The crackdown by Chinese authorities on “separatism” led to an alarming rise in criminal arrests in Xinjiang in 2017, according to NGOs Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) and the Equal Rights Initiative.

The NGOs made a joint submission to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) on Wednesday.

Xinjiang armed police
Armed police in Xinjiang. File photo: Wikicommons.

The UN CERD will gather in August to review China’s implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination – a signatory of the convention since 1981.

The NGOs have raised concerns over what they believe is a failure to implement articles four and five of the convention by China, which prohibits the discrimination of minority groups.

Xinjiang arrests China data
Photo: Xinjiang People’s Procuratorate Annual Work Reports (2014-2017), Supreme People’s Procuratorate Annual Work Reports (2013-2017) screenshot via Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

According to Chinese government data, the percentage of criminal arrests made in the region rose by 306 per cent in the past five years, compared to the previous five year period. Nearly 70 per cent of those arrests were made in 2017. Xinjiang accounts for 21 per cent of the total number of arrests in China, despite its population compromising only 1.5 per cent of the country’s whole.

The number of arrests made in Xinjiang jumped from 27,404 arrests in 2016 to 227,882 in 2017.

‘Strike hard’ campaign

“[T]he dramatic increase is likely related to the government’s ‘strike hard’ campaign against terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism,” the report said.

The Chinese authorities have been conducting large-scale arrests of people belonging to Xinjiang’s predominantly Muslim Uyghur population since 2014, when President Xi Jinping enacted “strike hard” government campaigns to tackle unrest. In 2009, violent riots broke out among Uyghur groups in Ürümqi – the provincial capital – targeting mainly Han people.

Uyghurs account for 46 per cent of the region’s population, while other ethnic minority groups account for 14 per cent, according to government statistics.

Xinjiang arrests China 2017
Photo: Xinjiang People’s Procuratorate Annual Work Reports (2018-2017) via Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

The report said: “For both arrests and indictments, the sudden increases in 2017 from 2016 are staggering.”

See also: ‘Eradicate the tumors’: Chinese civilians driving the crackdown in Xinjiang

“While the government has not provided explicit explanations for the steep climb, it is likely the result of hard-line tactics adopted by the Communist Party secretary for Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, who was appointed in August 2016, after implementing harsh measures to ‘maintain stability’ as Party head in the Tibet Autonomous Region.”

Chen is reportedly responsible for a 92 per cent increase in “security spending” in Xinjiang and expansion in police recruitment from 2016 to 2017.

Outside of the law

The UN submission follows reports that hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are being detained in extrajudicial “re-education camps” without formal arrest. They are allegedly denied proper judicial proceedings – including the right to a fair trial – and are often criminally detained under “terrorism” or “separatism” charges.

They include 19-year-old Uyghur professional football player Erfan Hezim, who was reportedly detained last month in a political “re-education camp.”

See also: Pakistanis distressed as Uighur wives vanish into China’s shadowy network of ‘reeducation centres’

The report said: “In the so-called ‘strike hard’ campaigns in the [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region], the government’s political priorities have trumped legal and human rights.”

Xinjiang indictments 2017 China
Photo: Tianshan Net, Xinjiang People’s Procuratorate Annual Work Reports (2014-2017), Supreme People’s Procuratorate Annual Work Reports (2013-2017).

The NGOs also highlighted the case of Uyghur economics scholar Ilham Tohti, who ran a website providing information on Uyghurs, but has – from 2014  -been serving life in prison in Xinjiang on “separatism” charges.

Tohti was awarded the Martin Ennals award for human rights defenders in 2016 for attempting “to foster dialogue and understanding” between the Han majority and Uyghur minority populations in China.

Ilham Tohti
Photo: Youtube screenshot.

CHRD and the Equal Rights Initiative also said that defendants in terrorism-related cases in Xinjiang are almost always ethnic minorities and they are forbidden from pleading “not guilty.” They also said that verdicts are decided in advance by government officials, not judges, and lawyers will be dismissed from cases if they protest the violation of their clients’ rights.

The group said: “Some families said that they had not learned the fate of their loved ones who were taken away to re-education camps until after the detainees had been transferred to prison.”

“Even then, many still had not been told the full details on criminal charges or prison sentences, and prosecution and sentencing had often been carried out in secret.”

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.