Forced Internment of Muslim Minority in China: Concentration Camps or Job Training?

By Robin Wilson

Countries are calling upon and demanding China to close its “vocational training centers” in the western region of Xinjiang after testimonies of forced indoctrination and torture. The majority of detainees in the camps are Uyghurs (Uighurs), a minority Muslim group, and several entities including the United Nations are investigating after years of tension between the groups.

The religion of Islam itself has had a tricky relationship with China. It arrived in the seventh century with no problem, but acceptance of the religion started decreasing. In 1644 the China-based empire expanded into the west and took over Muslim territories, specifically Xinjiang, meaning “new territories.”[1] Later, the state adopted an idea of a “Buddhist political-religious utopia” that specifically excluded Muslims, which exacerbated tensions and caused more rebellious action. With the takeover of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, the ethnic Han Chinese started working to eradicate all differences in nationalities and ethnicities and reduce the influence of religions.[2] Specifically, laws have been enacted that force Muslims to sell alcohol and cigarettes, ban long beards on men and veils on women, and don’t allow fasting during Ramadan.[3] China has been using ethnic profiling to control the Muslim population, as well as moving members of the Han Chinese ethnicity into the region.

This is not limited to Xinjiang. In Ningxia, hostility towards Muslims has increased, and Chinese authorities are closing or destroying mosques of the Hui Muslims.[4] There have also been threats and coercion reaching Uyghurs in Australia.[5]

A data security flaw in the personal verification and facial recognition company contracted by China has revealed the mass surveillance of 2.5 million Uyghur Muslims. The database holding information such as names, birthdates, addresses, employers, and identification card numbers was faulty for seven months.[6] A sample study demonstrated that every name in the database is traditionally Muslim.

In addition to surveillance, there is an estimated one million Muslims being held in detention centers labeled as “vocational training centers.” Previously called “rehabilitation centers” by the Chinese government, other sources label these as “internment camps” “detainment camps” or “concentration centers.” There are an estimated 1,000 centers existing, plus an increase in orphanages for the affected population.[7] Allegedly, Muslims are being moved in the middle of the night by figures in black hoods.[8] The Chinese government claims that these centers are to combat terrorism and train separatists and extreme religionists in new jobs following fighting in the region in 2009 and an alleged Uyghur attack in 2013. It also has said that the centers are aiming to provide employment opportunities through job training for the poorest in the country.[9] These detainment camps were started in 2017, and have continued to rapidly grow.[10]

The conditions of these centers have been so questioned that the United Nations began a human rights panel on the treatment of Muslims due to their religion in China in August 2018.[11] Former detainees have spoken of being shackled and sleep deprived for days during interrogation, and political indoctrination tactics that involve reciting and memorizing Chinese laws and Communist Party policies. People allegedly have been forced to renounce their religion and are denied food if they do not. There are also many reports of deaths in custody due to torture.[12]

There has been international upset over the treatment of Muslims in China over the past few years, increasing with the internment of hundreds of thousands. The detainment of prominent Uyghur figures, specifically intellectuals, has brought a lot of attention to the situation. Turkey, while usually having good relations with China, is demanding that they close their “concentration” camps against their Muslim minority.[13] In November 2018, lawmakers wanted President Trump to push for American action in relation to the human rights abuses in China. In response, China vowed to retaliate “in proportion” to any American sanctions imposed over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.[14] The United States senate did revive a bill that could be used to sanction China over its internment, the “Uyghurs Human Rights Policy Act” after the congressional session ran out and has imposed sanctions on China, but over trade, not human rights.[15]

There are concerns that this could be a start of a genocide, and China has not given a long-term plan for its “vocational training centers.” Several countries and organizations have been repeatedly questioning the treatment of Uyghurs by the Chinese government within and outside of China, and more groups are investigating and calling for action. This issue has been ongoing for years, and as of yet no action beyond critical statements have been made.


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3 Denyer, S. (2015, May 05). China orders Muslim shopkeepers to sell alcohol, cigarettes, to ‘weaken’ Islam. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from

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13 Koc, C. (2019, February 09). Turkey Tells China to Close ‘Camps’ Holding Muslim Uighurs. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from

14 Al Jazeera. (2018, November 28). China vows retaliation if US imposes sanctions over Xinjiang. Retrieved February 15, 2019, from

15 Haas, B., Jacobs, B., & Helmore, E. (2018, March 22). US imposes sanctions on China, stoking fears of trade war. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from