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The Tornillo facility, a shelter for children of detained migrants, in Tornillo, Texas, U.S., is seen in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, obtained by Reuters June 25, 2018. (Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Handout)

We and the Uighurs

Chinese detention camps sound not unlike the ones the Trump has created in the United States

Christopher Brauchli

Concentration Camp Universe.
—David Rousset, Book title

It’s all a matter of perception. Often the outside observer doesn’t have the proper view of things and fails to appreciate that what is observed is not what is actually taking place. Consider the Uighurs in far West China and illegal immigrants along the southwest border of the United States.

In the United States, there is great concern for the plight of the Uighurs. It was well described in an editorial that appeared in the New York Times on Dec. 1.  It was titled: “Who Will Speak Up for the Uighurs?” The editorial writer described the “urgent need to address at the highest levels of the American government what have been described as China’s worst human rights abuses in decades.”  The need for the editorial seems obvious.  

The Uighurs, and members of other Muslim minority groups are being held in China’s far northwestern Xinjiang region, in what are described by outside observers as beyond deplorable conditions. The number of Uighurs detained may be in excess of one million and the inhabitants of the camps are reportedly subject to torture, and food deprivation. There have reportedly been countless deaths resulting from the treatment of the Uighurs by the Chinese authorities.  

It comes as no surprise to learn that the Chinese do not have the same perception of life in the camps as outside observers, former inhabitants of the camps and the editorial board of the Times. 

Explaining the treatment of the Uighurs, the Chinese say it is necessary to crackdown on them to “combat extremism and terrorism on its western frontier.  Mimicking Trump, who says the same things about immigrants in the United States on its southern border, the Chinese say, “many of those detained are common criminals.”

The Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups detained in the camps represent the largest number of Chinese citizens detained since the days of the Cultural Revolution. According to the Chinese government, their detention is needed in order to crackdown on religious extremism. Thanks to reporting from a Chinese government spokesman, we have learned that the camps are not nearly as bad as the editorial writers of the Times and others would have us believe. 

In an interview with Shohrat Zakir, the chairman of the region in which the Uighurs are detained, that was published by China’s Xinhua News Agency, Mr. Zakir described the camps as “generously equipped vocational schools that are vital to a crackdown on religious extremism.” He said that the camps helped bring an end to terrorism and a drop in crime in the region. Mr. Zakir said: “Facts have proven that vocational education and training fits the reality of current efforts in countering terrorism, maintaining stability, and eradicating extremism.” He described the facilities as resort-like, equipped with volleyball courts, ping-pong tables, and film-screening rooms. In addition, he said that each resident’s room was provided with its own television set. He has been quoted as saying the camps were “colorful” places, and that among other things, the people confined there could enter singing contests, play basketball, and watch movies. 

All in all, the camps sound not unlike the ones the Trump has created in the United States, and along its southern border with Mexico. The United States has its own Shohrat Zakhir to describe the wonderful qualities of the camps in the United States. His name is Matthew Albence. 

Mr. Albence is serving as the acting deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and oversees its Enforcement and Removal Operations units.

At a hearing held in late July 2018, Mr. Albence, like Mr. Zakhir, described the facilities in which immigrants in the United States are held. His description makes it sound, as we would all expect, that the facilities in the United States are every bit as nice as the facilities in which the Uighurs are housed. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Albence said the facilities the United States operates are more like summer camps than like jails. He said: “These individuals have access to 24/7 food and water. They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities, both structured as well as unstructured. There’s basketball courts, there’s exercise classes, there’s soccer fields that we put in there. They have extensive medical, dental, and mental health opportunities.”

At a second hearing held in mid-September, Mr. Albence, was given the opportunity to modify his glowing description of life in the camps. He stood by his earlier comments, saying the facilities had unlimited amounts of food, and residents lived in dormitory settings where they were provided televisions, Xboxes, and other educational opportunities. In response to a question from Sen. Kamala Harris, (D-Calif.), he declined to say whether he would send his children to the kinds of summer camp he was describing. 

Referring to the camps in which the Uighurs are held, the NYT editorial writer asks: “Why aren’t China’s neighbors demanding an end to the abuses?” The same question could be asked of the Senate Judiciary Committee before whom Mr. Albence appeared, their congressional colleagues, or concerned citizens in the United States. It is a sad commentary on the United States when a spokesman for the administration who is justifying the United States’ harsh treatment of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers has gotten his talking points from a spokesman for the Uighur detention camps in China. 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Christopher Brauchli

Christopher Brauchli

Christopher Brauchli is a Common Dreams columnist and lawyer known nationally for his work. He is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Colorado School of Law where he served on the Board of Editors of the Rocky Mountain Law Review. For political commentary see his web page at humanraceandothersports.com.

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