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While my research was previously in mathematical/engineering optimization, this has essentially been frozen and put on hold because of the events in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where in recent years hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of the region’s ethnic minority residents have been incarcerated – in prisons and in de facto concentration camps – under the guise of the government’s “war on terror”. As a long-time Xinjiang resident, this has impacted both myself and a number of people I know, prompting me to abandon everything to work on the Xinjiang Victims Database (shahit.biz) – a public online repository that seeks to document the individuals affected by the mass incarcerations.
The primary goal of the database is more humanitarian than scholarly, as by documenting the individual victims we seek to spotlight their cases and thereby protect them, while also holding the Chinese authorities responsible for their actions and establishing the foundations for future legal action. However, by methodically tracking the thousands of different cases and their evolution, we also become privy to a number of important trends that are difficult to notice otherwise, given the information vacuum that the authorities have created in Xinjiang and the authorities’ absolute refusal to admit any wrongdoing. For example, some of the trends and phenomena that shahit.biz has helped discover and document have been:
- The gradual dismantlement of the concentration-camp facet of the incarceration system that started in late 2018.
- The incredible number of heavy prison sentences (10-20 years) that many victims have been given, and how those with religious backgrounds have been particularly targeted.
- The surprising effect that very simple grassroots campaigning, such as online video testimonies, have had on getting specific individuals released or on getting the Chinese authorities to make special admissions/concessions for specific cases.
- The fact that the mass incarcerations in Xinjiang do not affect only the local Uyghur majority but essentially all the local ethnic groups and even some categories of the ethnically dominant Han Chinese.
By maintaining a public, filterable, and searchable database, we also make available a tool that researchers, journalists, rights organizations, governments, and other interested parties may use to effectively study and monitor the situation in Xinjiang. Finally, we also monitor and document the specific facilities where particular known victims have been detained, as well as make available a real-time primary-evidence report, which consolidates all of the strongest evidence (e.g., eyewitness accounts, documents, multimedia from the region) in a single document.