Since 2017, the government of China has interned Uyghurs, Kazakhs and members of other Muslim groups indigenous to the Xinjiang region in northwest China. Researchers estimate that more than one-million people have passed through the state’s re-education camps. The Chinese government insists the camps serve to prevent terrorism and unify the country.
Drawing on evidence gathered in part by Simon Fraser University (SFU) researchers, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, the Canadian Parliament and governments of other nations have criticized the regime for abuses that include torture, forced labour, indoctrination and family separation—considered crimes against humanity. The internment represents the largest arbitrary detention of ethnic and religious minorities since World War II.
SFU international studies professor Darren Byler, worked with SFU postdoctoral fellow Guldana Salimjan—a native Kazakh anthropologist from Xinjiang—and other scholars at the University of British Columbia (UBC) to establish the Xinjiang Documentation Project to collect, assess and share materials related to the internments.
The project is a multi-disciplinary joint research effort between SFU and UBC. Its goal is to make key documents available, assess their reliability, present material for the general public and provide a platform to share lived experiences. It features official communications from Chinese state media, Chinese scholarship and discourse, and first-hand accounts from people who have been detained. The site also features regular updates on the situation in the region.
Both Byler and Salimjan have earned international recognition for their work on Xinjiang. Byler was named the 2022 SFU Media Newsmaker and has provided expert commentary in hundreds of news stories. Salimjan is a former Ruth Wynn Woodward Junior Chair of the Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies Department at SFU, returning to the university in September as a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) postdoctoral fellow in the School for International Studies. She also recently won the prestigious 2022-23 Early Career Fellowship in China Studies from the American Council of Learned Societies and Luce Foundation.
The Xinjiang Documentation Project provides a reading guide about the recent developments, experts’ explanations, as well as an understanding of what ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs experience on a daily basis. For example, it shows how nearly all aspects of normative Muslim practice were outlawed in a list of “75 signs of extremism” that became the centre of the state’s mass internment program.
We spoke with Byler and Salimjan about their project.
When did you decide to create the Xinjiang Documentation Project? How did the SFU and UBC collaboration come about?
Byler: As we were both completing our PhDs, at UBC and the University of Washington, several of Guldana’s advisors at UBC encouraged us to build a centralized archive to document the evidence we were seeing of crimes against humanity in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region—Guldana’s homeland. Since Guldana and I have both been collaboratively studying state violence in the region, ever since I met her in 2010 when I was studying Chinese and Uyghur, it made sense for us to work together on this along with other colleagues. The goals of this project are twofold. First, we want to document how state crimes have been committed in order to hold state and corporate actors accountable. Second, drawing on our commitment to global decolonization, we hope the project can be used in ongoing and future truth and reconciliation processes.
One of the stories referenced on the site mentions how the works of incarcerated poets have been “smuggled out” by people who have memorized them. It must be challenging to gather and authenticate information coming from the region. How did you approach this challenge?
We seek to corroborate qualitative evidence with state documents—including classified directives and police reports—and by independently verifying statements by comparing them to accounts from detainees who were held in the same camps, coerced labor factories or prisons. Since both of us have spent many years in the region, we have a base knowledge of the regional political and economic system. We also work with collaborators such as investigative reporters and China-based researchers who are able to visit the region and confirm details. When it comes to things like poems and videos we rely on the people who gave us these objects to verify their origins.
Has the international community stepped in to try to stop the detentions and atrocities in Xinjiang? Are citizens of China aware of the situation?
In Canada, Parliament has voted to grant asylum to 10,000 Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and others who have fled the region and who are now living as stateless peoples in places like Kazakhstan or Turkey. If the government follows through on this mandate, it will make Canada the largest home to the Uyghur and Kazakh community outside of Kazakhstan, Turkey and China. The Canadian government has also joined the United States in attempting to extricate Canadian supply chains from Xinjiang forced labour (though they have been less successful in enforcing these prohibitions than the U.S.). Among some citizens in China, particularly among those who can access international news, there is growing awareness of what their government and companies have done to Turkic Muslims. Unfortunately, most people in China continue to support the campaign.
As researchers who have lived closely with this work for many years, you have answered many questions about this topic. What do you wish journalists would ask you? What does the world need to know?
The world needs to be aware that what is happening to Uyghurs and Kazakhs is a contemporary instantiation of settler colonialism. It is one that uses the tools of the Global War on Terror to steal the land, labour and way of life of nearly 15-million people. In our work we try to show how the system mirrors other ongoing processes of colonization and how it builds on the logics of global anti-Muslim racism and police violence. We want the world to see this as a limit case of the global political and economic system we all inhabit. But, when we translate their poetry and novels we want the world to recognize that what is at stake is not only the humanity of Uyghurs and Kazakhs, but the wisdom and knowledge that their traditions can contribute to the world.
What is the current situation in Xinjiang?
Over the past three years, we have seen that the Chinese state has begun a concerted effort to forget what has been done to Uyghurs and Kazakhs by acting like the hundreds of thousands of people who have disappeared no longer exist. While it is good that there are fewer new detainees, this active hiding and disinformation is very dangerous as it makes it even more difficult to hold the state accountable and find a way to restore justice and protect the future of Uyghur and Kazakh life. The lives of Uyghurs and Kazakhs still in the region, including the family members of those in our team, will be affected by this trauma for generations to come.