The Chinese government is rounding up Muslims and throwing them in camps

Things are going from bad to potentially far worse in China's western region of Xinjiang.

Beijing has begun setting up concentration camps for over a million members of its minority Uyghur population. CREDIT: GETTY / EMMANUEL DUNAND
Beijing has begun setting up concentration camps for over a million members of its minority Uyghur population. CREDIT: GETTY / EMMANUEL DUNAND

In China’s remote western province of Xinjiang, the Chinese government has begun constructing a series of internment camps larger than anything the world currently knows.

Meant to house upwards of a million — and potentially more — of the region’s indigenous Muslim minority, known as Uyghurs, the camps, according to one U.S. commission studying the region, present the “largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”

And they’re only just beginning.

Technically called “Concentrated Education Transformation Centers” — with one even named, in a manner that would make George Orwell blush, as “the Loving Kindness School” — the camps span Xinjiang, a region known to Uyghurs as East Turkestan. Unsurprisingly, Chinese authorities have revealed little information about the camps: how many people are being detained, what crimes they supposedly committed, and when, if ever, these camps will be dismantled.

The camps started appearing over the past few years, but details are scarce. Reporting on the region is tightly constricted, and Beijing has made a habit of arresting and disappearing the family members of American reporters who have attempted to cover the topic.

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“We heard at the beginning of this year that more than one million Uyghurs are currently in the camps,” Dolkun Isa, the president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, told ThinkProgress. “But it’s already been six months, and we’ve never heard of anyone being released… [There] may be 1.5 million, maybe 2 million, in the camps. We don’t know.”

“The world already promised ‘never again’ — but it’s happening again.”

Given that there are approximately 8 million Uyghurs in the region, that would mean over 10 percent — and potentially as many as 25 percent — of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs are currently housed in these camps.

These camps have rapidly formed the backbone of China’s broader “assimilation” effort: a set of policies aimed at banning Uyghurs’ religious education, language, and broader culture.

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Following a 2009 protest-turned-massacre in Xinjiang, China’s deadliest domestic event in decades, Beijing accelerated its policy of forced assimilation — actions ranging from banning the teaching of the Uyghur language to barring certain Islamic names, all while installing one of the most stifling security regimes this side of North Korea.

Xinjiang, now under the thumb of party chief Chen Quanguo — who had previously stamped any dissent in Tibet — has becomea police state to rival North Korea, with a formalized racism on the order of South African apartheid,” Rian Thum, an associate history professor at Loyola University, recently wrote.

One professor at Australian National University described Xinjiang, an area approximately half the size of India, as the testing ground for China’s looming “neo-totalitarian” model. And Adrian Zenz, a researcher with the European School of Culture and Theology, has estimated that the police density in Xinjiang has now likely surpassed what was seen in late East Germany. 

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What’s striking about this is that [Chinese authorities] manage to marry the kinds of methods which North Korea uses, which are based on a lot of manpower, a lot of ordinary people on the ground who are ready and willing to inform on you, and a bureaucratic architecture to process all that,” Thum told ThinkProgress. “And when you put those two things together, it leaves Uyghurs feeling that their only private place left is the inside of their head.”

Concentrating in camps

While little has trickled out about these camps — AP reporters writing on the camps were detained a few months ago by local police, accused of “not promot[ing] positive energy” — the few pieces of available information paint a stark, dystopic image.

The prisoners are arbitrarily held, with no charge necessary and without any terms of release. The camps themselves are often ramshackle constructs, recently built to house those arrested. And as Thum told ThinkProgress, Chinese authorities are still putting out contracts to build new camps. Isa added that authorities have even begun retrofitting schools to hold incarcerated Uyghurs.

The camps appear to be sparse. One account from a Uyghur student who had been studying in the U.S. — and who was imprisoned upon trying to return to Xinjiang — noted that his incarceration featured marching, chanting, and repeated viewing of “re-education” videos.

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“I’m sure you may have had some ideological changes because of your unpleasant experience but remember: Whatever you say or do in North America, your family is still here, and so are we,” a member of a local neighborhood watch committee later told the student, who relayed his experience to Foreign Policy.

“One prisoner said that at 6 or 7 A.M. you get up and sit down,” Isa told ThinkProgress. “You can’t move, you can’t run, you can’t talk. You have to sit and self-criticize yourself… At lunch time you have bit of space, but then after lunch you sit, and you self-criticize again. It is psychological torture.”

Fatalities, and worse

While China hasn’t released any information internationally about its detention policies, Chinese authorities have had little compunction about imprisoning family members of those living abroad, and those who are critical of Beijing’s dictatorship. Not only have family members of American-based journalists languished in these camps, but Isa’s mother herself was detained over a year ago.

And this week, Isa learned that his mother, Ayhan Memet, had died in one of the camps. She was 78 years old.

“It is very, very difficult to get any information about what is going on in the camps,” Isa said. “But maybe I’m one of the lucky ones, because I got the news about my mother… So many people, so many Uyghurs who live in exile, they don’t know.”

A report from Radio Free Asia last week noted that more than two dozen Uyghurs had already died in the camps. But those numbers come from just one county in Xinjiang.

Every single Uyghur abroad has relatives waiting for a slow death in these camps,”  wrote Mehmet Tohti, a Toronto-based Uyghur human rights activist. 

Thus far, there has been negligible international outcry about the camps — although that may be symptomatic not simply of China’s economic clout, but also of just how little information has been revealed about the camps. Thankfully, though, things are starting to change. In April, U.S. officials threatened to implement sanctions against those responsible for Xinjiang’s security architecture.

HBO’s John Oliver also highlighted Uyghurs’ plight in a recent episode of Last Week Tonight.

While Washington debates potential sanctions for the swelling human rights disaster in Xinjiang, analysts and researchers have a more linguistic debate to deal with: just what to call these camps now metastasizing through the region. Beijing prefers the anodyne term “re-education camps,” but Thum referred to them as “internment camps,” noting that he’s also considering using the term “forced indoctrination camps” in the future. Noted Xinjiang scholar James Leibold condemned the camps last month as part of “China’s Muslim gulag,” presenting “one of the worst human rights abuses in recent times.”

Isa, meanwhile, is fine with calling them something else entirely: “concentration camps,” a term Leibold has also used.

But beyond what to call these facilities is the question of what comes next — and when, or if, we’ll know. “Even if it doesn’t get worse, it’s already one of the more frightening human rights abuses on the planet — but there are good reasons to worry about it getting worse,” Thum said. As another China scholar noted, the situation “smells of the pre-genocidal.”

“The world already promised ‘never again’ — but it’s happening again,” Isa added. “Tomorrow may be too late. Maybe it’s already started. We just don’t know.”