Facing growing international condemnation, Beijing has shifted from outright denial of its re-education camps in Xinjiang to modifying legislation to justify the camps as vocational training, Mandarin instruction, and ideological education centers. In attempts to ward off further criticism, it then went on a propaganda offensive, featuring a CCTV documentary with camp footage of Uyghurs learning Mandarin, and comments from Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir that the camps were a “humane” place to expunge religious extremism. These efforts have not stopped the international community from continuing to scrutinize China’s actions. On Tuesday, Beijing reiterated its defense of the camps as vocational schools in response to challenges during its U.N. Universal Periodic Review of human rights, which legal scholar Jerome Cohen argues is just one of several avenues for the international community to criticize China. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne subsequently raised “serious concerns” in a closed-door meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Thursday.
Despite Beijing’s narrative, recent research from European School of Culture and Theology lecturer Adrian Zenz reveals that Xinjiang’s budget figures reflect a decrease in spending on vocational training centers and a massive increase in domestic security spending. At the Jamestown Foundation, Zenz goes on to conclude:
- Spending on budget items that explain nearly all security-related facility construction rose by nearly RMB 20 billion (or 213 percent) in 2017
- Vocational spending in Xinjiang actually decreased from 2016 to 2017, as widespread camp construction began.
- Instead, camp construction has largely been funded by the same authorities that oversaw the recently-abolished system for re-education through labor.
- Spending on prisons doubled between 2016 and 2017, while spending on the formal prosecution of criminal suspects stagnated.
- Expenditures on detention centers in counties with large concentrations of ethnic minorities quadrupled, indicating that re-education is not the only form of mass detainment in the XUAR.
[…] While Xinjiang spent below the national average on vocational education—and just over half the amount spent per capita in Qinghai—the XUAR spent unusually high amounts per capita in 2017 on domestic security and “other domestic security expenditures”. It also spent more than three times the national average on its justice system, while spending roughly the national average on its prosecutorial and court systems.
The latter observation is important because the term ‘justice system’ means something very different in the PRC than in countries like the United States. In the PRC, the prosecutorial and court systems, which engage in the formal prosecution and conviction of criminal suspects, are funded separately from the ‘justice system’, which, among other functions, has significant responsibilities in re-education and general legal education. (The justice system also oversaw the former re-education through labor system; 劳动教养). For Xinjiang, this is confirmed by the fact that government construction and procurement bids related to re-education or similar “training” facilities frequently referred to them as “justice bureau transformation through education centers” (司法局教育转化中心) or simply “justice system schools” (司法学校) (Zenz, September 6). The increased funding provided to the justice system in Xinjiang is likely the result of a significant expansion of its re-education duties within the region. [Source]
In response, China’s Foreign Ministry sought to cast doubt on the Jamestown Foundation report’s findings. It instead referred back to Zakir’s interview, touted its long-standing efforts to improve the livelihoods of those in Xinjiang, and claimed a notable improvement in public security:
As you mentioned, the US think tank seems very interested in the figures of the inputs in the security area in Xinjiang. I don’t know where they got these figures. I wonder whether this think tank also knows about how much the local government has invested in developing economy and improving people’s livelihood, and how much the people have benefited from that.
What I want to tell you is that since the 1990s, Xinjiang has long been plagued by ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism from at home and abroad. These three evil forces have plotted, organized and conducted thousands of violent terrorist attacks including bombings, assassinations, poisoning, arson, assaults, unrests and riots, causing the deaths of a large number of innocent people and police officers, as well as immeasurable property damage. In recent years, Xinjiang has worked for the general goal of ensuring social stability and long-term security and increased inputs and made major achievements in fighting against terrorism and safeguarding stability. Just as the chairman of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region said, in the past 21 months, no violent terrorist attacks have occurred, including those endangering public security. Public security has notably improved, and people are now feeling more secure.
I’m not clear about the specific figures of Xinjiang’s inputs in the security area, but I do know that life is precious and invaluable. It is most essential that people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang are now feeling more secure and their life and property are safeguarded. [Source]
Zenz responded on Twitter:
China's MOFA responds to my research w/ ignorance: "I don't know where they got these figures. …. I'm not clear about the specific figures of Xinjiang's inputs in the security area." —– hint: The figures are from the government itself. https://t.co/JVFahvpUkp pic.twitter.com/eGc1IGD7D0
— Adrian Zenz (@adrianzenz) November 7, 2018
Zenz also went on to highlight a change in language from “re-education” to “rescue education”:
Key change in language: apparent shift from "re-education" (教育转化), a loaded term linked with political indoctrination, to "rescue education" (教育挽救), which portrays de-extremification as an act of saving the ignorant from the edge of the abyss of religious extremism. https://t.co/l7qu57IIvm
— Adrian Zenz (@adrianzenz) November 7, 2018
In spite of China’s attempts at justification, observers have argued that the purpose of the camps is to reshape Uyghurs’ very identities. At the Lowy Interpreter, Louisa Lim builds upon this idea by exploring how Beijing seeks to re-engineer the Uyghur by “breaking their roots” beyond the camps:
“Break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.”
[…] In an Orwellian twist, the state is effectively replacing Uighur family members with state-approved “uncles” and “aunties”. These are one million government workers, many of them Han Chinese, “assigned as relatives to Uighur villagers for [an] ethnic unity campaign”, in the words of the Global Times.
The visitors eat at their hosts’ tables, take selfies with their “families”, even sleep in their beds. The purpose is ideological and bureaucratic: the officials deliver political indoctrination while seeking out evidence of religious extremism – even grilling children on their parents’ habits – so they can identify new candidates for the indoctrination camps.
To break roots is to destroy Xinjiang’s mosques. An investigation by RFA’s Uighur service found one-fifth of Xinjiang’s mosques had been demolished in three months alone. Pictures show how thorough the demolition has been; in Hami, also known as Kumul, five out of six mosques were razed without a trace. At the final site, the only thing remaining – in a scene rich with unintentional symbolism – was a bulletin board stating official religious regulations.
“From 2005 to 2009 I used to send my religious obligation charity – zakat – to my home country. And the ones who received the funds were charged, stating, ‘You have received money from an overseas separatist’.” [Source]
Meanwhile, state-affiliated tabloid Global Times reports that about 1.1 million civil servants have paired up with more than 1.69 million ethnic minority citizens, especially village residents, and that central government and military departments, including the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and Xinjiang Armed Police Corps, have visited over 49 million residents.
For a deeper dive on the historical context leading up to the ongoing mass incarcerations in Xinjiang, see a discussion co-hosted by ChinaFile and the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, featuring historian Rian Thum and journalists Gulchehra Hoja (Radio Free Asia) and James Palmer (Foreign Policy). For more reading on how open-source intelligence has aided researchers’ efforts to unearth the growing network of Xinjiang re-education camps, read a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, and see its associated database.