Rumors of Muslim re-education camps have stirred throughout China’s Xinjiang region among the increasing number of abrupt disappearances and detainment of many Uyghur residents. Chinese government officials call the rumored camps vocational training facilities designed to boost economic growth and promote social mobility. Other sources say that the facilities intent is to crackdown on extremism. So what exactly is the purpose of these nameless institutes? How did they come about? And what actually happens on the inside?
Xinjiang has long been a source of tension between a mostly Han Chinese government, and the region’s high concentration of Uyghur residents, who are otherwise a national minority.
In recent years the tensions between Xinjiang residents and Chinese government have grown violent. In October 2013 a van attack on pedestrians in Beijing's Tiananmen Square killed two civilians and claimed the lives of the three Uyghur van occupants. On 1 March 2014, 8 knife wielding assailants marched into the Kunming Railway Station of China’s Yunnan district, massacring 31 civilians and leaving 140 others injured. Chinese news outlets identified the assailants as Xinjiang separatists, as well as members of Xinjiang's Uighur community. Less than two months later on 22 May 2014, two suicide car bombings occurred after attackers threw explosive devices from their vehicles at Ürümqi Street Market. The attackers claimed the lives of 43, while injuring another 50.
Such incidences have drawn increased attention to an already marginalized population of Uyghur muslims in Xinjiang.
The result has been the implementation of overly restrictive and sweeping security measures by the state on its own people. Including facial recognition cameras, mobile phone content readers, vehicle and pedestrian checkpoints, coded ID’s to monitor individual movements, QR codes attached to houses that hold the names of approved residents. Most disturbingly is the mass collection of biometric data including voice and DNA samples- all of which The Human Rights Watch claims are overwhelmingly targeted at “ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities”. Designed to record and track the actions and timelines individuals, these security measures violate international laws forbidding such discriminations.
The watchdog practices come in synchronicity with China’s “Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism”, instituted in May of 2014 after several violent events, and are further subsidized by prohibitions on Islamic practices.
Long beards and head scarfs are banned, along with educating children under religious practices. Muslim government officials are prevented from praying and attending mosques. Having a relative living abroad in one of 26 designated ‘sensitive’ countries is enough to warrant interrogation and detainment for up to several months in order to evaluate a person's “trustworthiness”.
Under the guise of safety concerns and righteousness, the Chinese state has assumed the role of Big Brother, precisely monitoring individuals on unlawfully in-depth levels. According to Humans Rights Watch researcher Maya Wong, practicing Islam “has effectively been outlawed”.
A report by the BBC indicates that China’s Anti-terrorism campaign does not stop with simple security measures. In fact, the most concerning evidence of Chinese internment camps comes from a combination the government itself, and a trove of images courtesy of Google Earth. Local government contracting bids for further development on large plots and facilities have spiked in recent years. Using Google Earth, the developments on these sites has been analyzed for degree of expansion, and determined use is based on architectural features, including watchtowers and security fencing.
BBC analysis places 44 of 101 of these evealuated sites under the likely or very likely category to be security facilities. Based on estimations of the 44 sites alone, China has created 440 hectares of secured land since 2003. To put that in perspective, a 14 ha penitentiary site in L.A, The Twin Towers Correctional Facility, holds approximately 7,000 prisoners.
Those who have been detained are brought to camps on arbitrary allegations, such as having a photo on one’s phone of a women wearing a niqab. They are denied due process, and are held for indefinite amounts of time usually spanning days, months, over a year, or are yet to be released.
Theses vocational training facilities, which receive no oversight from the UN or human rights’ organizations, and whose curriculum is said to consist of Mandarin language training, legal training, vocational skills, and de-extremism, spin a very positive light on their educational content. Commercials for the facilities paint pictures of typical students enjoying their typical classroom education.
Yet government purchases for schooling has little to do textbooks and pencils. In addition to ordering bunk beds and air conditioners, Al Jazeera reports local Xinjiang governments purchasing a total of 2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray. They also report purchasing “police uniforms, riot shields and helmets, pepper spray, tear gas, net guns, stun guns, electrified batons, billy clubs, spears, handcuffs and spiked clubs”. The requests all come under the management of their vocational training facilities.
Interviews with some of the few individuals who were released from the camps and sought refuge in other countries before the Chinese seizing of Xinjiang passports, reveal disturbing truths about the conditions inside the camps. Describing suffering psychological and physical abuse, being locked in cells at night, using bowls instead of proper toilets, overcrowding, indefinite confinement, and at times death inside the camps.
Detainees political indoctrination forces them to learn and speak in Mandarin Chinese, a non-native language to most detainees, while being banned from using Islamic greetings. They sing songs praising the Chinese Communist Party, recite laws, and endure forced exercise routines. Those who break a rule or recite a law wrong are beaten, or tortured in ways such as forcing a person to stand for 24 hours.
Outside of the camps, residents are made to attend daily or weekly flag raising ceremonies, pass through continuous police checkpoints, are prohibited from contacting individuals outside the region, and at times forced to take Mandarin language classes.
It’s clear from China’s attempt to eradicate extremism by way of eradicating the presence of Islam in their country, that the Chinese state believes violent terrorism is inherent in Muslim faiths. These camps are serving China’s purpose of “eradicating ideological viruses” to ensure peace and support in the Xinjiang region. None of the 26 designated ‘sensitive’ countries have expressed major concerns over the human rights violations in Xinjiang, and the UN has proposed no repercussions against the Chinese government for their Muslim repression policies.
China has violated rights to religion, freedom, expression, and legal representation in their actions. No one is exempt, no one is safe, and everyone has gone silent. Cloaked under the darkness of fear and the hush of oppressive silence, China has subjected easily thousands of innocent Uyghurs to inhumane, abusive, and traumatic conditions.