China’s restive far-western Xinjiang region has revised its legislation to allow local governments to "educate and transform" people influenced by extremism at “vocational training centres” – a term used by the government to describe a network of internment facilities known as "
concentration re-education camps", the SCMP reported.
“Governments above the county level can set up education and transformation organizations and supervising departments such as vocational training centers, to educate and transform people who have been influenced by extremism,” the revised legal clause says, which should provoke howls of fury from liberal western democracies at Beijing's gross abuse of human rights, unless of course said crusaders for global justice are busy...
The revised law, which kicked in on Tuesday, comes amid rising international outcry on the secretive camps in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, in which up to 1 million ethnic Uygurs and other Muslims are reported to have been detained and subjected to enforced political re-education.
Chinese officials had earlier denied the existence of such arbitrary detention and enforced political re-education bases, but said "some citizens had been sent to vocational centers for minor criminal misdemeanours."
The revision, issued by the regional legislature, recognizes the use of such centres as part of the government’s efforts to eliminate “religious extremism”, which in recent years have also included a massive security crackdown in Xinjinag and sweeping restrictions on Islamic practices.
Apart from teaching vocational skills, the centres are required to provide education on spoken and written Chinese, and aspects of the law and other regulations. They must also organize "ideological education to eliminate extremism", carry out psychological treatment and behavior correction, in order to “help trainees to transform their thoughts and return to society and their families”.
The old version of the law was passed in March 2017. It bans a wide range of acts deemed manifestations of extremism, including wearing veils or “abnormal” beards, refusing to watch state television or listen to state radio, and preventing children from receiving national education, according to the SCMP.
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One month ago, the NYT reported that in a move that would sharply antagonize the already frayed relations between the US and China, president Trump was reportedly considering sanctions against Chinese senior officials and companies to punish Beijing’s detention of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uighurs and other minority Muslims in the "massive internment camps."
While Trump has engaged in extensive punitive measures against China over the country's "unfair" trade surplus with the US involving various rounds of tariffs - to which China has responded in tit-for-ta measure - the contemplated economic penalties would be one of the first times the Trump administration has taken action against China because of human rights violations, a topic which Beijing has been acutely sensitive about and could prompt a far more "emotional" response by Beijing. Additionally, US officials are also seeking to limit American sales of surveillance technology that Chinese security agencies and companies are using to monitor Uighurs throughout northwest China.
According to the report, while discussions to publicly rebuke China’s treatment of its minority Muslims had been underway for months among top government officials, the they gained urgency two weeks ago, "after members of Congress asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to impose sanctions on seven Chinese officials."
Human rights advocates say the mass detentions in the northwest region of Xinjiang are the worst collective human rights abuse in China in decades. It is also a part of President Xi Jinping's governing style: since taking power in 2012, Xi - who recently changed the constitution to declare himself president for life - has steered China on a hard authoritarian course, which includes increased repression of large ethnic groups in western China, notably the Uighurs and Tibetans.
Michael Caster, a human rights advocate with Safeguard Defenders who studies China’s legal system, said the change to Xinjiang’s legislation would carry no weight on the world stage.
“International human rights law is clear, no matter how much China tries to ‘legalize’ the impermissible,” he said. “This is just another case of Xi Jinping attempting to mask the violation of human rights behind the veneer of the rule of law. What is taking place in Xinjiang is at least a gross violation of human rights if not a crime against humanity.”
What is bizarre about the planned sanctions - if they are indeed enacted - is that Trump has rarely if ever made statements criticizing foreign governments for human rights abuses or anti-liberal policies, and in fact has praised authoritarian leaders, including Xi. The Trump administration has confronted China over economic issues — the two countries are in the middle of a prolonged trade war — but has said little about rampant abuses by its security forces.
As such any escalation in the human rights arena, where China believes no foreign nation has any right to meddle over fears it could embolden other social groups to oppose and protest Beijing, would result in a significant deterioration in already frayed relations between the two nations.
In this context, the re-education camp "legalization" news could be seen as a provocation to Trump, with Beijing effectively telling the US leader to "do his worst." Knowing Trump, it won't take much for Beijing to get its wish.