In China’s western province of Xinjiang, Beijing is carrying out the most dramatic program of “re-education” since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are between 10 million and 11 million native Uighurs living in the province. Of those, between 800,000 and 2 million are believed to be interred in re-education camps.
Then there is the environment China is creating in Xinjiang outside of the camps. By all accounts, Beijing has instituted a full-on surveillance state in the province, exclusively targeting the Uighur population. Many aspects of Uighur identity have been criminalized; there is even a ban on giving Muslim names to Uighur newborns.
Officially, Xinjiang is an autonomous region within China, similar to Tibet. And as in Tibet, this nominal constitutional distance from Beijing is a source of suspicion. Moreover, the Uighurs are a Muslim Turkic people, closely related to the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Tajiks across the border. The language, culture, religion and outlook of this people is much more closely aligned to those of the Central Asian “-Stans” than to Han China. Their history, too, is more closely related to the Central Asian Silk Road trade rather than the Chinese heartland.
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