Why Arbitrary, Secretive Detention of Over a Million Chinese Muslims is Likely to Worsen Coronavirus Scare | Opinion

People inside and outside China have already offered up scathing criticism of Chinese health authorities for their slow and secretive response to the coronavirus, which the World Health Organization has now identified as a global health emergency.

The Chinese authorities waited weeks to acknowledge the problem and to begin mobilizing resources to address one of the worst public health crises in recent years. Instead the authorities have censored online discussions about the virus, limited people's freedom of movement, and failed to address discrimination against people from Wuhan and Hubei.

The authorities imposed a quarantine on Wuhan after 5 million of its 11 million residents had already left town. And the expansion of the quarantine zone to cover nearly 100 million people can be seen as more of an attempt to demonstrate that the outbreak was being taken seriously than as an effective public health strategy. While there was a brief period when authorities lessened their grip on the media, which did a remarkable job covering the outbreak, that window may have closed.

The Chinese government's adoption of an authoritarian approach to the coronavirus outbreak, relying on a quarantine and press censorship, is not unlike its approach to Xinjiang, the northwestern region of 13 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. The authorities have both created the conditions for a potential health care disaster and made it almost impossible for anyone outside the region to know what is happening there.

Torture, severely curtailed religious freedom, enforced disappearances, harassment of the diaspora community, pressure on other governments to forcibly return asylum seekers to China. Human Rights Watch has documented these human rights violations by Chinese authorities against the Muslim population of Xinjiang for more than two decades. But the arbitrary detention of more than a million people and all-knowing Orwellian surveillance imposed over the last three years are likely to worsen the current coronavirus scare.

In 2017, Uyghur diaspora communities across the world began to report that they had lost contact with family members inside Xinjiang, and news began to trickle out about large-scale detentions. The authorities restricted access to the region, making it extremely difficult for journalists, diplomats, and independent observers to document these developments. Over the following year human rights advocates interviewed people who had managed to flee the country, scoured satellite imagery and procurement documents found online, and searched social media for clues about individual Uyghurs' whereabouts.

Slowly a picture emerged of the "Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Extremism," in which authorities are detaining Turkic Muslims en masse for practices as trivial as using WhatsApp or communicating with families in one of 26 countries deemed "sensitive" by the authorities, who claim that such actions signify "extremism."

Human Rights Watch documented the mass arbitrary detentions in 2018. The people held in detention camps are subjected to "political reeducation," and some are tortured and denied adequate medical treatment. Some of the people who were released from Xinjiang's camps told us of poor conditions in the camps. They were held in cold and overcrowded rooms, forced to sleep in shifts and to take turns standing guard at night—and had no idea when if ever they might be released. Several described rudimentary medical care, while others said they had been denied necessary medicines. It's hard to imagine that the authorities in these facilities are prepared to report, let alone treat, coronavirus cases.

In addition, the authorities began to institutionalize Turkic Muslim children whose parents were arbitrarily detained. They too are being taught Mandarin and loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, steadily erasing their cultural and linguistic identity. But there is no publicly available information about whether children in such institutions, or their caregivers, have been exposed to the coronavirus or whether provisions are being made for their care if the virus spreads there.

Outside of the camps, the authorities use high tech surveillance, sometimes in ways that limit access to health care. The most mundane daily tasks, such as going to a market, or taking a child to school, require passing through checkpoints at which people have to present their IDs; some checkpoints are equipped with "data doors" that use facial recognition and covertly collect people's phone identifying information to follow their every move. Authorities have enormous information about people's movements, and presumably could determine whether they are simply trying to access medical care, yet we have documented cases of those unable to receive adequate medical treatment because of these high-tech restrictions on movement. Under the guise of a free public healthcare program, authorities across the region collected DNA samples of everyone between the ages of 12 and 65, allowing them to determine the relationship between people the authorities deem suspicious. Again, it is virtually impossible to know whether sick people in the region will be able to pass through all of the checkpoints to get treatment.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the level of government control over and information about people across Xinjiang, authorities have offered up virtually no information about how the virus is affecting that region, other than state media confirmation of about two dozen reported cases. As a result, Uyghurs around the world—already desperate for any news of their family members—are in even greater agony, unsure of whether the virus has reached that region, whether people in detention have been inadvertently exposed to the virus, or whether anyone across the region has access to adequate care.

A robust, rights-respecting approach to a public health crisis requires the opposite of what Chinese authorities are doing in Xinjiang: full transparency about the extent of the virus' spread across the region, access to the region for independent observers and media, and, most urgently, access to all those detained by properly trained medical professionals who can ensure adequate treatment. The authorities should also immediately allow communication between those in detention and their family members.

International and Chinese law guarantee the rights to liberty, religious freedom, and access to appropriate medical care. It's bad enough that China is grossly violating Turkic Muslims' rights with impunity, it's worse still that in doing so it may also be condemning them to serious illness.

Sophie Richardson is China director at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter at @SophieHRW.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​