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Chinese Muslims detained indefinitely ‘re-education camps’

27th Jul 2018
Chinese Muslims detained indefinitely ‘re-education camps’

Uyghur Muslims from Xinjiang hold an anti-China protest outside White House on July 10, 2009 (Photo: Malcolm Brown/Flickr CC)

Meng Yihua

Since last Spring, China has reportedly confined over one million people in mass re-education camps, primarily in Xinjiang, the north-western region of China that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan among others.

Xinjiang is an area more than half the size of India and has historically been a majority Muslim region, with the predominant group being the Uyghur Muslims.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), the policy is designed to counter extremism in the region after increasing numbers of violent attacks in recent years. The Chinese Government claims “Islamic extremism” is growing in Xinjiang, but critics say China has exaggerated the threat and is using it as an excuse to crack down on Uyghur culture and religion.

The detention campaign has swept across the region and the camps have been officially termed “professional education schools”, where detainees are sent to ‘receive political education’. People are detained for any number of reasons, including travelling abroad, having relatives abroad, or throwing away their mobile SIM card.

Conditions in the camps have been described as endless brainwashing, torture and humiliation. Most people are detained indefinitely, with no contact with their families, who are just left wondering where they went.

Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang northwest, China face mass re-education camps
(Photo: Evgeni Zotov/Flickr Creative Commons)

Kayrat Samarkand, one detainee, said he was interrogated for three days by police and was then sent to a re-education camp for three months. He described how they endured forced study of Communist propaganda since the aim of the programme is to rewire the political thinking of the prisoners, erase their Islamic beliefs, and completely reshape their identities. They face physical and mental torture in efforts to quash religious beliefs and any potential separatist movements. Detainees who most vigorously criticise the people and things they love are rewarded, and those who refuse to do so are punished with solitary confinement, beatings and food deprivation.

Kayrat Samarkand described camp punishments ranging from being handcuffed and ankle-cuffed for up to 12 hours, or long periods of time strapped into a metal contraption known as the ‘tiger chair’, which he himself endured. Another former inmate claims that Muslims were sometimes forced to drink alcohol and eat pork in the ‘re-education’ camps.

Although the Chinese Government has officially denied the existence of the camps, Adrian Zenz, a leading authority on the crackdown in Xinjiang, has gathered evidence that dates the onset of the camps to March 2017. The Government campaign of ‘de-extremification’ through education also followed the appointment of hardline party Secretary Chen Quanguo to Xinjiang in August 2016, after his transfer from Tibet, where he presided over a similar programme involving surveillance, intense social control, and scrutinisation.

Some inmates are serving terms as long as seven years, but “most detainees are sent to camps indefinitely” said a policewoman in Aktu province, where three camps were opened between March and September 2017 alone.

In September 2017, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Chinese Government to free the thousands of Xinjiang detainees and close down the camps. Sophie Richardson, China Director at HRW, said, “The Chinese authorities are holding people at these ‘political education camps’ not because they have committed any crimes, but because they deem them politically unreliable”.

Omir Bekali’s case has drawn significant attention, as he is a Kazakh citizen who crossed the border into China for a work trip in March 2017. He was one of the hundreds of thousands of people detained without trial or access to a lawyer and forced to disavow his beliefs while praising the Communist party. Bekali, 42, broke down in tears as he described his experience, one of the most detailed accounts yet of life inside the camps. He said, “the psychological pressure is enormous when you have to criticise yourself, denounce your thinking”.

He contemplated suicide after 20 days of detainment, but remained in the camp for 8 months, until a Kazakh official was able to secure his release. Rare interviews with a handful of other former detainees as well as a former instructor supported Bekali’s depiction, although most spoke on anonymity to protect their families. Bekali too had initially requested anonymity for fear of his family who lived in Xinjiang, but after his sister and parents were imprisoned too, he agreed for his identity to be published.

A US commission called it “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today”, but when the Chinese foreign ministry was asked to comment, it said it “had not heard” of the situation. When asked why non-Chinese had been detained, the Ministry said that the Chinese Government protects rights of foreigners in China but that they should also be law-abiding. Camps themselves operate outside the legal system and are shrouded in secrecy.

The detention programme is rooted in the ancient Chinese belief of transformation through education, a policy previously used during Mao Zedong’s mass thought-reform campaigns.

Despite international commentators speaking about the terrifying extent of these human rights violations, and the ensuing multigenerational trauma, Chinese officials hold confidence in this method of curbing religious extremism. A state journal published a paper in 2017 saying that of 588 participants surveyed, most didn’t know what they had done wrong when they were sent to re-education camps, but by the time they were released, 98.8% had learned their mistakes. The researcher concluded that transformation through education is a permanent cure.

Reports from Bekali and RFA said that detainees included doctors, lawyers, teachers, wealthy business executives, as well as 80-year-olds and breastfeeding mothers. Dozens of family members of naturalised US citizens who are journalists at Washington-based RFA have been detained. One Chinese official compared the re-education policy to removing weeds, saying that hidden weeds can’t be uprooted one by one; it has to be a general re-education, in the same way, chemicals are sprayed on crops, and not just limited to a few people.

In further re-education efforts, the state-run China Islamic Association has instructed all mosques in China to raise the national flag in a prominent position “to promote patriotism”. It also urged mosques and Muslims to study the Chinese constitution, classical Chinese culture, and core socialist values in an attempt to strengthen their concept of nation.

The China Islamic Association is a Government-affiliated body and has the sole power to accredit Imams.

In another extension of the already hugely pervasive programme of surveillance in Xinjiang, more than 1 million Communist party cadres have been dispatched to stay in the homes of Muslim families throughout Xinjiang. Although authorities claim that the police presence in Xinjiang, as well as many other restrictions, are intended to control the spread of “Islamic extremism”, analysts agree that the region is becoming an open-air prison.

An Uyghur man who was studying in the US was arrested upon return to China for a visit last year and held for 17 days on no known charge. On his release, a guard warned him, “whatever you say or do in North America, your family is still here and so are we”.

Chinese Muslim children banned from attending religious gatherings

One Response to “Chinese Muslims detained indefinitely ‘re-education camps’”

KazAugust 27, 2018

Call it by its real name East Turkistan and not the chinese one given since occupation of Xingjiang. It is an occupied land of the Uyghurs where Bejing is encouraging Han (Chinese) migration to in order to make Uyghurs a minority in their land (what Russia did to Kazakstan at one point).
The Han were no more than single digit figures in the 1950s but now more than 45% and soo to be more than 50% of the population. Israel can only dream of being able to do the same to Palestinians but it is a reality inoccupied East Turkistan


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