Adem yoq — “Everybody’s gone.”
A human rights atrocity is unfolding in western China, where the “entire culture” of Uyghur Muslims is being effectively criminalized, scholars say. Arbitrary detentions in “transformation through education” camps now reach up to 1 million Muslims in the Xinjiang region.
Let us explain.
Contents (click to jump to section):
Re-education camps: What we know
“Crimes” and punishment • Prominent Uyghurs detained • UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
“There is no such thing as so-called ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang”
Chen Quanguo • Belt and Road • “Stability”
The bigger story: Global significance
Uyghurs abroad • Experimental surveillance • International response • Journalist harassment
Top photo: One of the few publicly available images of mass incarcerated ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region of China shows inmates of the “Lop County number 4 education and training center” (洛浦县第四教育培训中心 luòpǔ xiàn dì sì jiàoyù péixùn zhōngxīn) listening to a “de-extremification” (去极端化 qù jíduān huà) speech on April 7, 2018. Photo identified by Concerned Scholars of Xinjiang, full-resolution image courtesy of Twitter user @AYNUR22630941, original source archived here.
Who are the Uyghurs and what is happening in Xinjiang?
- Uyghurs are a Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic minority in China. Uyghurs (also spelled Uighur — either way, pronounced WEE-gur) — about 10 million people — live mostly in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the farthest west and most heavily Muslim jurisdiction under Beijing’s control. The total population of Xinjiang is around 22 million.
- After ethnic riots in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, in 2009 that left nearly 200 people dead — and following Uyghur-connected terrorist attacks in Beijing in 2013 and Kunming and Urumqi in 2014 — extreme measures have been taken to lock down Xinjiang and restrict the mobility and speech of the Uyghur population.
- Xinjiang is now a totalitarian police state of historic proportions — it is widely cited as one of the most heavily policed places in the world today. Public security budgets have skyrocketed and futuristic surveillance systems have been pioneered in the region. As a result, over 20 percent of all criminal arrests in China happens in Xinjiang, despite the fact that the region contains only 1.5 percent of the country’s population.
- The official justification for such extreme measures is “counterterrorism” and “social stability.” But human rights groups have long argued that the level of repression is excessive, counterproductive, and a human rights violation, as it effectively censures all expressions of Uyghur culture, even normal religious and linguistic traditions.
- Alarming reports of a mass internment system have come out in the past year. Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Germany, revealed the scope of the internment campaign and documented that construction of the camps began in earnest in March 2017.
- In the camps, officials seek to brainwash prisoners to disavow Islam and pledge loyalty to the Communist Party, and torture those who refuse, eyewitnesses have said.
- Arbitrary detentions without charge or trial are the norm for prisoners in these camps, and ethnically Kazakh Muslims have been “disappeared” in large numbers along with Uyghurs. Common “crimes” are “viewing foreign websites, taking phone calls from relatives abroad, praying regularly or growing a beard.” The widespread use of arbitrary detention is also being used as a tool to force Uyghurs abroad into silence.
- Up to a million Muslims have been put in the camps in Xinjiang, according to “many numerous and credible reports,” a United Nations panel said in early August 2018.
- China has specifically denied that “re-education” camps exist, but this is semantics: Evidence continues to build of a network of centers for “transformation through education” (教育转化 jiàoyù zhuǎnhuà) or “counter-extremism education” (去极端化教育 qù jíduān huà jiàoyù) holding many hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang.
- “An entire culture is being criminalized,” scholars like Rian Thum are saying. Another scholar, James Millward, comments: “In Xinjiang, the definition of extremism has expanded so far as to incorporate virtually anything you do as a Muslim.”
From day-to-day discrimination to systematic, mass detentions
For years, Uyghurs have complained of day-to-day discrimination, both in Xinjiang and around the country. Islamophobia is widespread in China, and policies that repress Uyghur culture and religion — such as bans on long beards and religious veils, and multiple campaigns to force Uyghurs to change “overly religious” names — have been justified in the name of “counterterrorism.” Human rights activists like Amnesty International’s Nicholas Bequelin draw a “direct line” from the American “war on terror” to the Chinese campaign that took the name “People’s war” against terrorism in 2014, and targeted Uyghurs.
These political re-education camps technically fit within the definition of “concentration camp”
But everything is much worse now, reports from the last year indicate. Some of these reports focused on the intensification of surveillance and police control, which has reached totalitarian levels. But even more alarmingly, these reports began to reveal the massive scope of arbitrary detentions in a vast system of political re-education camps. These facilities technically fit within the definition of “concentration camp,” as reports indicate that the detainees are targeted for their affiliation with a religious and cultural minority, held extralegally without indictment or fair trial, and subject to conditions clearly designed to reinforce the state’s political control. Here is a timeline of the major reports on the security state, and the re-education camps:
- October 2017: Megha Rajagopalan at BuzzFeed News publishes a report based on interviews with more than two dozen Uyghurs, in Xinjiang and abroad, documenting “what a 21st-century police state really looks like,” including some details of Uyghurs being detained at re-education centers.
- November 2017: Emily Feng at the Financial Times reports that “Thousands have been sent to unmarked detention centres over the past year, usually for two to three months at a time. Nearly every Uighur resident interviewed by the Financial Times had a friend or relative who had been detained. In the centres they are taught Communist party doctrine and persuaded to forgo their ethnic and religious identities.” One Uyghur man told the FT that they are “political education centres,” which are “just like a university, only you cannot leave.” This report also contained new details on ethnic Kazakhs being detained, and on the expansion of the security state.
- December 2017: Josh Chin and Clément Bürge at the Wall Street Journal document the omnipresent security measures in multiple cities in Xinjiang, and analyze public data and interview a Uyghur who escaped Xinjiang and applied for political asylum in the U.S., telling a story of how the surveillance and security in Xinjiang “overwhelms daily life,” particularly for Uyghurs.
- December 2017: Human Rights Watch says that an unprecedented DNA collection program has been launched in Xinjiang, compiling the “fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types of all residents in the region between the age of 12 and 65.” The organization said that the DNA collection is “done surreptitiously, under the guise of a free health care program.” Earlier reports had shown that Xinjiang police were “in the process of purchasing at least $8.7 million in equipment to analyze DNA samples.”
- December 2017: Gerry Shih at the Associated Press publishes a series of four articles (he discussed this reporting on the Sinica Podcast) on how in Xinjiang, the “thought police instill fear,” how the “crackdown on Uighurs spreads to even mild critics,” and how Uyghurs abroad are fighting for and against jihadist forces. The first article reveals that at least some residents in Xinjiang are “being graded on a 100-point scale,” adding, “Those of Uighur ethnicity are automatically docked 10 points. Being aged between 15 and 55, praying daily, or having a religious education, all result in 10 point deductions.” The Wall Street Journal’s report contained what appears to be the same or a very similar rating form:
- January 2018: Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-funded media outlet, reports, “Around 120,000 ethnic Uyghurs are currently being held in political re-education camps in Kashgar prefecture of northwest China’s Xinjiang region alone, according to a security official with knowledge of the detention system.”
- February 2018: Foreign Policy publishes the account of one Uyghur university student who returned to China from the U.S., was intensely interrogated, held in a re-education camp for 17 days without charge, and then released. A local police officer warned him, “Whatever you say or do in North America, your family is still here and so are we.”
- April 2018: The U.S. State Department says that detentions at political re-education centers of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang number “at the very least in the tens of thousands.”
- May 2018: Human Rights Watch reports that hundreds of thousands of Communist Party members have been dispatched for “home stays” in mostly Muslim households in Xinjiang, part of a larger project of political indoctrination and human surveillance.
- May 2018: Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Germany, publishes “New evidence for China’s political re-education campaign in Xinjiang” in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief. Zenz estimates that “between several hundred thousand and just over one million” people can be held in the facilities that have been built in Xinjiang since March 2017.
- May 2018: Gerry Shih and Simon Denyer of the Associated Press and Washington Post, respectively, publish some of the first named eyewitness reports from detainees in those re-education camps. Some sources allege torture in the camps, and all sources confirm a program of political indoctrination that seems to exclusively target ethnic minorities.
- July 2018: Megha Rajagopalan at BuzzFeed again publishes on Xinjiang, this time focusing on how China is blackmailing Uyghurs abroad to spy for China with the threat of sending their relatives back home to re-education camps. Ten Uyghur exiles all confirm to BuzzFeed, with voice recordings and messages as evidence, that they were coerced to help a campaign “aimed not only to gather details about Uighurs’ activities abroad, but also to sow discord within exile communities in the West and intimidate people in hopes of preventing them from speaking out against the Chinese state.”
- July 2018: The NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders reports that government data shows the following: “Criminal arrests in Xinjiang accounted for an alarming 21% of all arrests in China in 2017, though the population in the XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] is only about 1.5% of China’s total.”
21 percent of all criminal arrests in China happens in Xinjiang, despite the fact that the region contains only 1.5 percent of the country’s population.
- July 2018: Emily Feng at the Financial Times reports that “In early 2017, Xinjiang began building dozens” of orphanages for the children of families that had been taken away to re-education. “One county in Kashgar built 18 new orphanages in 2017 alone, according to local media,” the FT notes.
- July 2018: An ethnically Kazakh Chinese national, Sayragul Sauytbay, escapes Xinjiang to neighboring Kazakhstan, and testifies in court that she had been told to teach at a re-education camp with 2,500 prisoners. She testifies that “they call it a political camp, but really it was a prison in the mountains,” and that its existence is a “state secret.” Her testimony is posted on YouTube, she was later interviewed by Nathan Vanderklippe at the Globe and Mail (notably, she confirms that the detainees were “all ethnic minorities”), and the story of her family and other Kazakh witnesses to the camps was told by Emily Rauhala in the Washington Post.
- July 2018: Gene Bunin, a Uyghur-speaking foreign academic who is currently undertaking a project to document Uyghur food and culture across China, writes that of the 1,000-plus Uyghurs he has spoken to in the past year, “almost everyone I talked to was significantly affected by the repression in Xinjiang,” adding that “the phrase adem yoq (‘everybody’s gone’) is probably the one I’ve heard the most this past year.” The Guardian republishes this unique account of the situation, headlined with the phrase one Uyghur security officer used to describe the situation to Bunin: “We’re a people destroyed.”
- August 2018: Chinese Human Rights Defenders reports: “In the villages of Southern Xinjiang, about 660,000 rural residents of ethnic Uyghur background may have been taken away from their homes and detained in re-education camps, while another up to 1.3 million may have been forced to attend mandatory day or evening re-education sessions in locations in their villages or town centers, amounting to a total of about 2 million South Xinjiang villagers in these two types of ‘re-education’ programs. The total number for Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or Xinjiang) as a whole, including other ethnic minorities and city residents, is certainly higher.”
- August 2018: The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) says that it has received “many numerous and credible reports” that 1 million Uyghurs are being held in a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.” (Reuters)
- August 2018: The New York Times reports that Rahile Dawut, a widely celebrated ethnographer of Uyghurs, is the latest scholar to be apparently locked up in the effective criminalization of Uyghur culture.
- August 2018: The Wall Street Journal again reports on the situation in Xinjiang, this time focusing on the re-education camps: Eva Dou, Jeremy Page, and Josh Chin co-author a piece titled “China’s Uighur camps swell as Beijing widens the dragnet.” They interview “six former inmates” of the camps, who confirmed the conditions in the camps described to the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and others previously, as well as “three dozen relatives of detainees, five of whom reported that family members had died in camps or soon after their release,” and draw on satellite maps to show the rapid, recent expansion of particular camps.
- August 2018: The U.S. State Department raises its estimate of detainees in Xinjiang to match or exceed the UN estimate: “The number of individuals held in detention may possibly number in the millions,” an official said, warning China that “indiscriminate and disproportionate controls on ethnic minorities’ expressions of their cultural and religious identities have the potential to incite radicalization and recruitment to violence.”
- August 2018: BuzzFeed journalist Megha Rajagopalan is forced to leave China after her journalism visa application is denied by authorities without explanation.
What do we know about the re-education camps?
For one, we know that the system of detention centers already built in Xinjiang is massive. Jerome Cohen, one of the most authoritative scholars of China’s legal system, writes that it’s probably the largest mass detention program in China in 60 years: “Perhaps the last time so many people have been detained outside the formal criminal process was in the 1957–59 ‘anti-rightist’ campaign.” A few sources in particular have attempted to quantify the progression and extent of the mass detention campaign:
- Public records of 73 government construction contracts prove that at least 680 million yuan ($108 million) has been spent on building detention centers in Xinjiang since March 2017, according to research by Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology. Zenz notes that March 2017 also saw the first reports of mass detentions, which “coincides neatly with the publication [in Chinese] of ‘de-extremification regulations’ (新疆维吾尔自治区去极端化条例) ” by the regional government on March 29, 2017.
- Just these publicly documented camps can hold up to a million inmates, Zenz estimates, and a “leaked document” from public security agencies “could indicate a detention rate of up to 11.5 percent of the region’s adult Uyghur and Kazakh population,” he writes.
- An average detention rate of 12 percent or more was confirmed by eight Uyghur interviewees in different towns in Xinjiang to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, which concluded:
“In the villages of Southern Xinjiang, about 660,000 rural residents of ethnic Uyghur background may have been taken away from their homes and detained in re-education camps, while another up to 1.3 million may have been forced to attend mandatory day or evening re-education sessions in locations in their villages or town centers, amounting to a total of about 2 million South Xinjiang villagers in these two types of ‘re-education’ programs. The total number for Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or Xinjiang) as a whole, including other ethnic minorities and city residents, is certainly higher.”
- These and other reports led the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to say that it suspected that 1 million Uyghurs are currently being held in a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.” (CERD report)
- Thirty-four camps and counting have been identified in satellite pictures by Shawn Zhang (on Medium; on Twitter), a law student at the University of British Columbia.
- Satellite images show continued, rapid construction of camps, according to the Wall Street Journal.
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.