What Really Happens in China’s ‘Re-education’ Camps

Protesters demanding that China respect human rights in its Xinjiang region and release members of the Uighur minority detained in so-called re-education centers there, in Brussels in April.CreditEmmanuel Dunand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Rian Thum
Mr. Thum, a historian, has been conducting research in Xinjiang, China, for nearly two decades.
May 15, 2018

What does it take to intern half a million members of one ethnic group in just a year? Enormous resources and elaborate organization, but the Chinese authorities aren’t stingy. Vast swathes of the Uighur population in China’s western region of Xinjiang — as well as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic minorities — are being detained to undergo what the state calls “transformation through education.” Many tens of thousands of them have been locked up in new thought-control camps with barbed wire, bombproof surfaces, reinforced doors and guard rooms.

The Chinese authorities are cagey and evasive, if not downright dismissive, about reports concerning such camps. But now they will have to explain away their own eloquent trail of evidence: an online public bidding system set up by the government inviting tenders from contractors to help build and run the camps.

Uighurs have more in common, culturally and linguistically, with Turks than Han Chinese, and many Uighurs are Muslim. Resentful of China’s heavy-handed rule in the region, some have resisted it, usually through peaceful means, but on occasion violently, by attacking government officials and, exceptionally, civilians. The state, for its part, fuels Islamophobia by labeling ordinary Muslim traditions as the manifestation of religious “extremism.”

Over the last decade, the Xinjiang authorities have accelerated policies to reshape Uighurs’ habits — even, the state says, their thoughts. Local governments organize public ceremonies and signings asking ethnic minorities to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party; they hold mandatory re-education courses and forced dance performances, because some forms of Islam forbid dance. In some neighborhoods, security organs carry out regular assessments of the risk posed by residents: Uighurs get a 10 percent deduction on their score for ethnicity alone and lose another 10 percent if they pray daily.

Uighurs had grown accustomed to living under an intrusive state, but measures became draconian after the arrival in late 2016 of a new regional party chief from Tibet. Since then, some local police officers have said that they struggled to meet their new detention quotas — in the case of one village, 40 percent of the population.

A new study by Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology, in Korntal, Germany, analyzed government ads inviting tenders for various contracts concerning re-education facilities in more than 40 localities across Xinjiang, offering a glimpse of the vast bureaucratic, human and financial resources the state dedicates to this detention network. The report reveals the state’s push to build camps in every corner of the region since 2016, at a cost so far of more than 680 million yuan (over $107 million).

A bid invitation appears to have been posted on April 27 — a sign that  more camps are being built. These calls for tenders refer to compounds of up to 880,000 square feet, some with quarters for People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary security force. Local governments are also placing ads to recruit camp staff with expertise in criminal psychology or a background in the military or the police force.

Evidence of these technical details is invaluable, especially considering the growing difficulties faced by researchers and reporters trying to work in Xinjiang. Several foreign journalists have produced important articles, despite police harassment and brief arrests; ethnic Uighur reporters, or their families, endure far worse.

Given the risks, firsthand accounts from former detainees remain rare — although a few are starting to emerge.

In February, a Uighur man studying in the United States gave Foreign Policy one of the most detailed descriptions of detention conditions published to date. He was arrested upon returning to China for a visit last year, and then held for 17 days on no known charge. He described long days of marching in a crowded cell, chanting slogans and watching propaganda videos about purportedly illegal religious activities. As he was being released, a guard warned him, “Whatever you say or do in North America, your family is still here and so are we.”

Last month, an ethnic Kazakh man described to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty his four-month stint in a camp in northern Xinjiang. He met inmates serving terms as long as seven years. He said he had been made to study how “to keep safe the domestic secrets” of China and “not to be a Muslim.” In these cases, as in many others, detainees were held incommunicado, their families left to wonder what had happened to them.

And now these rare eyewitness accounts are being corroborated, if unwittingly, by the Chinese state itself, as it makes public calls for contracts to build even more detention camps.

Many details of this carceral system are hidden, and remain unknown — in fact, even the camps’ ultimate purpose is not entirely clear.

They serve as grounds for compulsory indoctrination. Some officials use them for prevention as well, to lock down people they presumptively suspect of opposing Chinese rule: In two localities, the authorities have targeted people under 40, claiming that this age group is a “violent generation.”

The camps are also tools of punishment, and of course, a threat. Few detainees are formally charged, much less sentenced. Some are told how long a term they will serve; others are simply held indefinitely. This uncertainty — the arbitrary logic of detention — instills fear in the entire population.

Surveillance was markedly heightened during my last trip to Xinjiang in December — so much so that I avoided talking to Uighurs then for fear that just being in contact with a foreigner would get them sent away for re-education. Meanwhile, my Uighur contacts outside China were pointing to the quota-based purges of the Communists’ Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957-59 and ever-shifting rules during the Cultural Revolution to explain that even if Uighurs in Xinjiang today wanted to submit wholly to the security regime, they no longer knew how to. Joining the security services used to be a rare way to ensure one’s personal safety. Not anymore.

Tens of thousands of families have been torn apart; an entire culture is being criminalized. Some local officials use chilling language to describe the purpose of detention, such as “eradicating tumors” or spraying chemicals on crops to kill the “weeds.”

Labeling with a single word the deliberate and large-scale mistreatment of an ethnic group is tricky: Old terms often camouflage the specifics of new injustices. And drawing comparisons between the suffering of different groups is inherently fraught, potentially reductionist. But I would venture this statement to describe the plight of China’s Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz today: Xinjiang has become a police state to rival North Korea, with a formalized racism on the order of South African apartheid.

There is every reason to fear that the situation will only worsen. Several accounts of Uighurs dying in detention have surfaced recently — a worrisome echo of the established use of torture in China’s re-education camps for followers of the spiritual movement Falun Gong. And judging by their camp-building spree in Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities don’t seem to think they have come close to achieving whatever their goal there is.

Rian Thum is an associate professor of history at Loyola University New Orleans and the author of “The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History.”
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