Remember George Orwell’s novel, 1984? You might have come across it during secondary school. The details are probably fuzzy, but I’m sure you’ve encountered the phrase “Big Brother is watching you”. Originating from Orwell’s 1984, the quote means that in the fictional state of Oceania, mass surveillance has made citizens conscious that they are being watched through telescreens by “Big Brother” at all times, resulting in the suppression of individuality and freedom. What about The Handmaid’s Tale? A novel by Margaret Atwood, describing the experiences in the totalitarian state of Gilead: secret police watching people’s every move; loss of reproductive rights; and a complete restriction of women’s rights and freedom. The frightening depictions within these novels were dubbed as fantastical stories. But what happens when dystopian fiction is, no longer, just fiction?
Enter modern-day Xinjiang, China’s northwestern province, home to 11 million Uighur Muslims. Upon entering the region, streets and alleys within every city and village are littered with surveillance cameras watching people’s every move. With facial recognition technology, there is nowhere to hide. The buildings are secured by barbed wires and tank traps. Armoured military vehicles patrol and security guards with huge clubs patrol the streets. There are checkpoints everywhere to identify and control movement within the region. Surveillance does not stop there. Many of the Muslims in the region have been forced to install an app called “Jingwang” (clean web) which monitors all of their communications. This along with shopping behaviour, health certificates, documents, and information from the cameras is processed and used to spot and flag suspicious behaviour. This may include the most mundane of things such as a home using slightly more water than usual, which suggests that there are unregistered guests. That could result in being sent to a camp for engaging in suspicious behaviour (Maass and Maass, 2019). This is the modern-day equivalent of a dystopia like 1984.
To provide a little context, the above is a description of the crackdown by the Chinese Government on the Uighur Muslims. Who are the Uighur Muslims? They are one of 56 ethnic groups that are officially recognised by the Chinese government, living in Xinjiang which is one of the largest Provinces in China. They are mainly Muslim: a Turkic speaking minority group that make up less than 1% of the Chinese population (The Intercept, 2019). The Chinese government claimed that Xinjiang’s Muslim were working alongside ISIS and after some violent attacks perpetrated by Uighur separatists, strict controls have been implemented in order to prevent terrorist activity. As part of these controls, the Chinese government have made Xinjiang into a high tech surveillance state as well as having built over 1000 internment camps where millions of Uighurs have been detained. The reason given is that it is to eradicate “the virus in their thinking” (Maass and Maass, 2019).
The Chinese government have claimed that the camps are vocational training centres which Muslims voluntarily attend in order to combat extremist terrorist tendencies. Although they have constantly denied any evidence of oppression against Uighur Muslims, a number of corresponding reports from eyewitnesses have proved that these camps are in fact re-education centres aimed at deleting the Muslim identity of Uighurs. The camp has detained both men and women and has severely if not completely restricted their freedom and rights. Detainment could be a result of any display of belief in the Islamic faith. Some of the restrictions include: naming a child Mohammed; entering mosques; wearing the face veil in public, or men growing their beards abnormally long. These are just some of the restrictions but any display of disobedience or visible portrayal of Islamic beliefs can be seen as unlawful and can lead to one being imprisoned in the camp (The Intercept, 2019).
The conditions within the camp have been revealed both by reoccurring accounts from individuals who have escaped as well as leaked documents from within the Chinese government titled The China Cables detailing the harsh conditions (the Guardian, 2019). One account is from a teacher by the name of Sayragul Sauytbay who was a Chinese Muslim of Kazakh descent. She was detained and tortured in one of the camps. Her role was to teach other prisoners Chinese. Sauytbay reports that Prisoners were put into rooms that were 16 square metres with 20 or more people; they were constantly shackled except when they had to write. They were not allowed to speak, laugh, cry or even ask questions. They were forced to eat pork as a way of making them abandon their religion. Prisoners included school children from the age of 13 to the elderly around the age of 80 years old. She notes that prisoners were made to learn Chinese communist party propaganda songs; they were being indoctrinated into being subordinate to the Chinese government (haaretz.com, 2019).
That wasn’t the worst of it, however. Sauytbay mentions that there were rooms allocated to torture for anyone who didn’t follow the rules. Torture included sitting on a chair of nails; being beaten and hung on the walls to be electrified. Women were repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped and if they showed any kind of pain or emotion they were made to be disappeared (haaretz.com, 2019). The government are trying to invade every aspect of the Uighur’s life to disintegrate their Islamic identity, and with the sophisticated technology in place, this has been made possible.
The rest of the world has been slow to respond especially because of China’s huge political and economic influence abroad. There have been mixed responses, but most appalling is the response of Saudi Arabia to the news of this oppression. On a visit to Beijing, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, said that China was within its rights to put Muslims within camps (The Intercept, 2019). Saudi Arabia’s complicity to this violence against Muslims is proof of China’s enormous power.
However, Western countries have vocalised their concerns about these internment camps with 22 nations including the UK, France and Canada signing a letter to the United Nations calling China to end its huge detention programme in July 2019. Furthermore, the United States Congress passed an act to restrict its sale of surveillance technology to Beijing (The Intercept, 2019). This is a step in the right direction, but it is still not enough.
If the content of harrowing dystopian fiction has entered the realm of reality, what does this say about the current state of the world? Perhaps the world of fiction and reality are becoming indistinguishable. Gross human rights violation and abuses of this extent should have evoked a much stronger response and opposition than the one that we have gotten. It is a testament to the fact that economic and political power is more valuable than human rights. The last time millions of people were locked up in a camp, it was during the Second World War, and what we all know now as the Holocaust. In comparison to what is going on in the real world, 1984 seems like a utopia. Let that sink in.
- haaretz.com. (2019). A million people are jailed at China’s gulags. I escaped. Here’s what really goes on inside. [online] Available at: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-a-million-people-are-jailed-at-china-s-gulags-i-escaped-here-s-what-goes-on-inside-1.7994216
- Maass, H. and Maass, H. (2019). The chilling stories from inside China’s Muslim internment camps | The Spectator. [online] The Spectator. Available at: https://www.spectator.co.uk/2019/12/the-chilling-stories-from-inside-chinas-muslim-internment-camps/
- the Guardian. (2019). The China cables | World news | The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/series/the-china-cables
The Intercept. (2019). Why Don’t We Care About China’s Uighur Muslims?. [online] Available at: https://theintercept.com/2019/12/29/why-dont-we-care-about-chinas-uighur-muslims/