(International Policy Digest)

Choices of the Oppressed: The Religious Persecution within China’s “Re-education” Camps

World history is replete with example upon example of religious persecution. The Jewish nation has experienced religious persecution for millennia, across the globe. These situations of subjugation have created choices for those being oppressed: convert, flee, or face the consequences? Religious persecution is not a thing of the past: Jews fled Iran less than 50 years ago, after the Iranian Revolution, for fear that they could not openly express their religion without threats of violence. However, religious persecution has taken on a new meaning in the “re-education” camps in Xinjiang, China. 

Uighur Muslims are a Muslim Turkic minority, mainly centered in Xinjiang. They speak their own language, Uighur, and have lived there from the early 13th century. There has been a considerable erosion of Uighur rights over the past few decades, which has gradually hindered their ability to exercise their religion. Recently, Uigher Muslims have disappeared off the streets of Xinjiang and been found in “re-education” camps: high-security facilities designed to house thousands of people. Aerial imagery of these camps was captured by the BBC in 2018; the first footage of its kind, as neither journalists, human rights groups  nor diplomats have been given permission to enter the premises. The BBC found a highly secure compound, surrounded by a wall and studded with guard towers, that could hold up to 11,000 inmates. Interviews conducted by the BBC with Uighurs who had been held in these camps elucidates the reality of the pseudo-internment camps: forced exercise, mandatory learning of Mandarin, and compulsory education. 

The Chinese government has justified its actions by saying that the increased surveillance and security in Xinjiang was meant to fight extremist violence. However, the “re-education” camps are arguably used more to repress the religion of the Uighers than to try to curb domestic terrorism. Leaked Chinese documents also revealed the true intent of the camps. They described a system of total mental and physical control, with points awarded to inmates for “ideological transformation.” These camps, from an outside perspective, seem to be a horrifying violation of human rights, and simply an attempt to conceal the repression of religious minorities. 

Throughout history, Jews have been given the choice to convert or leave. Often they faced torture and death. Jews throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and even into the 18th and 19th centuries were subject to arbitrary treatment by less-than-benevolent leaders. The most famous example of this is the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain expelled all Jews from Spain and Spanish territories. In different countries and different times, Jews had a second option: the opportunity to convert to Christianity, to undergo “ideological transformation.” For some Jews, the choice was simple; they would rather leave their country than give up their faith. However, for others, who had built their lives in their countries, conversion seemed like the only reasonable option. This ultimatum has been provided to Jews and other ethnic and religious minorities throughout history. Convert or leave. The Uighur Muslims, however, were not given a choice. Convert. And nothing else.

There is much that is still unknown about the Chinese re-education camps. The truth of what happens beyond the concrete walls and security cameras is still privy only to Chinese officials and the Uigher Muslims who live inside. The camps are a blatant violation of religious freedom, not to mention human rights, of those trapped inside. One can only hope that a nation or an advocacy group will step up and fight for the rights of those whose voices are being stifled. 

Many Jews have an understanding of what it means to be a religious minority, and what it means to be a refugee. I have a consciousness not only of the religious persecution of my own great-grandparents but of my people; awareness of our religious persecution stretches back to the very beginning of the Jewish nation. However, I may have taken one thing for granted. My grandfather fled from Russia in order to make a life for himself in America, and his journey, albeit fortunate compared to many others, was extremely difficult. However, he had the chance to leave, while maintaining his faith and Jewish identity. Too many have been forced to make the difficult choice of flight or conversion. Now it is our burden to expand the choices of the Uigher Muslims, the choices of oppressed people across the world, to include freedom.

Ayla Kattler is a sophomore at ​Milken Community High School in California. ​She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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