Inside Xinjiang’s Growing Carceral State

New reporting from the Associated Press and Buzzfeed News has revealed the inner workings of massive detention centers in Xinjiang. State repression targeted at Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang is complex and multifaceted. “Re-education centers” where Uyghurs were held extra-legally on flimsy pretexts started receiving close International scrutiny in 2018. Uyghur women have been targeted in sterilization drives. Many Uyghurs are not free to practice their religion as they see fit. Forced labor and population transfers have been used to “proletarianize” Uyghurs. Now, for the first time, Dake Kang at The Associated Press has provided first-hand reporting from inside the largest detention center in Xinjiang:

“In one corner of the compound, masked inmates sat in rigid formation. Most appeared to be Uyghur. Zhu Hongbin, the center’s director, rapped on one of the cell’s windows.

“They’re totally unbreakable,” he said, his voice muffled beneath head-to-toe medical gear.

[…] AP journalists did not witness any signs of torture or beating at the facility, and were unable to speak directly to any former or current detainees. But a Uyghur who had fled Xinjiang, Zumret Dawut, said a now-deceased friend who worked at Dabancheng had witnessed treatment so brutal that she fainted. The friend, Paride Amati, said she had seen a pair of teens forced to sign confessions claiming they were involved in terrorism while studying in Egypt, and their skin had been beaten bloody and raw.

[…] Chinese officials also continue to deny that they are holding Uyghurs on false charges. Down the road from the No. 3 center, high walls and guard towers were visible in the same location as the new detention facility shown in satellite imagery.

[…] “We don’t know what it is,” [officials] said. [Source]

The massive rise in arrests cited in Kang’s tweets has been accompanied by an equally massive prison building spree. An investigation by Megha Rajagopalan and Alison Killing for Buzzfeed News, has revealed that Xinjiang’s government now has the prison capacity to simultaneously incarcerate one out of every 25 people within its borders:

The course of camp and prison construction suggests that the government carefully orchestrated the campaign. The pattern of new detention compounds neatly fits the geography of counties and prefectures across Xinjiang, with a camp and detention center in most counties and a prison or two per prefecture. As the new, high-security detention centers were being built — a process that takes about a year from idea to completion — the Chinese government commandeered schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings and quickly converted them into makeshift camps. This twin process allowed Beijing to immediately detain hundreds of thousands of Muslims until its vast new detention infrastructure was complete.

[…] The BuzzFeed News analysis found that by the standards outlined in the [construction standards] document, there is space to detain 1,014,883 people across Xinjiang. That figure does not include the more than 100 other prisons and detention centers that were built before 2016 and are likely still in operation.

Dozens of former detainees have described gross overcrowding in Xinjiang’s prisons and camps, raising the specter that the Chinese government could cram far more people into its sprawling detention system. Last year, a BuzzFeed News investigation of an internment camp in the mountain town of Mongolküre found cells that by Chinese prison standards should only hold up to four people actually held as many as 10. Some remembered being forced to sleep in shifts because of a lack of beds, or even to sleep side by side on single cots. Whether overcrowding continues to occur is less clear, because most of the former detainees who have been able to escape China and describe their experiences were locked up and released early on in the anti-Muslim crackdown. [Source]

China has used aggressive overt and covert methods to shape global narratives about Xinjiang. Companies that eschew Xinjiang cotton have faced boycotts. Individuals who report or research Xinjiang have been harassed and sanctioned. Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, was sanctioned today for her research on Hong Kong. HRW has also published numerous investigations into Xinjiang and Tibet.

Another recent attempt to cudgel the world into silence on Xinjiang involved the American camera company Kodak. Kodak’s Instagram account shared a number of images of Xinjiang taken by French photographer Patrick Wack, which he described as “a visual narrative of the region and is a testimony to its abrupt descent into an Orwellian dystopia.” Although Instagram is banned in China, a number of Chinese users complained about the image. Nationalist tabloid Global Times ran a piece accusing Wack of being “eager to bask in the fame and fortune that anti-China matters can bring.” Kodak deleted the post and issued a groveling apology. At The New York Times, Mike Ives reported on Kodak’s decision to self-censor:

“So for them, one of the main actors historically in photography, to say they don’t want to be political is what’s upsetting so many people,” said Mr. Wack, who lived in China for 11 years and is now based in Berlin.

[…] In the post that Kodak uploaded this week to replace Mr. Wack’s photos and commentary, the company said that its Instagram page was designed to “enable creativity by providing a platform for promoting the medium of film,” not to be a “platform for political commentary.”

On its Chinese-language website, Kodak said in a statement that it had identified a “supervision loophole” in its content production that it promised to “review and correct.” [Source]


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