Chinese blogger Shawn Zhang has spent months painstakingly reading through government tender notices, compiling social media photos and trawling through Google Earth satellite imagery in order to coordinate and describe 31 separate ‘re-education camps’ that have been built in the province of Xinjiang since 2016.
In a series of posts on the Medium blogging network, Zhang details the disturbing mushrooming of bleak camps surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers with armed guards as part of the ‘People’s War on Terror’ that the Chinese Communist Party is waging on the Muslim-majority region. Most of the infrastructure was erected in 2017, a year after Chen Quanguo was drafted from Tibet to become the new governor of Xinjiang and had really started to get down to brass tacks on his Beijing-lauded ‘ethnic policy’.
Over 1 million citizens have reportedly been held captive in such facilities; a Chinese police officer informed Radio Free Asia that over 10% of Kuqa County’s population of 450,000 were being held at any one time.
Most of the facilities were expropriated from former ‘vocational schools’ serving the region’s industrial economy, and are euphemistically still referred to as ‘vocational training camps’ or some variation thereof in many cases. The Hanoi Hilton-esque watch towers and barbed wire fences that threateningly surround these camps leave no doubt that they are of the detention rather than the summer type.
In one memorable example a vast row of warehouses are constructed over a former football pitch to serve as dorms for inmates – a patch of the original green turf still remains around the edge. Another camp in the city of Hami is simply a former SARS hospital that was offhandedly repurposed into Fort Knox with surveillance cameras, barred building facades and 10 foot fences.
Bonfire of the Quanguo
Though Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang have become well-accustomed to discrimination from the Beijing ruling elite throughout their uncomfortable existence under authoritarian communism, nothing has quite shaken the community like the appointment of Chen Quanguo to the nominally autonomous region’s governorate in 2016.
A former car parts factory worker, soldier and early Xi Jinping loyalist, Quanguo earned a reputation implementing borrowed 19th century British Imperial police tactics on the people of Tibet from 2011 until 2016. From here Quanguo was recruited to practice his model of ‘ethnic policy’ – consisting largely of a ‘native’ police force implementing bulky grid-style surveillance and stop-and-searches without probable cause – on the Uyghurs of Xinjiang.
Echoing another ‘War on Terror’ in the West, the pretence of the crackdown was the threat of Islamist violence that necessitates the suspension of all checks on state power in order to keep the bad guys out. An unmissable opportunity to strip the already tattered rags of basic civil liberty from the people’s back. Of course, being a one party state there were fewer hurdles for Xi Jinping to navigate.
According to former inmates, rather than addressing legitimate concerns of religious violence, these camps are just another attempt to break a man’s soul and write on the newly-blank canvas a fresh set of values. Omir Bekali, an ethnic Kazakh who was working in a tourism company in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, until he was arrested by police on a visit to see his parents in the village of Shanshan in March 2017 told the Washington Post that inmates ‘had to learn the national anthem and red songs, as well as slogans condemning the three evil forces of separatism, extremism and terrorism.’
‘There were so many things to recite, and if you couldn’t recite them, they wouldn’t allow you to eat, sleep or sit,’ he said. ‘They brainwash you; you must become like a robot. Listen to whatever the party says, listen to the party’s words, follow the party.’
The icon of Mohammad is melted down and remoulded into Xi Jinping through humiliation, suffering and an inescapable sense of hopelessness. Though most individuals tow the line and emerge as textbook Maoists, these are surely the most fertile conditions for a serious Islamic fundamentalist movement to take root?
The actual beliefs of the Uyghurs are of secondary importance: what matters is they represent dissent and communitarian identity within a system that relies on all-encompassing national serfdom and conformity. Within the borders of an autocratic state, they will always be seen as weeds to be pulled.
The re-education camps are sinister; without due international attention they could perhaps become fatal on a large scale.