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China's Repression Of Ethnic Muslim Minorities Comes Into Clearer Relief


Much of our reporting on China these days focuses on its role as a big player on the world stage - its enormous economy and troubled trade relationship with the United States, its growing political influence around the globe. But this past week, NPR's Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz has been presenting some extraordinary reporting on a topic that speaks to China's internal insecurities - its massive repression of ethnic Muslim minorities in far western China. Rob Schmitz joins me now to share more of what he learned and tell us how this repression is now coming to light. Welcome.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Thanks, Lakshmi.

SINGH: So begin by telling us about the ethnic minorities involved - Uighurs and Kazakhs. The Chinese have interned hundreds of thousands in so-called re-education camps. How religiously observant are these Muslim minorities? Why does the Chinese government see them as a threat?

SCHMITZ: Well, Uighurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang have typically been on the secular side of the religious observance spectrum among Muslims. And part of this has to do with history. Xinjiang is on the ancient Silk Road, and both groups have interacted regularly with outsiders throughout history. But after communists came in the 1950s, China's government sent millions of Han Chinese there. And they were from China's ethnic majority from eastern China. And that caused a lot of friction, and that friction has played itself out with some Uighurs carrying out several attacks on Han Chinese people. And that's why China's government has clamped down, and these re-education camps are part of that.

SINGH: Tell us more about what you've heard goes on in these re-education camps.

SCHMITZ: Well, according to China's government, people inside these camps learn Mandarin. Many of them are not fluent in Chinese. And they also receive vocational training to help them get a job. And the people I spoke to who had been inside these camps told me another story. They said they were more like political indoctrination camps where inmates were forced to repeat communist slogans and had to attend classes that taught them their religious traditions were backwards and harmful. One detainee I met was Kayrat Samarkand. And here's his description of the daily routine inside the camp he was at.

KAYRAT SAMARKAND: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: He's saying here that they fed them tea, one slice of bread for breakfast, porridge and water for lunch and vegetable soup for dinner. And they were constantly hungry. And before they allowed them to eat, they had to chant, long live Xi Jinping. And, of course, Xi Jinping is the current leader of China, the face of China's Communist Party. And under his rule, Xinjiang has become one of the world's most tightly controlled police states.

SINGH: In your extensive reporting this week, Rob, you've shared some extraordinary stories of people disappearing into camps, of people being tortured. You heard about this from people not inside China. You heard this from Kazakhs who had fled over the border into Kazakhstan. Are a lot of people fleeing?

SCHMITZ: Well, first of all, tracking down people who have been inside these camps was really difficult. I was able to find three people. The ones I found were ethnic Kazakhs who were in the process of shifting their citizenship from China to Kazakhstan. And in two of these cases, that's exactly why Chinese authorities let them go. They deported them after they let them out because they were residents of Kazakhstan. And Kazakhstan the country allows anyone who is ethnic Kazakhs, including those who are Chinese citizens, to repatriate there and gain citizenship.

Now, there are far more Uighurs than Kazakhs inside these camps in Xinjiang, but it's much harder to find them because they don't really have a home country other than China to flee to when they get out. And if I go to Xinjiang to try and talk to any of them, I put them at risk of being sent to these camps. So Kazakhstan was really the safest place to report this.

SINGH: Are the majority Han Chinese aware of what's going on in the western part of the country? Is it an issue at all for any of them?

SCHMITZ: For the most part, they don't know. You know, China's media and access to information is pretty tightly controlled by the state. And little has been really said about these camps inside of China. You know, for those Han Chinese who actually do know about the camps, many of them actually do not sympathize with the Uighur and Kazakh detainees because they associate them with radical Islam and terrorism. And they've read about various attacks that are blamed on Uighurs through China's state media. So many who do know about what's happening in Xinjiang tend to be supportive of China's government.

SINGH: Rob, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, or APEC, is taking place. Dozens of world leaders are there, including Chinese leader Xi Jinping. I'm curious if this issue with the Uighurs and Kazakhs that you've been reporting on extensively this week - if you have the sense that this would be a prominent issue for Xi Jinping at that gathering.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, that's a good question. We do know that this week in Congress, this past week, on Wednesday, Congress introduced legislation to place a number of different actions and sanctions against China for its actions inside of Xinjiang. And also, this week, we saw a group of 15 ambassadors - mostly from EU countries, led by Canada - that have written to China and asked to speak to Chen Quangu, who is the party secretary of Xinjiang. So we're seeing a lot of international pressure, but the big question is whether it will actually be a topic on the table for discussion with leader Xi Jinping.

SINGH: That's NPR's Shanghai correspondent, Rob Schmitz. Rob, thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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