China says '90 percent' of Uighur Muslim detainees 'freed' from 're-education camps', but relatives disagree

China says '90 percent' of Uighur Muslim detainees 'freed' from 're-education camps', but relatives disagree
Uighur Muslims are calling on China to #ProveThe90 after officials claimed 90 percent of 're-education camp' detainees in Xinjiang had been released.
5 min read
31 July, 2019
An estimated 1.5 million Muslims are detained in China's camps [AFP]

Chinese officials claimed on Tuesday that a majority of the 1.5 million detainees held in the so-called "re-education camps" in the northwestern Xinjiang region of China have been released.

The US, human rights organisations and Uighur Muslims have thrown doubt on those claims.

Officials have also ordered restaurants in the capital Beijing to tear down Arabic signs and Islamic symbols as part of a national effort to "Sinicise" the country's Muslim population.

China has detained an estimated 1.5 million Muslims - mostly from the Uighur ethnicity - in "re-education camps" that have been labelled "concentration camps" by human rights organisations and advocates.

The state says those efforts are necessary to counter the threat of seperatist and "Islamist extremists" in the region, and labels the detainees "students" who require "training" to succesfully integrate into Chinese society.

Alken Tuniaz, vice-chairman of the Xinjiang government, said that "over 90 percent of the students" had completed their "training" and had returned to their families.

"Most have already successfully achieved employment," he added. 

Experts and advocates immediately threw doubt on the claim, saying there was no evidence of mass scale releases of detainees.

"China is making deceptive and unverifiable statements in a vain attempt to allay worldwide concern for the mass detentions of Uyghurs and members of other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang," Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International's Regional Director for East and South-East Asia, said in a statement.

"We have received no reports about large scale releases - in fact, families and friends of people who are being detained tell us they are still not able to contact them."

The US State Department and Pentagon likewise said they had been "unable to verify the vague claims" in a joint statement.

That same scepticism was repeated by the World Uyghur Congress, a Germany-based group that campaigns for Uighur self-determination, which said the claim followed "a predictable pattern of dubious statements".

Uighur Muslims worldwide took to social media using the hashatag #ProveThe90, calling on Tuniaz to tell them where their missing relatives - presumed to be detained in the camps - are.

"If they are indeed released, then let me talk to my mother!" said one social media user in a tweet.

Another pleaded: "90%?? Show me my parents, #ProveThe90.! I miss my parents so much, prove it you liars!"

The State Department and Pentagon also urged China to allow UN officials unfettered access to the camps, and allow Muslims to travel freely out of Xinjiang and China.

'Islamic' signs removed

Employees at Beijing restaurants and food stalls selling halal products told Reuters that government officials had told them to remove symbols associated with Islam from their signs.

Such symbols include the word "halal" written in Arabic and the crescent moon, they said.

The manager of a Beijing noodle shop was visited by government officials who told him to cover up the word "halal" on his shop sign, and then watched him do it.

"They said this is foreign culture and you should use more Chinese culture," he said.

Islam - and the Arabic language - first came to China in the seventh century.

The Chinese capital has at least 1,000 halal shops and restaurants, according to the Meituan Dianping food delivery app.

It is not clear if all such restaurants have been told to cover or remove their signs.

Several shops visited by Reuters had removed Arabic-language "halal" signs and replaced them with a Chinese-language equivalent term, while others had covered the word and other Islamic imagery with tape or stickers.

The Beijing government's Committee on Ethnic and Religious affairs said that the order was a national directive, although the committee's national branch did not respond to a request for comment. 

Anti-Muslim campaign

The campaign to remove Arabic signage and other symbols associated with Islam marks a new phase in an ongoing campaign to pressure China's 20-million-strong Muslim population, particularly with Uighur Muslims of the Xinjiang province, to conform to Chinese culture.

The campaign has seen the demolition of mosques, as well as the removal of the domes of mosques and their replacement with Chinese-style pagodas, the installation of unprecedented, high-tech surveillance measures, limits on fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and bans on wearing Islamic facial coverings and lengthy beards.

While China officially guarantees freedom of religion, the government has sought to crackdown on religious expression and bring faith communities in line with Communist Party doctrine.

Underground churches have also been shut down by the government.

But Chinese Muslims have drawn particular ire from the state.

Uighur Muslims and human rights organisations say that Muslims in Xinjiang are subject to intense surveillance and scrutiny, with hundreds of thousands of people detained for little reason other than to quash the expression of religious and ethnic differences.