On October 24, 2018, the BBC released the details of an extensive investigation into China's hidden concentration camps and the extent to which the People's Republic goes to maintain what it calls "correct thought".
Prior to and until shortly after the July 2009 Ürümqi riots, Wang Lequan was the Party secretary for the Xinjiang region, effectively the highest subnational role; roughly equivalent to a governor in a Western province or state. Wang worked on modernization programs in Xinjiang, including industrialization, development of commerce, roads, railways, hydrocarbon development and pipelines with neighboring Kazakhstan to eastern China. On the other hand, Wang constrained local culture and religion, replaced the Uyghur language with Standard Mandarin as the medium of education in primary schools, and penalized or banned among government workers (in a region in which the government was a very large employer), the wearing of beards and headscarves, fasting and praying while on the job.
In April 2010, after the Ürümqi riots, Zhang Chunxian replaced Wang Lequan as the Communist Party chief. Zhang Chunxian continued and strengthened Wang's repressive policies. In 2011, Zhang proposed "modern culture [to the exclusion of Uyghur tradition] leads the development in Xinjiang" as his policy statement and started to implement his modern culture propaganda. In 2012, he first mentioned the phrase "de-extremification" (Chinese: 去极端化) campaigns and started to educate "wild Imams" (野阿訇) and extremists (极端主义者). In 2014, Chinese authorities announced a "People's war on terror" and local government introduced new restrictions and banned "abnormal" long beards, the wearing of veils in public places and naming of children to exaggerate religious fervor (including names such as Muhammad or Fatimah) as a campaign against terrorism and extremism.
In August 2016, Chen Quanguo, a well-known hardliner Communist Party leader in Tibet, took charge of the Xinjiang autonomous region. Chen is branded by critics as responsible for a major component of the Tibet's "subjugation", and is seen as applying his expertise in the Sinicization of Tibet to Xinjiang.
Chen Quanguo and the Xinjiang police state
Followed Chen's arrival, local authorities recruited over 90,000 police officers in 2016 and 2017 – twice as many as they recruited in the past seven years, and laid out as many as 7300 heavily guarded check points in the region. The province has come to be known as one of the most heavily policed regions of the world. Gradually the concept of "transformation through education" started to expose and came to be systematically used with the "de-extremification" campaigns. International media have labelled the current regime in Xinjiang as "the most extensive police state in the world".
Local media have reported on these facilities and generally referred them as "counter-extremism training centers" (去极端化培训班) and "education and transformation training centers" (教育转化培训中心). Most of those facilities are converted from existing schools or other official buildings, although some are specifically built for "reeducation" purposes.
The heavily policed region and thousands of check points assisted and accelerated the detainment of locals to the camps. In 2017 the region constituted 21% of all arrests in China last year despite comprising 1.5% of the national population and the imprisoned people compared to the previous year is seven times more, The judicial and other government bureaus of many cities and counties started to release a series of procurement and construction bids for those planned camps and facilities. Increasingly, massive detention centers were built up throughout the region and are being used to hold hundreds of thousands of people targeted for their religious practices and ethnicity.
Concentration camps in Xinjiang are operated secretly. In urban areas, most of them are converted from existing vocational schools, communist party schools, ordinary schools or other official buildings, while in suburban or rural areas the majority of camps were specially built for the purposes of re-education. These camps are guarded by armed forces or special police and equipped with prison-like gates, surrounding walls, security fences, surveillance systems, watchtowers, guard rooms and facilities for armed police etc. and most of them are clearly visible on satellite imagery.
In November and December 2018, the magazine Bitter Winter released three videos it claimed had been shot inside two camps in the Yining area. The videos show jail-like features and the magazine claimed they proved that the camps are detention facilities rather than “schools.” According to Business Insider, the second “Bitter Winter’s video... matches the descriptions of former detainees and witnesses of other detention facilities in Xinjiang.”
There is no public, verifiable data for the number of camps. On 15 May 2017, Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, D.C. based institute for research and analysis, released a list of government bids related to re-education facilities for 73 different camps. On 14 May 2018, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that there are at least 8 camps in Kargilik County, Kashgar Prefecture alone.
Scholars such as University of British Columbia student Shawn Zhang have used satellite images to track suspected re-education centers in the region. The most important sources for him are government reports, official government documents, travel reports from top officials and budgetary reports that outline expenditures for facilities. Zhang documented 31 suspected re-education camps throughout Xinjiang using Google Earth Pro and Chinese government documents.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute's (ASPI) International Cyber Policy Centre (ICPC) reported on camps in 28 locations. The ICPC created an excel database detailing the numbers, location, facility features, photos, documents of these camps. Reuters's also collaborated with Earthrise Media to document satellite images of 39 concentration camps from start to finish in it's article "Tracking China's Muslim Gulag."
Many Uyghurs in diaspora claim that at least one of their family members are in the camp. Many media reports said that hundreds of thousands of Uighurs-as well as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic minorities are being detained without trial in "re-education camps" in the province. In January 2018, some media[who?] reported that an estimated 120,000 members of the Uyghurs are currently being held in political re-education camps in Kashgar prefecture alone. Some reports[who?] claimed the camps are estimated to hold as much as 10 percent of the Uyghur population.
The United States-based Uyghur politician Rebiya Kadeer, who has been in exile since 2005, has had as many as 30 relatives detained or disappeared, including her sisters, brothers, children, grandchildren, and siblings; and it is unclear when they were taken away. In the past few years, dozens of family members of six Radio Free Asia Uyghur Service reporters have been locked up in re-education camps due to their job in the United States. These reporters spent years in exile for documenting human rights abuses under the Chinese government's rule in their homeland. They also shared the fate of many others who are being held without due process for ill-defined reasons.
On 13 July 2018, Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese national and former employee of the Chinese state, appeared in a court in the city of Zharkent, Kazakhstan for being accused of illegally crossing the border between the two countries. During the trial she talked about her forced work at a re-education camp for 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs. Her lawyer believed that if she is extradited to China, she would face the death penalty for exposing re-education camps in Kazakh court. Her testimony for the re-education camps have become the focus of a court case in Kazakhstan, which is also testing the country's ties with Beijing. On 1 August 2018, Sayragul Sauytbay, who fled one of the Chinese re-education camps, was released with a six-month suspended sentence and direction to regularly check in with police. She has applied for asylum in Kazakhstan and will not be deported to China.
Gene Bunin created the Xinjiang Victims Database to collect public testimonies on people detained in the camps. Each page lists basic demographic information including dates and suspected cause of detention, location, in addition to supplementary videos, photos and documents.
Radio Free Asia interviews
Meanwhile, Radio Free Asia, a US government-funded non-profit, also conducted a series of telephone interview with local judicial and police officials.
On 20 November 2017, Radio Free Asia conducted a telephone interview with an official from the Bulaksu Township judicial station in Konasheher County, the official claimed: “In Bulaksu township, 2514 people were imprisoned and 806 people were sent to re-education centers.”
On 21 June 2018, in a telephone interview with an official from the Tuwet Township judicial station in Karakax County, who said: “In Tuwet township 1731 people were imprisoned and 1721 people were sent to re-education centers.”
On 2 August 2018, in a telephone interview with an official from the Hankitam Township police station in Kuqa County, the police said: “We've sent approximately 5000 people to the re-education centers and no one has been released until now.’’
On 17 August 2018, in a telephone interview with some police officials of Toksu County, a police said: “In this county approximately 22,000 people are in re-education centers.’’
On 21 August 2018, in a telephone interview with police officials of Onsu County, the police told RFA that: “There are 4 re-education centers in this county and currently 30,000 people are in them.’’
On 21 August 2018, Radio Free Asia interviewed some police officials of Keriya County. The police said: “There are 4 re-education centers in this county. The first one is the original detention center. The second one is a newly built camp near the detention center. The third and fourth re-education centers are located in an industrial park. Currently almost 30,000 people are in education centers.’’ The next day, RFA conducted telephone interviews with judicial officials in the Yingibagh Township of the same Keriya County. The official claimed that “Among 242 of the people who were sent to the re-education camps, they have bank loans. Seven of them, aged 31 to 42, died in the education centers. Three of them bank loans were exempted, and the other four's bank loans were in the process of issuing exemptions.”
On 18 December 2018, Radio Free Asia reported that Chinese authorities arrested an ethnic Uyghur senior court official Ghalip Qurban (in China's judicial system) after he expressed concern over the mass incarceration of members of his ethnic group in recent years. Qurban, the deputy head of the Intermediate People’s Court in the XUAR capital Ürümqi, was "distressed by the vast number of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities who had been detained in political re-education camps throughout the XUAR since April 2017 after being accused of harboring 'strong religious views' and 'politically incorrect' ideas.” Qurban was reportedly called in for multiple “chats” with officials from the State Security Department after speaking out about the policy. Uyghur senior court officials are required to sign off on sentences issued in cases concerning crimes of “terrorism” and “religious extremism” in Xinjiang, and Qurban may have believed he might later be judged to have been a party to crimes against humanity. The report stated that Qurban's family and friends only learned of his arrest a month after he was taken into custody. A staff member at the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court told RFA that Qurban had been removed from his post “quite a long time ago—six months or a year,” when asked to confirm his arrest, but was unsure whether he had been imprisoned or sent to a re-education camp.
In January 2018, Abdurahman Hasan, a Uyghur businessman from Kashgar, was interviewed by BBC News in Turkey and asked the Chinese government to shoot his 68-year-old mother and 22-year-old wife after learning of the inhuman torture conducted in one of the camps in Kashgar. Kayrat Samarkand, a Kazakh citizen who migrated from Xinjiang, was detained in one of the "re-education camps" in the region for three months for visiting neighboring Kazakhstan. On 15 February 2018, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov sent a diplomatic note to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the same day as Kayrat Samarkand was freed from custody. After his release, Samarkand shared his distressing experience and claimed that he faced endless brainwashing and humiliation, and that he was forced to study communist propaganda for hours every day and chant slogans giving thanks and wishing for a long life to Xi Jinping, current General Secretary of the Communist Party of China.
Mihrigul Tursun, an Uyghur woman detained in China, after escaping one of these camps, described details of torture and beatings. Educated in Egypt, Tursun had traveled to China in 2015 to spend time with her family and was immediately detained and separated from her infant children. When Tursun was released three months later, one of the triplets died and the other two developed health problems. Tursun said the children had been operated on. She was arrested for a second time about two years later. Several months later, she was detained a third time and spent three months in a cramped, suffocating prison cell with 60 other women, having to sleep in turns, use the toilet in front of security cameras and sing songs praising China’s Communist Party.
Tursun said she and other inmates were forced to take unknown medication, including pills that made them faint and a white liquid that caused bleeding in some women and loss of menstruation in others. Tursun said nine women from her cell died during her three months there. One day, Tursun recalled, she was led into a room and placed in a high chair, and her legs and arms were locked in place. “The authorities put a helmet-like thing on my head, and each time I was electrocuted, my whole body would shake violently and I would feel the pain in my veins,” Tursun said in a statement read by a translator. “I don’t remember the rest. White foam came out of my mouth, and I began to lose consciousness,” Tursun said. “The last word I heard them saying is that you being an Uighur is a crime.” She was eventually released so that she could take her children to Egypt, but she was ordered to return to China. Once in Cairo, Tursun contacted U.S. authorities and, in September, came to the United States and settled in Virginia.
The authorities attempt to indoctrinate people in settings that resemble military prisons. Detainees endure physical and mental torture to suppress dissident religious beliefs and separatist movements. Former inmates claim that they are "forced to study communist propaganda for hours and give thanks to the general secretary (paramount leader) by chanting 'Long live Xi Jinping'", as well as learn to sing the national anthem of China and communist songs. Punishments, like being placed in handcuffs for hours, waterboarding, or being strapped to "tiger chair" (a metal contraption) for long periods of time, are used on those who fail to follow.
Detainees are also forced to drink alcohol and eat pork, which are forbidden in Islam. Some detainees receive unknown medicines and others attempted suicide. The side effects of those treatments can be very serious, sometimes even causing scholars like Muhammad Salih Haji's,Dolkun Isa's mother Ayhan Memet's and other people's deaths in these facilities.
NPR reported that "Kazakhstan and its neighbors in the mostly Muslim region of Central Asia that have benefited from Chinese investment aren't speaking up for the Muslims inside internment camps in China".
On 10 September 2017, Human Rights Watch released a report that said "The Chinese government should immediately free people held in unlawful 'political education' centers in Xinjiang and shut them down."
In November 2017, Kazakhstan's Ambassador to China Shahrat Nuryshev met with Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Li Huilai regarding Kazakh diaspora issues.
On 15 February 2018, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov sent a diplomatic note to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the same day Samarkand, a Kazakhstan citizen, was released from re-education camp. From 17 to 19 April, Kazakh First Deputy Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi visited Xinjiang to meet with local officials.
On 21 May 2018, during the resumed session of the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations in UN, Kelley Currie, the U.S. representative to the U.N. for economic and social affairs, raised the mass detention of Uyghurs in re-education camps, and she said that "reports of mass incarcerations in the Xinjiang were documented by looking at Chinese procurement requests on Chinese websites requesting Chinese companies to tender offers to build political re-education camps".
On 3 July 2018, at UK Parliamentary roundtable, the Rights Practice helped to organise a Parliamentary Round-table on increased repression and forced assimilation in Xinjiang. Rahima Mahmut, an Uyghur singer and human rights activist, gave a personal testimony about the violations suffered by the Uyghur community. Dr. Adrian Zenz, European School of Culture and Theology, (Germany), outlined the evidence of a large scale and sophisticated political re-education network designed to detain people for long periods of time and which the Chinese government officially denies.
On 26 July 2018, Vice President of the United States Mike Pence raised the re-education camps issue at Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. He said that "Sadly, as we speak as well, Beijing is holding hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of Uyghur Muslims in so-called 're-education camps', where they're forced to endure around-the-clock political indoctrination and to denounce their religious beliefs and their cultural identity as the goal."
On 27 July 2018, The U.S. Embassy & Consulate in China released Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Statement on China, the statement mentioned the detention of hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minority groups in "political re-education camps", and called the Chinese government to release immediately all those arbitrarily detained.
No Muslim nation’s head of state has made a public statement in support of the Uighurs this decade. Politicians and many religious leaders who claim to speak for the faith are silent in the face of China’s political and economic power...Many Muslim governments have strengthened their relationship with China or even gone out of their way to support China’s persecution.
On 28 August 2018, U.S. senator Marco Rubio and 16 other members of Congress urged the United States to impose sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against Chinese officials who responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang. In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, they called for the sanctions on Chen Quanguo who is the current Communist Party Secretary of the Xinjiang (the highest post in an administrative unit of China) and six other Chinese officials and two businesses that make surveillance equipment in Xinjiang.
On 9 September 2018, Human Rights Watch released a 117-page report, "‘Eradicating Ideological Viruses’: China's Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang's Muslims", which accused China of the systematic mass detention of tens of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims in political re-education camps without being charged or tried and presented new evidence of the Chinese government's mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment, and the increasingly pervasive controls on daily life. The report also urged foreign governments to pursue a range of multilateral and unilateral actions against China for its actions, including "targeted sanctions" against those responsible.
On 10 September 2018, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on China to ease restrictions on her and her office's team, she urged China to allow observers into Xinjiang and expressed concern about the situation there. She said that:’’ The UN rights group had shown that Uighurs and other Muslims are being detained in camps across Xinjiang and I expect discussions with Chinese officials to begin soon’’.
The most outstanding disagreement we have with China concerns the human rights situation in China, as underlined in your Report. We also focused on the situation in Xinjiang, especially the expansion of political re-education camps. And we discussed the detention of human rights defenders, including particular cases.
On 18 December 2018, Radio Free Asia reported that Chinese authorities arrested an ethnic Uyghur senior court official Ghalip Qurban (in China's judicial system) after he expressed concern over the mass incarceration of members of his ethnic group in recent years. Qurban, the deputy head of the Intermediate People’s Court in the XUAR capital Ürümqi, was "distressed by the vast number of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities who had been detained in political re-education camps throughout the XUAR since April 2017 after being accused of harboring 'strong religious views' and 'politically incorrect' ideas". Qurban was reportedly called in for multiple “chats” with officials from the State Security Department after speaking out about the policy. Uyghur senior court officials are required to sign off on sentences issued in cases concerning crimes of “terrorism” and “religious extremism” in Xinjiang, and Qurban may have believed he might later be judged to have been a party to crimes against humanity. The report stated that Qurban's family and friends only learned of his arrest a month after he was taken into custody, he said. A staff member at the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court told RFA that Qurban had been removed from his post “quite a long time ago—six months or a year,” when asked to confirm his arrest, but was unsure whether he had been imprisoned or sent to a re-education camp.
In 2019, The Art Newspaper reported that "hundreds" of writers, artists, and academics had been imprisoned, in what the magazine qualified as an attempt to "punish any form of religious or cultural expression" among Uighurs. Additionally, The Washington Post published a hard-hitting article about the camps used by China to persecute Uyghurs and make them a minority in their ancestral homeland, the same way China did against Tibetans in Tibet.
In February 2019, the Turkish government denounced China for "violating the fundamental human rights of Uyghur Turks and other Muslim communities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region."
When international media asked about the re-education camps, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it "had not heard" of this situation.
On 12 August 2018, a Chinese state-run tabloid, Global Times, defended the crackdown in Xinjiang after a U.N. anti-discrimination committee raised concerns over China's treatment of Uyghurs. According to the Global Times, China prevented Xinjiang from becoming ‘China's Syria’ or ‘China's Libya’, and local authorities' policies saved countless lives and avoided a 'great tragedy'. Despite this, the editorial did not mention the existence of the re-education camps. The paper published another editorial the day after, titled "Xinjiang policies justified".
On 13 August 2018, at a UN meeting in Geneva, the delegation from China told the UN human rights committee that "There is no such thing as re-education centers in Xinjiang and it is completely untrue that China put 1 million Uyghurs into re-education camps". A Chinese delegation said that "Xinjiang citizens, including the Uyghurs, enjoy equal freedom and rights." They claimed that “Some minor offenders of religious extremism or separatism have been taken to 'vocational education' and employment training centers with a view to assisting in their rehabilitation”.
On 14 August 2018, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said "anti-China forces had made false accusations against China for political purposes and a few foreign media outlets misrepresented the committee's discussions and were smearing China's anti-terror and crime-fighting measures in Xinjiang" after a U.N. human rights committee raised concern over reported mass detentions of ethnic Uyghurs.
On 21 August 2018, Liu Xiaoming, the Ambassador of China to the United Kingdom, wrote an article in response to a Financial Times report entitled "Crackdown in Xinjiang: Where have all the people gone?". Liu's response said: "The education and training measures taken by the local government of Xinjiang have not only effectively prevented the infiltration of religious extremism and helped those lost in extremist ideas to find their way back, but also provided them with employment training in order to build a better life."
Some Chinese disagree with the policies towards Xinjiang of the Chinese government. For example, on 10 August 2018, about 47 Chinese intellectuals and others, in exile, issued an appeal against what they describe as "shocking human rights atrocities perpetrated in Xinjiang".
On 10 September 2018, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang condemned a report about the re-education camps issued by Human Rights Watch. He said: “This organisation has always been full of prejudice and distorting facts about China.” Geng also added that: “Xinjiang is enjoying overall social stability, sound economic development and harmonious co-existence of different ethnic groups. The series of measures implemented in Xinjiang are meant to improve stability, development, solidarity and people’s livelihood, crack down on ethnic separatist activities and violent and terrorist crimes, safeguard national security, and protect people’s life and property.”
On 11 September 2018, China called for U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet to "respect its sovereignty", after she urged China to allow monitors into Xinjiang and expressed concern about the situation there. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “China urges the U.N. human rights high commissioner and office to scrupulously abide by the mission and principles of the U.N. charter, respect China's sovereignty, fairly and objectively carry out its duties, and not listen to one-sided information".
A Radio Free Asia report from 12 December 2018 says that authorities in Xinjiang are 'making preparations' in advance of anticipated eventual international inspection teams visiting, which they anticipate "within weeks". The report received from its source a "confidentiality agreement" that authorities in Awat County are reportedly requiring camp detainees to sign, which states that they will "not discuss the workings of the camps, accept any interviews, or use communication channels such as social media or SMS messaging to disseminate information about the camp system." Violations there-of are subject to "accountability according to related national laws." One interviewee, who chose to be anonymous for fear of reprisals, said that officials have been going house to house, and that “People are taught [by officials] what to say, and they were warned not to mention the difficulties they are facing.” The anonymous source says people are told to “praise the [Communist] Party’s policies” and to “say only good things about the government,” and that there “may be foreigners among [the inspection teams],” so they should refrain from mentioning anything about re-education camps. Authorities threatened residents that any negative comments could lead to imprisonment or detention in the re-education camps, he added, while those who complain about the situation in the region will have “three generations of their family blacklisted,” and the government “will not leave them alone.”
On 30 November 2018, Washington-based lawyer and Uyghur activist Nury Turkel said that international pressure has forced China to “deny its brutal treatment and criminalization of the Uyghur people based on their race, religion, culture and traditions,” and create a narrative to suggest that Beijing “is doing a favor for the Uyghurs.” He has urged the international community “to be extremely cautious of China’s calculated propaganda campaigns to mislead the world while continuing its onslaught on the Uyghur people.”
In March 2019, against the background of the US considering imposing sanctions against Chen Quanguo, who is the region's most senior Communist Party official, Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir denied the existence of the camps.
On March 18, 2019, the Chinese government releases a white paper about the counterterrorism, de-radicalization in Xinjiang. The white paper claims "A country under the rule of law, China respects and protects human rights in accordance with the principles of its Constitution, said the document." The white paper also claims Xinjiang has not had violent terrorist cases for more than two consecutive years, extremist penetration has been effectively curbed, and social security has improved significantly.