discredits the Chinese narrative is the constantly changing claims of Chinese representatives. When the camps were first brought to the public’s attention in 2018, the spokesman for China’s United Front Work Department denied their existence completely, stating that there is “no such thing as re-education centers”. In 2019, when footage from the camps and overhead imagery were captured, the Chinese government claimed that the facilities were voluntary. Then, when leaked government documents indicated that officials in charge of the camps were instructed to “prevent escape”, the Chinese government changed their story once again to claim that the camps were for the rehabilitation and deradicalization of separatists and extremists, and would give them the skills necessary to find jobs and reintegrate into society. While China’s most recent claim might seem reasonable and humane to some, the fact that it is so inconsistent with previous claims is reason for suspicion, and seems utterly unbelievable when examined next to the testimony of former detainees.
Batista and those who share her beliefs believe that the camps have nothing to do with Islamophobia—and they’re not wrong. In her Medium article, Batista points out correctly that the Hui, the biggest Muslim ethnic minority in China, are not systemically persecuted. But this doesn’t mean that the Chinese government isn’t committing a cultural genocide against the Uighurs; it just isn’t faith-based. Rather, the Chinese government perceives the Uighurs as a threat because of the separatist sentiment that exists in Xinjiang, and are cracking down on the ethnic group as a whole to combat that sentiment, despite there being little evidence of a cohesive separatist movement among the Uighurs. Even if one takes the Chinese government at their word, the presence of a handful of terrorists or separatists within the ethnic group does not in any way justify the mass detainment of the estimated 1.8 million Uighurs.
Finally, a fact that has frequently been used to discredit information about the Uighur concentration camps is that the primary sources of information are biased and potentially untrustworthy. Batista identifies Free Radio Asia, a source controlled by the United States government, and Adrian Zenz, “a far right Christian fundamentalist who opposes LGBTQ+ and women’s rights”, as the main sources asserting that the camps are unethical. This has been especially effective in convincing liberals and leftists that the information about the camps has been exaggerated, but it ignores the fact that while these sources may have anti-China motives, much of that information comes from documents leaked directly from the Chinese government. There were three such leaks, one published by Zenz, one published by the New York Times, and another by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Together they establish that there are detainees held at camps involuntarily, and that most were arrested not for crime or violence, but for participation in normal religious practices or association with members of their family. Although Chinese officials maintain that all of these leaks are merely fabrications, this information has been cross-checked, examined next to public announcements and state media reports, and confirmed by former camp detainees and employees. And if the Chinese government’s statements in the past are any indication, it’s only a matter of time before they change their story again.
Having put all things into consideration, it is clear that the concentration camps in Xinjiang are a morally reprehensible human rights violation. This does not mean, of course, that western sources are free of bias or without an underlying agenda when reporting on this issue. We must therefore continue to be critical of our news sources, and try to identify the facts for ourselves, but we can’t let our misgivings blind us to reality. The information is all there; now we just have to read it for ourselves.