An investigative report by Eva Dou, Jeremy Page, and Josh Chin of the Wall Street Journal has found evidence that extralegal political re-education camps in Xinjiang have expanded rapidly in recent months. Meanwhile, detainees have given accounts of abuse while family members have reported deaths of their loved ones in the camps. Experts have estimated that over a million people, from the Uyghur minority as well as other Muslim ethnic groups in China, have been held in camps where they are reportedly indoctrinated to show loyalty to the Communist Party and to disavow any religious beliefs. From the WSJ report:
Satellite images reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and a specialist in photo analysis show that camps have been growing. Construction work has been carried out on some within the past two weeks, including at one near the western city of Kashgar that has doubled in size since Journal reporters visited in November.
The full extent of the internment program was long obscured because many Uighurs feared speaking out. Now more are recounting experiences, including six former inmates interviewed by the Journal who described how they or other detainees had been bound to chairs and deprived of adequate food.
“They would also tell us about religion, saying there is no such thing as religion, why do you believe in religion, there is no God,” said Ablikim, a 22-year-old Uighur former inmate who asked to be identified only by his first name.
The Journal also spoke to three dozen relatives of detainees, five of whom reported that family members had died in camps or soon after their release. Many said they had struggled to determine where their relatives were being held and the state of their health. [Source]
In a Twitter thread, Chin explains how he and his colleagues reported on the camps despite numerous obstacles.
We confirmed a lot of what others have reported and we found out some new things. It’s incredibly difficult to dig up information about these camps, so I thought it would be helpful to describe how we did our reporting. 2/x
— Josh Chin (@joshchin) August 18, 2018
An article by Akbar Shahid Ahmed in the Huffington Post looks at the increased willingness by exiled Uyghurs and others to speak up about the existence of the camps and how they get the word out despite tight restrictions on communicating with people in Xinjiang.
The Chinese government has denied any abuse or persecution has taken place in the camps, calling them “vocation centers.” In a blog post, Jeremy Daum of China Law Translate explores the legality of such centers, which the government claims are being used as education centers for criminals guilty of minor crimes. But Daum argues that there is no clear legal basis for holding such people longer than 15 days and without a trial:
As discussed above, the law is quite direct in saying when administrative detention is called for, and there is no mention of detention in the discussion of corrective mentoring for minor offenses. Even for more serious offenders, who were given court ordered criminal punishments, education is mentioned only as something to be carried out during their sentence, not as additional grounds for detention. The Xinjiang Regulation on De-extremification similarly use ‘education’ as the lowest form of punishment, for situations not even meriting administrative punishments, but it would defy logic to read this as authorizing longer detention than the 15 days maximum authorized for the more serious violations.[vi]
The exception to this rule is ‘educational placement’ [安置教育]. [vii] Educational placement is one of the Counter-terrorism Law’s most troubling features, and does provide for potentially indefinite detention. Its application is limited, however, to those who are sentenced by a court to a prison term for a terrorism crime, have served that sentence, and the court has then found that they are still too dangerous to release. It is possible that some of the new prison-like educational centers are intended for those in educational-placement, but their size would then suggest that such placements were the norm following criminal sentences. [Source]
In a post for the CESS Blog, Rachel Harris of SOAS, University of London, puts the existence of re-education camps in the context of Beijing’s broader crackdown on religious expression in Xinjiang and efforts to forcibly assimilate Uyghur culture and Muslim religious practices into mainstream Han society:
Testimonies hint at the psychological trauma inflicted on detainees. Reports also attest to the trauma suffered by the wider Uyghur population, both within Xinjiang and in the diaspora. We know that Uyghurs within Xinjiang are struggling to maintain daily life with over 10% of the workforce in detention. Many children have been sent to state orphanages because both their parents have been detained. Uyghurs living outside Xinjiang are suffering from crippling anxiety and guilt: they risk detention for their relatives if they try to contact them, and they fear worse consequences for their detained relatives if they speak out.
Individuals known to have been detained
- Professional football player Erfan Hezim detained in 2017
- Prominent religious scholar Muhammad Salih Hajim, 82, died in custody, January 2018
- Xinjiang University President Tashpolat Teyip detained in 2017, accused as a “two-faced” official, insufficiently loyal to the state
- Xinjiang University Professor Rahile Dawut detained in 2017, possibly in connection with her ethnographic research on Uyghur religious culture
- Uyghur writer and Xinjiang Normal University Professor Abduqadir Jalaleddin, detained in January 2018
- Elenur Eqilahun, detained in 2017, possibly for receiving calls from her daughter who is studying abroad
- Pop star Ablajan Ayup, detained in February 2018, possibly for singing about Uyghur language education
- Halmurat Ghopur, Vice Provost of Xinjiang Medical Institute, detained in 2017for exhibiting “nationalistic tendencies.”
This short list of prominent Uyghur intellectuals, artists and athletes who we know have been detained is only the tip of the iceberg, but it demonstrates that the scope of the campaign has gone well beyond the religious sphere. Current policies seek to quarantine Uyghurs from any foreign contacts, they target individuals who have promoted Uyghur language or culture, and people who resist, or are insufficiently enthusiastic about, the campaign. It suggests that the anti-“terror” campaign is being used as part of a wider set of policies – including the so-called “bilingual education” policy which has banned the use of Uyghur language in schools and higher education – which are designed to break down ethnic identity and affiliation, and absorb minority nationalities into the wider Chinese nation (zhonghua minzu).
It also suggests that Turkic-speaking Muslim minority peoples are now collectively regarded as a threat to China’s national security. As one official from Kashgar reportedly said at a public meeting, “you can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one by one – you need to spray chemicals to kill them all; re-educating these people is like spraying chemicals on the crops … that is why it is a general re-education, not limited to a few people.” [Source]
Among the Uyghur intellectuals who have reportedly been detained is Professor Rahile Dawut, a scholar of Uyghur religious and cultural traditions who went missing last December after telling friends she was planning to travel to Beijing from Urumqi, where she taught. Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy report for The New York Times:
But until recently, Professor Dawut’s work was welcomed by Chinese bureaucrats, as evidenced by grants and support she received from the Ministry of Culture. She had earned an international reputation as an expert on Uighur shrines, folklore, music and crafts neglected by previous generations of scholars.
“I was deeply drawn to this vivid, lively folk culture and customs, so different from the accounts in textbooks,” she said in an interview with a Chinese art newspaper in 2011. “Above all, we’re preserving and documenting this folk cultural heritage not so that it can lie in archives or serve as museum exhibits, but so it can be returned to the people.”
While Chinese policymakers worried that Uighurs were increasingly drawn to radical forms of Islam from the Middle East, Professor Dawut’s work portrayed Uighur heritage as more diverse and tolerant, shaped by Sufi spiritual traditions anathema to modern-day extremists. In 2014, she told The New York Times that she worried about Uighur women drawn to conservative Islam.
[…] “The Chinese government, after arresting Uighur government officials, Uighur rich people, they’ve begun to arrest Uighur intellectuals,” Tahir Imin, a former student of Professor Dawut, said from Washington, where he lives. “Right now I can tell you more than 20 names, all prominent Uighur intellectuals.” [Source]
Nick Holdstock, who knows Rahile Dawut, wrote about her disappearance for the London Review of Books, concluding, “Her disappearance is part of a strategy, long in gestation, to eradicate all forms of dissent in Xinjiang by either brainwashing or intimidation.” Others who have reportedly been detained include philanthropist Ablimit Hoshur Halis Haji, who had set up an education fund to help elite Uyghur students study abroad. In a 2015 interview with the New York Review of Books after Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatism,” writer Wang Lixiong explained why he thought Chinese authorities were targeting moderate Uyghurs like him, who did not advocate independence or engage in terrorist acts:
We all thought he wouldn’t be in trouble. But the only conclusion is dark: it’s that they don’t want moderate Uighurs. Because if you have moderate Uighurs, then why aren’t you talking to them? So they wanted to get rid of him and then you can say to the West that there are no moderates and we’re fighting terrorists. [Source]
While many of those detained have ties to Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries bordering China, neighboring governments have done little to speak out against the camps and restrictive policies in Xinjiang. Gene A. Bunin reports for Foreign Policy:
Though people in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan all demand the reunification of their families and the safety of relatives in Xinjiang, their governments, despite not openly supporting China’s internal policies, still find themselves numb before an overwhelmingly powerful neighbor.
The numbness is understandable— too much of these countries’ future development depends on China. Kazakhstan, owing to its geographical location, seeks to benefit from being a crucial partner on the Belt and Road Initiative’s New Eurasian Land Bridge, a series of rail links set to traverse Xinjiang and Kazakhstan, cross through Russia, and terminate in Europe. The analogue for Pakistan is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a $62 billion infrastructure project that is predicted to create hundreds of thousands of jobs while speeding up the country’s growth. For Kyrgyzstan, it’s less about ambitious projects and more about loans and investment—in addition to owning oil refineries, plants, and mines in the country, China also owns about half of its debt. Dependent on remittances and unable to generate enough income for investment, Kyrgyzstan is forced to borrow if it wants to maintain its growth.
However, despite cooperation from both governments and China-facing entrepreneurs in these Muslim-majority countries, the fact that the Chinese government is keeping as many as a million of its own Muslims in concentration camps has not made for smooth partnerships. Of the three countries, Kazakhstan is the one where things have been the rockiest by far, as thousands of people—many of them Chinese “Oralman,” or ethnic Kazakhs from China—have seen their relatives in Xinjiang detained over the past year and a half, in many cases for such simple “transgressions” as keeping in touch with them via WhatsApp, a chat client that is now banned in China. [Source]
Meanwhile, the National Basketball Association has been operating a training camp in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, since 2016. In Slate, Isaac Stone Fish argues that the NBA’s presence helps “whitewash a network of concentration camps,” and goes against league members’ stated support for racial justice in the U.S.:
NBA stars like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have condemned police violence and racism in the United States, while players and executives have protested the Trump administration’s separation of immigrant children from their parents. According to his LinkedIn page, the NBA executive George Land oversees the Xinjiang training center. On Twitter, Land’s most recent activity is a retweet of the MSNBC host Chris Hayes condemning the U.S. separation of thousands of mothers from their children. But what about Xinjiang? Thousands of Uighur children are reportedly languishing in orphanages, awaiting their parents’ release from the concentration camps. The NBA didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. [Source]