IT’S been described as the largest mass incarceration of the 21st century and a human rights issue much of the world has largely ignored. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines the sinister repression of China’s Uighur minority ethnic group.

IT began in the most unlikely of places. It was 10 years ago this weekend in a toy factory in Shaoguan, in China’s Guangdong province, that a disgruntled worker posted an incendiary rumour online that would reverberate to this day.

According to the rumour, a Han Chinese woman had allegedly been raped by Uighur migrants in the factory, even though a government investigation later concluded there was no evidence such an assault had taken place.

In an ensuing brawl in the wake of the rumour, Han workers killed at least two Uighur migrants. Footage of the attacks rapidly spread online enraging many Uighurs long upset with the Han-dominated government that took control of their region following the Communist revolution in 1949.

What began as organised peaceful protest by Uighurs demanding a government investigation into the factory incident quickly spiralled out of control. For many Uighurs the death of the factory workers epitomised everything that was wrong about Beijing’s policies and the belittling racism they felt the Han Chinese subjected them to.

Quickly the situation deteriorated, pitting Uighur Muslims against Han Chinese on the streets, especially in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang province, home to many within the Turkic Uighur ethnic minority.

In the days that followed hundreds were killed, stabbed and beaten in the ensuing clashes and brutal police crackdown. The exact number of dead and wounded remains a contentious issue. Some insist that the official figure of 200 or so killed is wildly inaccurate and has simply been airbrushed by the authorities to hide a far bigger toll. What is certain, however, about the "Urumqi riots" of July 5, 2009, is that it was some of the worst ethnic violence modern China has witnessed.

According to Joanne Smith Finley, an expert on Uighur-Han relations at Newcastle University, the riots revealed “very ugly scenes” of distrust, with reports of Han Chinese doctors refusing to treat Uighur patients and vice versa.

This, however, was just the start, for the Urumqi riots were to prove a pivotal moment, one with profound long-lasting consequences that ultimately led to what human-rights groups today describe as the largest mass incarceration of the 21st century.

In all, it is estimated that about one million Uighurs, possibly more, are being held against their will in what the Chinese authorities call “re-education camps”. Such numbers would account for roughly 10% of the whole Uighur population in the region. For those still at liberty, Xinjiang province has, meanwhile, effectively been transformed into a surveillance state.

But before examining the extent of these human-rights violations it’s worth pausing to consider the origins of the Uighurs (pronounced “we-gur”) and the historic tensions that have existed between their community and Beijing.

Most Uighurs (also spelled “Uyghurs” in Western media) are Muslims and speak a Turkic language that’s completely different from Mandarin Chinese. Culturally and ethnically they regard themselves as closer to central Asian nations like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, which constitute China’s northern and western neighbours on the Eurasian Steppe, than with the rest of China itself.

Indeed, it has sometimes been pointed out that Urumqi, in Xinjiang province where the 2009 riots centred, is geographically closer to the capital of the Afghanistan capital, Kabul, than the Chinese capital Beijing.

For centuries, Xinjiang’s economy has revolved around agriculture and trade, with towns such as Kashgar thriving as hubs along the famous Silk Road. In the early part of the 20th century, however, the Uighurs briefly declared independence, before the region was brought under the complete control of communist China in 1949.

Today Xinjiang is officially designated an “autonomous” region within China, just like Tibet to its south.

But despite China’s claims that Xinjiang is “autonomous,” it falls entirely under Beijing’s rule. For its part, China’s central government insists that Uighur militants are waging a violent campaign for an independent state by plotting bombings, sabotage and civic unrest. In other words, they are Muslim “terrorists”.

Beijing’s interests in the region, however, might have more to do with the fact that Xinjiang is also home to a substantial portion of the country’s most valuable natural resources.

According to the Chinese government’s own figures, in addition to sizeable mineral reserves of iron ore and gold, the region claims about 38% of the country’s coal reserves and 25% of its petroleum and natural gas.

The region is also home to some of the most important elements of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s flagship trade project. The BRI, which came into effect in 2013, aims to link Beijing with some 70 countries around the world via railroads, gas pipelines, shipping lanes, and other infrastructure projects. It is considered Chinese president Xi Jinping’s pet project, and an important part of his political legacy.

China is estimated to have invested between $1 trillion and $8 trillion into the project, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). It is perhaps for this reason that ever since 1955, when Xinjiang became an “autonomous” region, the Chinese government has encouraged ethnic Hans to migrate west providing incentives like “hukou”, a coveted status that facilitates access to essential social services like housing, pensions, healthcare and education.

“The hukou reforms are about trying to encourage Han migration to southern Xinjiang, even though it’s not phrased in that way,” says James Leibold, an expert on ethnic relations in China at Australia’s La Trobe University. The Chinese government’s strategy billed as a “modernisation” scheme has had a profound impact on the demographic and ethnic composition of Xinjiang.

In 1949, Xinjiang’s Han population comprised just 6% of the total. As of the last census in 2010, Han Chinese constituted at least 40% of the population; more recent reports put that figure as high as 58%.

But there are other far more sinister methods by which the Beijing government is shifting the ethnic balance in the region.

In recent years, Xinjiang authorities have clamped down on public displays of religion and rounded up an estimated one million mostly Uighurs and other minorities into internment camps in the name of “counter-terrorism.”

Ever since the Urumqi riots of 2009 the region has seen periodic bouts of unrest, including a series of deadly knife and bomb attacks in 2013 and 2014. But observers say these are few and far between and the Chinese authorities' police state response and treatment of the Uighur and Muslim population cannot simply be explained away by such factors.

A steady increase in the number of testimonies by ex-detainees and researchers, as well as evidence gleaned by human-rights groups from satellite imagery and media investigations, points to the widespread existence of detention camps. Political prisoners in those camps are both physically and mentally tortured, two eyewitnesses of the camps told BBC’s Newsnight in a documentary that aired late last year. One of the eyewitnesses, named Azat, had been in a detention centre to visit a detainee, while the other, Omir, had been imprisoned in one of the camps. Both are Uighurs and have since fled Xinjiang.

Omir, who was detained in Karamay, in north Xinjiang, described being shackled to a chair, deprived of sleep, and beaten by police in his camp.

“They have a chair called the ‘tiger.’ My ankles were shackled, my hands locked to the chair. I couldn’t move. They wouldn’t let me sleep. They also hung me up for hours, and they beat me,” Omir told the broadcaster.

“They had thick wooden and rubber batons, whips made from twisted wire, needles to pierce the skin, pliers for pulling out your nails.

“All these tools were displayed on the table in front of me, ready for use at any time. You could hear other people screaming as well,” Omir added.

Omir’s account tallies with previous reporting on the camps, including one by the Washington Post also published last year. In that account by Kayrat Samarkand, another Uighur who had been imprisoned, he too describes being strapped in the “tiger chair”.

Former inmates of these secretive facilities also give accounts of being kept in overcrowded cells, and forced to undergo political indoctrination for days, months, and even over a year. In that time they are made to chant slogans, watch propaganda videos, denounce their religion and pledge loyalty to the Communist Party.

One Kazakh businessman, who spent nearly two months in a camp, said in an interview with Agence France -Presse (AFP) the facilities only had one goal: to strip detainees of their religious belief. The Chinese authorities have also been accused of separating Muslim children from their families, religion and language, and are reportedly engaged in a rapid, large-scale campaign to send them to state-run care centres or boarding schools where they have with no contact with their parents.

In one township alone, more than 400 children have lost one or more parents to either the camps or prison, a new BBC report found.

According to research findings by Human Rights Watch (HRW), it is not uncommon to find Uighurs, particularly from Hotan and Kashgar in southern Xinjiang, reporting that half or more of their immediate family members are in a mix of political education camps, pre-trial detention, and prison.

Such areas are perceived by the Chinese authorities as anti-government hotspots and one interviewee contacted there by HRW said her husband, his four brothers, and their 12 nephews, all the males in the family, have been detained in political education camps since 2017.

“The stepped-up repression is being carried out through a series of military, political, economic and surveillance programmes that constitute the most comprehensive system of population control and oppression anywhere in the world today,” observed Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy in a Washington Post editorial last week.

“It has not just subjugated the Uighur people but also now threatens their very survival,” Gershman warned.

He, like other observers, is concerned over the growing crackdown, and points to what the Chinese authorities have dubbed the "Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism" which was introduced as early as 2014.

Since then, the number of people formally arrested has jumped threefold compared to the previous five-year period, according to official figures and estimates by the non-governmental organisation Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

This draconian campaign made any peaceful expression of Muslim identity, such as having a long beard or wearing a veil, grounds for arrest on suspicion of disloyalty.

The campaign’s ability to identify “untrustworthy” Uighurs was vastly expanded by what is also known as the "Integrated Joint Operations Platform", a system of digital surveillance that involves the compulsory mass collection of biometric data such as voice samples, iris scans and other personal information.

It also uses artificial intelligence and big data to track all Uighurs and flag anyone who might be problematic. The reach of the authorities even extends beyond China with reports and mounting evidence indicating that enforced disappearances are being used against the families of Uighurs residing abroad.

All of this, rights activists say, has eerie historical precedents and parallels. “There are obviously important differences between what the Chinese regime is doing today to the Uighurs and the murder of six million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust. The regime’s programme is not extermination, but there is no question that it is determined to destroy the Uighur religion and identity,” observes Carl Gershman. “In place of bullets and gas, it is using comprehensive digital surveillance and asphyxiating physical and social controls, and its plan has a longer time frame.

But post-modern genocide is genocide nonetheless. The goal is the same,” added Gershman.

Faced with such evidence the response of the international community to the plight of the Uighurs has been muted, no doubt in part as a result of global trade with China and the western world’s own “war on terror.”

Looking back a decade on from the Urumqi riots or “Qi Wu” as that July day in 2009 is more commonly know by its acronym, there’s no doubt it was a defining moment for the Uighur people. Incarcerated in their millions and under terrible repression, now marks another defining moment for the Uighur. It’s one the world urgently needs to wake up to before it’s too late.