China is facing growing criticism over its persecution of some Muslim minority groups, huge numbers of whom are allegedly being held in internment camps.
In August, a UN committee heard that up to one million Uighur Muslims and other Muslim groups could be being detained in the western Xinjiang region, where they’re said to be undergoing “re-education” programmes.
The claims were made by rights groups, but China denies the allegations. At the same time, there’s growing evidence of oppressive surveillance against people living in Xinjiang.
We’ve developed this new format to try and explain the story to you better.
Who are the Uighurs?
The Uighurs are mostly Muslims, and number about 11 million in western China’s Xinjiang region.
They see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations, and their language is similar to Turkish.
But in recent decades, there’s been a mass migration of Han Chinese (China’s ethnic majority) to Xinjiang, and the Uighurs feel their culture and livelihoods are under threat.
Where is Xinjiang?
It’s in the far west of China, and is the country’s biggest region. It’s bordered by several countries, including India, Afghanistan and Mongolia. Like Tibet, it’s an autonomous region, meaning it – in theory – has a degree of self-governance away from Beijing. But in practice, both face major restrictions by the central government.
For centuries, the economy of Xinjiang has centred on agriculture and trade, and towns thrived because they were on the Silk Road.
Back in the early 20th Century, the Uighurs briefly declared independence, but the region was brought under the complete control of mainland China’s new Communist government in 1949.
What’s happening to people in Xinjiang?
In August 2018, a UN human rights committee was told there were credible reports that China had “turned the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp”. About a million people may have been detained, the committee was told.
The reports are backed by rights groups, with Human Rights Watch saying people with relatives in 26 so-called “sensitive” countries like Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Turkey have been rounded up.
Anyone who has contacted someone abroad via WhatsApp is also targeted, according to HRW. Rights groups also say people in camps are made to learn Mandarin Chinese, swear loyalty to President Xi Jinping, and criticise or renounce their faith.
HRW says Uighur people in particular are subject to intense surveillance – from facial recognition cameras to QR codes on people’s doors, so officials can check the codes to see who is inside at any point. People are also reportedly made to undergo biometric tests.
What has the BBC learned?
Media are almost completely banned from Xinjiang so getting first-hand reports is very difficult. However, we’ve managed to visit the region a number of times and seen evidence of camps and an intense police presence at every level. Officers carried out checks for sensitive material on people’s phones.
The BBC’s Newsnight programme also interviewed former prisoners who were able to leave for other countries. Here is what they said.
“They wouldn’t let me sleep, they would hang me up for hours and would beat me. They had thick wooden and rubber batons, whips made from twisted wire, needles to pierce the skin, pliers for pulling out the nails. All these tools were displayed on the table in front of me, ready to use at any time. And I could hear other people screaming as well.”- Omir
“It was dinner time. There were at least 1,200 people holding empty plastic bowls in their hands – they had to sing pro-Chinese songs to get fed. They were like robots. They seemed to have lost their souls. I knew many of them well – we used to sit and eat together, but now they behaved like they were not aware of what they were doing, like someone who had lost their memory after a car crash.” – ‘Azat’
What about Uighur violence?
China says it’s dealing with a threat from separatist Islamist groups, and while some Uighur Muslims have joined the Islamic State militant group, rights groups say violence in Xinjiang stems from China’s oppression of people there.
In 2009, riots in the regional capital Urumqi killed at least 200 people, mostly Han Chinese. Since then, there have been a number of attacks, including one on a police station and government offices in July 2014 that killed at least 96 people.
Attacks blamed on Xinjiang separatists have also taken place outside the region – in October 2013, a car was driven into a crowd in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
The latest government crackdown began after five people were killed in a knife attack in Xinjiang in February 2017. At the time, Xinjiang’s Communist Party boss Chen Quanguo urged government forces to “bury the corpses of terrorists in the vast sea of a people’s war”.
What does China say?
China has said it is responding to “ethnic separatism and violent terrorist criminal activities”.
At a UN meeting in Geneva in August 2018, Chinese official Hu Lianhe said reports of a million Uighurs being held in re-education centres were “completely untrue”.
But in September, one Chinese official told reporters on the sidelines of a UN session in Geneva that China had set up “professional training centres, educational centres”.
“If you do not say it’s the best way, maybe it’s the necessary way to deal with Islamic or religious extremism, because the West has failed in doing so, in dealing with religious Islamic extremism,” Li Xiaojun, director for publicity at the Bureau of Human Rights Affairs of the State Council Information Office, said.
“Look at Belgium, look at Paris, look at some other European countries. You have failed.”
It’s very unusual for China to give public explanations about how it deals with the situation in Xinjiang. And because it controls access to Xinjiang, it’s been hard for anyone to receive impartial information about what is happening there.
What is the world doing?
There’s growing international criticism of China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims but, as of yet, no country has taken any action beyond issuing critical statements.
Ahead of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to China in January and February 2018, the UK government said it continued to be concerned over the treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.
In the US, a congressional committee on China has urged the Trump administration to place sanctions on officials and companies involved in the “ongoing human rights crisis” in Xinjiang.
The committee wrote: “Muslim ethnic minorities are being subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture, and a digitized surveillance system so pervasive that every aspect of daily life is monitored.”
The new UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has also demanded that monitors be allowed access to Xinjiang, a request that drew an angry response from Beijing.