China's government is conducting a mass repression campaign against an estimated 1 million ethnic minorities, mainly Uighurs, held in concentration camps in western China, a senior State Department official said Tuesday.
Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan told a United Nations meeting in New York that Beijing's actions against the Uighurs and other minorities are a human rights crisis.
"There are many reports that the Chinese government forces detainees to renounce their ethnic identities as well as their culture and religion," Sullivan said on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting.
"One can be detained for simply possessing books on religion and Uighur culture, reciting the Quran at a funeral, or even wearing clothing with the Muslim crescent."
Sullivan said the Chinese are engaged in a "brutal campaign" against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minority groups in western Xinjiang province.
Uighurs call the region East Turkistan and claim their homeland is occupied by China, in ways similar to Tibetans, who describe their country as occupied territory.
U.S. intelligence agencies estimate since April 2017 the Chinese have imprisoned at least 1 million people in a network of concentration camps around the western part of the country and that the number could be as high as 2 million.
"We have received credible reports of deaths, forced labor, torture, and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment in these camps," Sullivan said.
China, he noted, has asserted that the camps are "humane, job-training centers."
However, the detainees include medical doctors, academics, business people, and other professionals, along with young children and the elderly.
"Doctors, professors, and children don’t need job training," Sullivan said.
"China’s highly repressive campaign extends far beyond the camps," he said. "Xinjiang is subject to pervasive, arbitrary high-tech surveillance and involuntary collection of personal data, including DNA samples."
China is expanding the use of these repressive measures to other parts of China and to other nations.
The tactics are "a core focus of China’s campaign to suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms—not just in their country, but increasingly, around the world. It’s nothing short of Orwellian," Sullivan said.
The crackdown in Xinjiang appears to be part of a larger campaign of suppressing religious expression for all faiths inside China under the officially atheist rule of the Communist Party of China.
Communist Party members have been placed inside Uighur homes to monitor whether Uighurs are engaging in Muslim religious practices.
In Xinjiang, the Chinese have banned Muslims from praying or reading the Quran and have destroyed or defaced a large number of mosques.
Sullivan said the repression is not about countering terrorism as the Chinese government has claimed.
China is misusing international efforts to counter Islamic terrorism to repress the Uighurs, he said.
China has used a similar effort in Hong Kong to falsely label pro-democracy protesters as terrorists. The label is the Communist Party of China's "intentional misapplication of the term," Sullivan said.
In a bid to diminish international criticism, China also has falsely told international organizations that its actions in Xinjiang are undertaken in a humane manner and hosted deceptive tours to fool international human rights monitors.
"But if there were nothing to hide, diplomats and independent investigators would be allowed to travel freely throughout Xinjiang, and for that matter, Tibet," Sullivan said. "We must ask ourselves: What is the Chinese Communist Party afraid of? What are they trying to hide?"
Sullivan said China's actions against the Uighurs openly contradict foundational U.N. documents aimed at protecting human rights.
Sullivan called on the U.N. and the international community to condemn Chinese actions.
"The U.N. and its member states have a singular responsibility to speak up when survivor after survivor recounts the horrors of state repression," he said.
Last June, the United Nations sent Vladimir Voronkov, a Russian official and U.N. undersecretary general for counterterrorism, to Xinjiang and Voronkov supported Chinese claims that the repression was part of counterterror efforts.
"The U.N. must seek the immediate, unhindered, and unmonitored access to Xinjiang for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights," Sullivan said. "The United Nations, including its member states, have a responsibility to stand up for the human rights of people everywhere, including Muslims in Xinjiang. We urge the U.N. to investigate and closely monitor China’s human rights abuses, including the repression of religious freedom and belief."
"History will judge the international community for how we respond to this attack on human rights and fundamental freedoms," he said. "Together we must seek to understand the truth and act on it.
Kyle Olbert, a director at the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, a Uighur activist group, said recent undercover video from China showed images of hundreds of Uighurs being transported in shackles and blindfolded.
The images of prisoners being loaded on to trains harkened back to Jews being sent to death camps during World War II, he said.
Chinese agents also have been operating against Uighurs outside of China. In Casablanca, Morocco, a Uighur who supports independence was reported missing and apparently was deported to China. A Uighur academic was reported kidnapped by Chinese agents in Germany and is now facing a death sentence, Olbert said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday urged all nations to resist Chinese demands to repatriate Uighurs.
"Further on the subject of terrorism, I want to make clear that China’s repressive campaign in Xinjiang is not about terrorism," Pompeo told reporters in New York. "It’s about China’s attempt to erase its own citizens. … We call on all countries to resist China’s demands to repatriate the Uighurs."
In Kazakhstan, protests were reported in at least one city against Chinese expansionism and the imprisoning of Kazaks.
"Chinese cruelty toward the Turkic people is leading to populist uprisings," Olbert said. "Uzbekistan may be next after Kazakhstan. If these uprisings succeed, huge parts of China's Belt and Road Initiative may be stopped dead in its tracks."
The Belt and Road Initiative is Beijing's multi-billion dollar infrastructure investment program in the developing world that U.S. officials have called a stalking horse for Chinese global expansionism.