Xinjiang, China’s westernmost region, revised its laws in October 2018 to legitimize the use of “vocation training centers” for Muslim citizens. The stated purpose of these centers is to “educate and transform” individuals identified as potential terrorists. Officials claim that the new laws will help prevent Islamic extremism.
Since the centers were officially sanctioned, accounts from former “trainees” have surfaced in the international press, alleging harsh treatment inside the camps. The reports have sparked global criticism of China’s treatment of minority ethnic groups.
History of ethnic, economic and religious struggles in Xinjiang
Depending on one’s point of view, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army either liberated or invaded Xinjiang province in 1949, with the help of the Soviet Union. In 1955, China established the Xinjiang Uighur (also spelled Uyghur) Autonomous Region.
After China fell out with the Soviet Union in the 1960s, the Chinese government actively relocated Han Chinese – the nation’s largest ethnic group – to Chinese-Soviet border provinces like Xinjiang. One purpose of the relocations was to confront potential military threats from the Soviets.
According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Eurasian Geography and Economics, the population of Han Chinese has grown dramatically in Xinjiang, from 6.7% in 1949 to 40% in 2008. Scholars report that this is the largest demographic shift in a major region in the history of the People’s Republic of China.
Nevertheless, the majority of the population of Xinjiang Autonomous Region is still Uighur, a Turkic ethnic group. (Turkic ethnic groups are predominant in most of the “–stan” nations of central Asia.) Islam is the primary religion in the region. By contrast, the Communist People’s Republic government supports state atheism.
Despite being the most ethnically diverse region in China, Xinjiang is highly segregated. A 2003 report noted that Han Chinese primarily populate the industrialized urban areas in the North, while other ethnic groups are scattered across the rural South.
The segregation in the region is economic as well as geographic. Like many areas in central Asia, Xinjiang has sizable oil reserves. As Beijing invested in the development of petroleum production in Xinjiang, the industry came to be run almost entirely by Han Chinese.
In 1997, thousands of Uighurs gathered in peaceful protest to demand religious freedom, equality and political autonomy. Amnesty International reports that resulting conflicts between Uighurs and police lasted two weeks, with dozens killed, thousands arrested, and hundreds executed. Chinese state media refers to the protests as the “Yining incident”, in which the police worked to crack down on “violent terrorist crimes”.
Recent unrest and the creation of the reeducation camps
In 2009, riots broke out in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The New York Times reported that at least 3 Han Chinese and 1 police officer were killed, with 20 others injured. An eyewitness reported that dozens of Uighur men were led into police stations with their hands behind their backs.
As part of the anti-terrorism campaign, China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Regional Government sanctioned the operation of vocational “re-education camps” to “counter extremism and terrorism”. However, many of those who have experienced life in the camps say that vocational training is not their primary purpose.
In a 2018 interview, Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir said that these training centers merely teach “the country’s [China’s] common language, legal knowledge, vocational skills, along with de-extremism education.”
The Chinese government claims that trainees enjoy a range of sports and recreation activities in the camps, and are allowed frequent visits to their families. This portrayal of life in the camp conflicts with reports from former “students”, who say that they were cut off from their families, suffered abuse, and endured forced labor and political brainwashing.
Detainees speak out
Mihrigul Tursun, a Uighur woman, detailed the abuse she endured inside a Xinjiang vocation training center in a 2018 AP report. Tursun was arrested three times from 2015 through 2017. She recalls that during one of her detentions at a camp, she endured three months in a suffocating cell with 60 other women.
The overcrowding forced the women to take turns sleeping, and the toilet was monitored by security cameras. She also claims that she was tortured with electrical shocks and forced to take unknown medications. By her count, nine women from her cell died during her three months there.
The Washington Post has detailed a similar account from Kayrat Samarkand, a 30-year-old Muslim man who was detained for making a trip to Kazakstan. Samarkand reports that he was held in a dormitory with 14 other men. There, he was forced to spend long hours studying communist ideology, singing propaganda songs and participating in military-style training.
According to Samarkand, if the detainees could not accurately recite communist ideology or correctly sing “red” songs, they were not allowed to eat, sleep or sit. He adds that he and his fellow detainees were forced to eat pork and drink alcohol as punishment for resisting their “training”. (Traditional Islamic beliefs prohibit the consumption of pork or alcoholic beverages.)
International outcry over the camps
There is no official record of the number of people being detained in the re-education centers. In a white paper released in March 2019, the Chinese government claimed that recent anti-terrorism efforts have included arresting 12,995 terrorists, breaking up 1,588 violent gangs and punishing 30,645 people for “illegal religious activities”. These figures would suggest a population of around 50,000 in the Xinjiang camps, but international critics believe the number to be much higher.
Gary McDougal, a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, told Reuters that his committee believes that about 2 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been held in these “political camps for indoctrination”. He further asserts that most of those detained are still in the camps, with no scheduled release date.
While it is clear from the stories told by former detainees that people do get released from the re-education centers, it is not at all clear how frequently, and under what circumstances, these releases occur.
Beijing’s response to the criticism
Since March 2019, the Global Times has published several videos and articles portraying good conditions inside the centers and the happy lives of detainees. The Chinese government also offers tightly controlled and heavily monitored tours of the centers, during which foreign diplomats and journalists are allowed to see portions of the centers and speak to selected “students”.
One report from the BBC asserted that satellite images of the centers show that Chinese officials removed watchtowers and added sports fields to the facilities right before the official tours occurred.
This ramped-up propaganda effort has not eased the concerns of other countries and international humanitarian organizations. In July 2019, 22 countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom, issued a joint statement condemning “large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.”
Despite rising international pressure, China has not backed away from its commitment to continue the program, claiming that the training centers have saved people from extremism. For the estimated 1.5 million people still confined to the camps, the end is nowhere in sight.
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