The unexpected drone footage: an insight into China’s prisons

Recently released drone footage offers a rare glimpse into China’s hidden prisons. The video, which was anonymously posted to a YouTube channel in September, appears to show Chinese police transferring hundreds of blindfolded and shackled prisoners in what is believed to be the province of Xinjiang. 

The inmates are thought to be Uighur Muslims who have lived in the region for decades and have been actively repressed since 2017, and whom China blames entirely for the actions of the terrorist group known as the Turkistan Islamic Party. Since then, there have been more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities placed in internment and so called political “re-education camps”. 

However, the Chinese government denies that anyone is wrongly placed in these camps; instead claiming that people willingly attend these centres which reportedly help to combat religious extremism. The validity of this statement though is brought into question when the lax human rights policies in the People’s Republic of China are also considered. 

In July of this year, ambassadors of 22 countries, including the UK, signed a joint letter to the UN criticising the targeted persecution of Uighurs. However, with the recent release of the drone footage, it is clear that this may have been an ineffective attempt to hold the government to account and pressure them to implement changes in their current handling of minorities in their country.

The details of these prisons are largely kept secret, which is why this leaked footage has caused such a stir. For the first time, the government has nowhere to hide as the true nature of the camps is clearly visible. 

The Chinese narrative is that these centres aim to “reform” those with extremist thoughts and that they are more like a “school” than an internment camp, but the cleanly shaved heads and shackles in the video beg to differ. What is even more horrifying is the fact that many of those imprisoned haven’t committed any crime. Some are there as they are believed to have the potential to commit a crime, or for having a name that sounds too Islamic or simply for having a beard that is too long. 

Surveillance is being developed in order to track the actions of citizens and those living in Xinjiang between the age of 12 and 65 are required to have blood samples, fingerprints and voice recordings collected. Nevertheless, these are all steps that won’t seem that drastic for a country that already has such a tight control over its citizens through the likes of censored television and limited internet access; and yet they will only further contribute to the problem of ethnic profiling that only appears to be growing.

Chinese authorities claim that they are “re-educating” those in these mass internment camps, yet it would appear more like they are trying to erase the identity of the Uighur living there. When practicing your religion in public can lead to prison time, it is no wonder why many Xinjiang residents are living in fear. It was described by a UN racial discrimination committee as a “massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy.” And yet despite condemning statements and letters, no one seems to be doing much to challenge this situation. 

What can undoubtledly be called an ethnic-cleansing is occurring in China and more needs to be done to help those who are threatened. Xinjiang is only holds 2 percent of China’s population yet arrests made there represent 22 percent of those made throughout the entire country. This shows the true extent of what could be said to be the biggest crisis of human rights in China since the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

It is not known how the footage of the prison was acquired and it was posted as the only video on a channel named “War on Fear.” The description on the video said, “Our aim is to fight fear. The people of today’s society always live under the supervision of the government with high technology. People lose their freedom.” 

According to Nathan Ruser; a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s international cyber policy centre, who examined the video; it was most likely taken in August last year. He reached this conclusion by analysing the landmarks and position of the Sun. He also said the detainees were most likely being transferred to prisons in Korla where the crackdown has been particularly severe. The video now has over 600,000 views and has spurred backlash from an array of sources, including human rights organisations. A group of these organisations joined together to write a letter to UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, calling on him to condemn the Chinese government’s detention of more than a million Muslims in the Xinjiang region and call for the immediate closure of government detention camps. 

Although major construction of these prisons has only been fairly recent, within the past 3 years, the tensions between the Chinese state and the Uighur population have been underlying for the past 25 years. According to Chinese officials, Uighur citizens are responsible for the death and injury of thousands due to explosions, assassinations, poisoning, arson and riots. It is this unrest that led officials to construct the “re-education” centres and which, until now, have only been seen in carefully structured and controlled visits by the media. 

It is not only the Uighur who live in Xinjiang who are at risk; as Chinese authorities have reportedly been tracing those who have left the country and, in some cases, pressuring such nations to send the Uighur people back. In the 21st century, such a major breach of human rights seems unprecedented, especially when looked at from a western perspective; however this is the daily reality for Xinjiang’s Uighur population.

This short footage gives just a glimpse into what is a mass internment of ethnic groups and minorities in China. An ethnic cleansing is being carried out under the guise of “reform” and “re-education” and over a million people are suffering because of it. But the Chinese state’s attempt to erase the identities of its own population has not gone unnoticed; it can’t afford to. 

 

Image: ImageChina via rfa.org

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