While Chinese officials have reportedly denied the existence of Xinjiang’s re-education camps, state-affiliated tabloid Global Times has justified the system as improving social stability, employability, and cultural integration for 461,000 “poverty-ridden” residents via career and Mandarin language training. However, increased scrutiny from the Western world has revealed that this justification shrouds the camps’ true purpose. For AP, Gerry Shih, who has provided some of the earliest and most in-depth reporting on the camps, described them as being “aim[ed] to rewire the political thinking of detainees, erase their Islamic beliefs and reshape their very identities.” An individual can be forced to undergo re-education arbitrarily, for reasons such as wearing a long beard or veil or refusing to consume state-run media, naming babies with “extreme” Islamic names, or possessing Quranic verses or images on one’s phone. There have been reports of torture and death within such camps.
Rights advocacy groups such as the Chinese Human Rights Defenders and the Equal Rights Initiative have been shedding more light on China’s extrajudicial detentions of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities. In a joint submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which is set to review China’s implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination this week, the two groups claim that the number of Xinjiang residents who have been forced to undergo re-education and “de-radicalization” practices may total two to three million by June 2018, and detail the hitherto lesser-known practice of “open political re-education camps,” where residents attend day or evening “study sessions”:
A young Uyghur woman said: “My village has about 2,000 people. I estimate about 200 of them have been sent to county-level education centers, not including those who have to attend trainings at the township and village levels. There are education sessions in the township, which some villagers are forced to attend in the mornings. There are also education sessions in the villages. My mother is required to go there. The education includes simple Chinese language and relevant Chinese laws. My mother has to go every evening, from 7:30 to 9:30… I heard that the policy required that everybody between the age of 15 and 60 must attend these sessions…”
[…] Additionally, two of the eight interviewees, No. 7 and No. 8, also provided specific estimates of people forced to attend day/evening camps in their villages—800 and 300, or roughly 40% and 20% of the village population, respectively. However, other interviewees said that virtually every family had at least one member forced to attend day/evening re-education sessions. In this area, according to interviewees, a village variably has about 300 to 600 households. If each household has at least one person being forced to attend these indoctrination sessions, then, there may be at least 300 to 600 residents, or 450 on average per village, who are forced into these day/evening camps.
[…] Using the estimate of 10% of residents in the eight villages detained in re-education camps as a guide, we estimate that approximately 240,000 rural residents may be detained in “re-education” centers in Kashgar Prefecture, and 660,000 in the larger Southern Xinjiang. Similarly, applying the 20% estimate of villagers forced to attend day/evening re-education sessions, we estimate that possibly 480,000 rural residents in the Kashgar Prefecture, and 1.3 million in the Southern Xinjiang sub-region, may have been forced to attend the day/evening sessions by mid-2018. The actual numbers must be higher since these numbers do not include the numbers of urban residents and of members in other ethnic minorities, in the Kashgar Prefecture or in the Southern Xinjiang sub-region. [Source]
Further narratives reveal that of the thousands of residents of Xinjiang’s Haniqatam Township that have been interned over the last two years, none have been released. Radio Free Asia reports:
A staffer at Haniqatam township’s No. 7 village police station, in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Kuchar (Kuche) county, recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that no one in his township’s 26 villages had been released from the camps in the nearly two years since authorities began detaining them.
[…] “Approximately 5,000 to 6,000” residents of Haniqatam are currently held in the camps, he said, adding that “the ratio of residents sent to camps from each village is more or less the same” based on the population size of the area.
[…] When asked if there were any plans to release those held in the camps, the staffer said local authorities had not been notified of any timetable.
[…] China’s central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of political re-education camps in the XUAR, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret. But local officials in many parts of the region have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities. [Source]
In July, Chinese national and ethnic Kazakh Sayragul Sauytbay—who was put on trial after illegally entering Kazakhstan to escape Chinese internment—drew attention for describing her experiences as a teacher in a re-education camp for 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang. Once her lawyers argued that Chinese officials would make good on their threat to intern her and that she could face torture if she was sent back, the court ultimately declined to uphold China’s request to deport her, instead handing down a six-month suspended sentence. As she describes, before becoming the first instructor who successfully escaped China, she taught Mandarin and Communist propaganda against her will. Nathan VanderKlippe at the Globe and Mail reports:
Ms. Sauytbay’s willingness to speak has earned her plaudits in Kazakhstan, though it has come at a personal cost: Shortly after her she walked out of court Wednesday, her sister and two friends still living in China were taken away. She believes it was retaliation for releasing information about re-education centres that China treats as a state secret.
[…] “They told us nothing,” she said. “Even as a teacher, the knowledge we had about that place was very limited. They had many of their own highly confidential secrets.”
Mostly, though, she was told to teach Mandarin. “We had to do many mentally oppressive and cruel things,” she said. Her superiors would “set a goal for us to fulfill and we needed to force them to learn.” That included septuagenarians made to maintain the prescribed pace. “If the person refused to learn, he would be threatened,” she said.
The instruction resembled education, but she could discern no benefit. “All it brings is pain, scars and pressure,” she said. The re-education centre was a cauldron of stress. “When you eat, sleep, use the bathroom – all your behaviours are carefully monitored. That’s where the mental pressure comes from. I still feel pain when I think about it. There’s no freedom,” she said.
“People didn’t dare to speak even a single word out loud. Everyone was silent, endlessly mute, because we were all afraid of accidentally saying something wrong.” [Source]
On the economic front, Xinjiang was pegged as a growth front for the Belt and Road Initiative, which the Chinese government hoped would help quell ethnic tensions. Of the eight countries that border Xinjiang, seven—with the exception of India—are BRI partners. The Financial Times reports that while government investment into security infrastructure and services has propelled 9.9% average annual growth in GDP over the last decade, increasingly high internment rates have hollowed out Xinjiang’s communities and dampened previously vibrant trade.
Partly due to trade incentives, the Muslim world has been comparatively silent on ongoing affairs in Xinjiang, Nithin Coates recently noted at Foreign Policy. Another factor limiting awareness of the situation in Xinjiang within nearby Muslim countries are the pressures on the exiled Uyghur community to maintain silence or even spy on fellow Uyghurs, lest their family members back home be detained.
Read more about the ongoing crackdown in Xinjiang, via CDT, and a compendium assembled by Magnus Fiskesjö of Cornell University.