repression in Xinjiang

Xinjiang, also known as East Turkmenistan, is a far-western province of China with a large Turkic population: mostly Uyghurs, but also members of other Turkic ethnicities like Kazakhs. The Chinese government represses these Turkic populations brutally. It has two separate systems of detention centres that it sends Uyghurs to: firstly, the prison system, and secondly a network of what’s described in Western media as re-education camps, constructed since 2017. For its part, the Chinese government insists that it’s doing nothing wrong, claiming alternately that the Uyghurs being arrested are “Islamic extremists” in need of deradicalisation, or that the re-education camps themselves are actually just “vocational training” facilities where Uyghurs are learning useful skills to make them more employable. China seems to regard the practice of Islam itself as inherently suspicious, as well as any travel to majority-Muslim countries; one researcher on this subject interviewed by CNN said:

Xi Jinping and other officials (in) internal speeches have described Islam like a virus of the mind that infects people.

China has been known to carry out mass arrests of Uyghur people; one cop-turned-whistleblower in Xinjiang province told CNN in 2021 that China once arrested 900,000 Uyghurs in one year. The idea was to arrest first and find a pretext later. He added that many Uyghurs were tortured to make them confess to crimes. Some of the “crimes” for which people are imprisoned (whether in re-education camps or formal prison, that I’m not clear on) include things like past travel to “suspicious” (read: Muslim-majority) countries, not using their mobile phones enough (taken as proof of surveillance-evading), abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes, growing a beard, or “studying Islamic scripture”. As well, sometimes people are being imprisoned years after their alleged offence – and the sentences handed out can be many years long.

China believes in “guilt by association” for Uyghurs, and regularly arrests and imprisons them on the basis that a family member has been engaged in activity (or saying things) that the Chinese regime doesn’t like. So many adults have been taken and imprisoned that there is a large and growing number of Uyghur children without parents to look after them; for these, China is building a network of high-security “boarding schools” with, government propaganda reportedly extols, school taking the place of the parents. It’s alleged that students in these schools are punished for speaking Uyghur (or anything but Chinese), and that the state’s goal is to culturally “re-educate” them into shedding their Uyghur-ness and being simply Chinese.

Conditions at the re-education camps are highly oppressive, according to leaked documents and reports from former detainees themselves. For example, this BBC article(external link) reports:

A set of internal police protocols describes the routine use of armed officers in all areas of the camps, the positioning of machine guns and sniper rifles in the watchtowers, and the existence of a shoot-to-kill policy for those trying to escape.

Blindfolds, handcuffs and shackles are mandatory for any “student” being transferred between facilities or even to hospital.

It does seem that lessons take place in the camps – overseen by guards equipped with handcuffs and batons – in things like the Chinese language but also Chinese state ideology. Reportedly, 11 hours a day of it. There’s lots of rote memorisation and repetition, and tests every Friday to gauge how much prisoners have remembered (with humiliation for those who fail). There are also “physical education” lessons, which seems to involve ordering prisoners to stay absolutely still for half an hour, an hour, or more. Allegedly, people who fainted would be slapped and ordered to get up; if they fainted again, they would be taken away never to be seen again by their fellow prisoners. Prisoners are kept in dormitories with only a bucket to do their business; they’re deprived of natural light, to the point that they lose track of day and night. They have their heads shaved bald. They’re watched constantly, by guards and cameras. Minor things like wiping one’s mouth or closing one’s eyes for a moment would bring an allegation of “praying”, for which there would be punishment. Prisoners get made to compose “self-criticisms” and read them to their classmates. The sleep deprivation and the brutality and the endless repetition of trite propaganda phrases bring prisoners to a breaking point, generally to “confess” to “terrorism”. There are reports that women are given injections to sterilise them, and also that women in at least some facilities are taken regularly to “dark rooms” (outside security camera surveillance) and raped by “masked Chinese men” (sometimes police officers and sometimes outside men, in suits). Other female prisoners were forced to put these women in the rooms, strip them naked, and handcuff them in place. Then, once the men had finished (because usually it’d be more than one at a time), they’d be forced to take the rape victim to the shower. Also, allegedly, in some instances this torture was not limited to sexual torture, but combined with electric torture, with one former detainee saying there were four kinds of that: the chair, the glove, the helmet, and anal rape with a stick. (Although it also sounds like “the stick” was also sometimes used vaginally.)

There were some incidents of violence in Xinjiang in the years leading up to China’s creation of these detention centres. In 2009, there were race riots in the province’s capital city Urumqi, leaving 197 people dead, which the government ended up deciding was entirely the fault of Uyghurs. Then there were a series of terrorist attacks perpetrated by assailants with bombs and knives in 2014 and 2015. Again, the Chinese government decided that Uyghur people collectively bore responsibility for the actions of a few.

In 2019, China claimed that the re-education camps were being shut down, with all their past detainees having “graduated”. In reality, it seems like China has just renamed the facilities.

China has also used mass surveillance to maintain control over its Uyghur population. Surveillance cameras and facial recognition systems are used widely to keep tabs of people’s movements and activities (indeed, it’s thought that many of the photos of Uyghurs leaked to the Western press through the Xinjiang Police Files were taken specifically so it would be easier to match CCTV footage to specific citizens’ identities). This should be taken in combination with China’s use of a “social credit” system, to try to assess all its citizens and give them some kind of score which is supposed to correlate to their trustworthiness/virtuousness or whatever. Uyghurs pretty much inherently get a very bad score, which means a lot of options are closed off to them.

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