New Details Emerge from Xinjiang Camps Amid Government Efforts to Discredit Victims

As a campaign of mass internment of Uyghurs in northwest China seemingly begins to transition into a new stage involving forced labor and population transfers, details of the detainees’ experiences continue to emerge. In early February, a BBC investigation uncovered evidence of systematic rape in the camps, “the-situation-that-must-not-be-mentioned” in the words of Weibo users trying to avoid censors’ gazes. At The New Yorker, a visual essay written by Ben Mauk, with artwork by Matt Huynh, drew on extensive interviews to provide deeply personal testimony on life in Xinjiang during the campaign, both inside and outside of the camps:

Sholpan Amirken, a hairdresser from northern Xinjiang who married into a prominent religious family, told me that after several of her husband’s relatives were detained in 2017, a male Han cadre came to stay at her house. He advised Amirken and her husband, both of whom are Kazakh, to dispose of books written in Arabic, so she burned them. He also ordered her to take down wall ornaments with Kazakh phrases—“May Allah Bless You,” “May the Roof of Your House Be High”—along with embroideries of mosques. The cadre visited for days or weeks at a time, she said, always bringing luggage and sleeping in the main house. Amirken was nervous around the cadre, who came even when her husband, a long-haul truck driver, like Otarbai, was away. She began to sleep in a guest house. “We considered him a spy,” she said.

[…] Before she spoke, Aynur stood by herself under a large flagpole while the Chinese flag was raised. Then she explained that, because she was unable to control her husband, he had become involved with terrorists, and that this was why he was living in the camp a few miles down the road, with around five thousand other detainees. When Aynur finished, others rose to give speeches praising the Party. Although she had given brief confessions at previous ceremonies, she’d never been forced to call her husband a terrorist. Afterward, relatives in her village started avoiding her. Former colleagues from her old school stopped saying hello when they saw her on the street. “I felt like a criminal in front of all those people,” she said. “It was not a good feeling.”

[…] Firsthand descriptions of criminal trials in Xinjiang are rare. Amirken, the Kazakh hairdresser who married into a prominent religious family, told me that she attended the trial of her brother-in-law, Nurlan Pioner, an imam in the Altai Mountains near Mongolia. For years, Pioner had avoided trouble with authorities. He received training and a certificate from the state-run madrasa in Ürümqi and worked closely with Party officials, who approved his Friday-night sermons and his scholarly work translating religious books from Arabic into Kazakh. Nevertheless, Pioner was detained in June, 2017, and put on trial a year later. His family received a twenty-three-page prewritten judgment of his case. When the proceedings began, two guards with rifles carried Pioner into the courtroom in a chair. The accused was wearing a blue prison uniform that was soiled with urine. He appeared malnourished and was unable to walk; he spoke incoherently. The judge read the prewritten verdict. It said that Pioner was arrested for “gathering a crowd to instigate social disorder; taking advantage of extremism to hold back law enforcement; [and] illegally obtaining materials which propagate [an] extremist ideology.” He was sentenced to seventeen years in prison. According to researchers, Pioner’s case reflected the criminalization of religious practice in Xinjiang. [Source]

Uyghurs in Xinjiang are subject to utterly arbitrary detention. At The University of British Columbia’s Xinjiang Documentation Project, Darren Byler translated and annotated a 2017 document titled “Learning and Identifying 75 Religious Extreme Activities in Parts of Xinjiang.” People found to have exhibited any of the behaviors on the list are at risk for internment in Xinjiang, no matter how innocuous or ill-defined the “infraction”:

18. Preventing children from learning Chinese, defaming “bilingual” education, damaging textbooks and the great portraits [This refers to portraits of Communist Party leaders such as Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping] and so on.

[…] 21. Having real estate, estate, land, livestock that does not reflect the means of production of the individual. Signs that the family is leaving their place of origin or place of resident, or they have suddenly moved out of their place of household registration for no reason.

[…] 36. At extremist wedding ceremonies attendees are forbidden to drink, smoke, dance, and sing. During funerals, men are not allowed to wear white belts, women cannot wear white headscarves or black headscarves; verses recited at the time of burial are changed to tablighs or teachings that focus on “strengthening Islamic beliefs.” Crying is not allowed. Wailing is not allowed. [Source]

In December 2020, a Buzzfeed report found evidence of newly constructed factories attached to previously documented detention facilities. Other reports have detailed systemic use of forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton and tomato industries, implicating global supply chains. Earlier in 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a report documenting the “sale” of Uyghur laborers to factories outside of Xinjiang. At The BBC this week, John Sudworth further documented coerced transfers of Uyghur workers out of Southern Xinjiang into factories across central and eastern China and a research report that analyzed the program:

“The other thing it shows is this ulterior motive,” she said, “that although the narrative is one of lifting people out of poverty, there’s a drive to entirely change people’s lives, to separate families, disperse the population, change their language, their culture, their family structures, which is more likely to increase poverty than to decrease it.”

[…] Written by a group of academics from Nankai University in the Chinese city of Tianjin, [an in-depth Chinese study of Xinjiang’s job-transfer scheme circulated to senior Chinese officials] concludes that the mass labour transfers are “an important method to influence, meld and assimilate Uighur minorities” and bring about a “transformation of their thinking.”

[…] His analysis includes a legal opinion from Erin Farrell Rosenberg, a former senior advisor to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, that the Nankai Report provides “credible grounds” for the crimes against humanity of forcible transfer and persecution.

At The Globe and Mail, Nathan VanderKlippe reported that Uyghur participants in the program must first undergo ideological training and are not free to leave:

Workers can be transferred only after passing “strict political examination and screening,” the researchers report, noting that training programs can adopt “semi-closed and military-style” methods. Once relocated, labourers are guaranteed the right to leave and return, the document says. But when they travel by train, they must be accompanied by security guards.

[…]But life is also constrained for workers from Xinjiang, said the owner of a halal restaurant near the Hengfa factory. Workers who sign contracts for a year, for example, “are only free to leave after they finish the one-year period,” the restaurateur said. Though they can walk to nearby shops on their days off, “they can’t go into the city,” he said. “They are not allowed to.”

[…] Some instruction is delivered by local communities, some by companies themselves. Hubei province alone has established 78 training sites and 57 corporate classrooms where people from Xinjiang receive linguistic and political training. Such education can ease integration into other parts of China. But language classes have also been used to deliver political education, with a textbook called Love the Motherland, Love Hubei, Love the Neighbourhood. With 110 instructors, the program seeks to “co-ordinate the promotion of language training and patriotism, ethnic unity and education in rule of law.” [Source]

The BBC report is based in part on a study published by China’s Nankai University first discovered by Muyi Xiao of the New York Times and shared on Matters. At The Jamestown Foundation, Adrien Zenz published a detailed evaluation of the report, and explained how forced population transfers are part and parcel of state-led attempts to erase Uyghur identity:

However, the Report also makes it clear that poverty alleviation through labor transfer is a means to a more troubling end. First, it bluntly states that the state took the “drastic short-term measure” of placing many Uyghurs into “Education and Training Centers” (a euphemism for re-education camps). Second, it notes that labor transfers represent a long-term measure to promote “assimilation” and “reduce Uyghur population density”. The Report recommends that this program should be “initiated quietly” with “no need to overly publicize this internationally.”

Elsewhere, Chinese academic publications describe labor transfers as a crucial means to “crack open the solidified [Uyghur] society” and to mitigate the negative impact of religion. They say that lax family planning policies produced a “severely excessive” number of Uyghur surplus laborers that now constitute a “latent threat to the current regime.”

Overall, the evidence shows that labor transfers constitute intentional displacements of populations deemed “problematic” by the government. This is complemented by two previously unreported campaigns: a) a large-scale transfer scheme by which hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority farmers and pastoralists transfer usage rights to their land or herds to state-run collectives for the purpose of “liberating” them to become industrial laborers; and b) a campaign to settle 300,000 additional Han Chinese settlers in Uyghur heartland regions by 2022 in order to “optimize southern Xinjiang’s population structure.” [Source]

After first denying the existence of mass detentions in 2018, the Chinese government began claiming they were solely “vocational education and training centers.” Now, the central government denies all reports of forced labor, sterilization, and systematic rape. Global Times called the accusations “the delusion of the rumormongers.” The government has even initiated coordinated attacks on those providing witness to events in Xinjiang. The government has produced videos purporting to show Uyghur activists’ family members attacking them as “liars” in a campaign to discredit them. At Reuters, Cate Cadell investigated the Chinese state’s systematic attempt to discredit Uyghur women who share their recollections of the camps:

Chinese officials have named women, disclosed what they say is private medical data and information on the women’s fertility, and accused some of having affairs and one of having a sexually transmitted disease. The officials said the information was evidence of bad character, invalidating the women’s accounts of abuse in Xinjiang.

“The fact that there are so many women in the camps … who don’t have the faintest appearance of being violent people, this just shows how this has nothing to do with terrorism,” [said James Millward, a professor of Chinese history at Georgetown University and expert in Xinjiang policy.]

[…] During a regular daily press briefing last week, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin held up images of witnesses who had described sexual abuse in Xinjiang. The account of one of them, he said, was “lies and rumours” because she had not recounted the experience in previous interviews. He gave medical details about the woman’s fertility. [Source]

In order to escape persecution, some Uyghurs have attempted to escape Xinjiang through perilous routes that often lead to Turkey. Yet due to the Turkish state’s increasingly cozy relationship with Beijing, asylum seekers may no longer be safe from Chinese extradition requests. Despite U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s assertion that China’s actions in Xinjiang amount to genocide, the United States government has not offered special status to Uyghur refugees.


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