The goal is to rid them of devotion to Islam.
Abdusalam Muhemet, 41, said the police detained him for reciting a verse of the Quran at a funeral. After two months in a nearby camp, he and more than 30 others were ordered to renounce their past lives. Muhemet said he went along but quietly seethed. “That was not a place for getting rid of extremism,” he recalled. “That was a place that will breed vengeful feelings and erase Uighur identity.”
This camp outside Hotan, an ancient oasis town in the Taklamakan Desert, is one of hundreds that China has built in the past few years. It is part of a campaign of breathtaking scale and ferocity that has swept up hundreds of thousands of Chinese Muslims for weeks or months of what critics describe as brainwashing, usually without criminal charges.
Though limited to China’s western region of Xinjiang, it is the country’s most sweeping internment program since the Mao era — and the focus of a growing chorus of international criticism.
China has sought for decades to restrict the practice of Islam and maintain an iron grip in Xinjiang, a region almost as big as Alaska where more than half the population of 24 million belongs to Muslim ethnic minority groups. Most are Uighurs, whose religion, language and culture, along with a history of independence movements and resistance to Chinese rule, have long unnerved Beijing.
After a succession of violent anti-government attacks reached a peak in 2014, Xi Jinping, chief of the Communist Party, sharply escalated the crackdown, orchestrating an unforgiving drive to turn ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities into loyal citizens and supporters of the party. “Xinjiang is in an active period of terrorist activities, intense struggle against separatism and painful intervention to treat this,” Xi told officials, according to reports in the state news media in 2017.
In addition to the mass detentions, officials have intensified the use of informers and expanded police surveillance, even installing cameras in some people’s homes. Human rights activists and experts say the campaign has traumatized Uighur society, leaving behind fractured communities and families.
“Penetration of everyday life is almost really total now,” said Michael Clarke, an expert on Xinjiang at Australian National University in Canberra, Australia’s capital. “You have ethnic identity, Uighur identity in particular, being singled out as this kind of pathology.”
China has categorically denied reports of abuses in Xinjiang. At a meeting of a U.N. panel in Geneva last month, it said it does not operate re-education camps and described the facilities in question as mild corrective institutions that provide job training. “There is no arbitrary detention,” Hu Lianhe, an official with a role in Xinjiang policy, told the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. “There is no such thing as re-education centers.”
The committee pressed Beijing to disclose how many people have been detained and free them, but China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the demand as having “no factual basis” and said China’s security measures were comparable with those of other countries.
The government’s business-as-usual defense, however, is contradicted by overwhelming evidence, including official directives, studies, news reports and construction plans that have surfaced online, as well as the eyewitness accounts of a growing number of former detainees who have fled to countries such as Turkey and Kazakhstan.
The government’s own documents describe a vast network of camps — usually called “transformation through education” centers — that has expanded without public debate, specific legislative authority or any system of appeal for those detained.
The New York Times interviewed four recent camp inmates from Xinjiang who described physical and verbal abuse by guards; grinding routines of singing, lectures and self-criticism meetings; and the gnawing anxiety of not knowing when they would be released. Their accounts were echoed in interviews with more than a dozen Uighurs with relatives who were in the camps or had disappeared, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid government retaliation.
The Times also discovered reports online written by teams of Chinese officials who were assigned to monitor families with detained relatives, and a 2017 study that said officials in some parts of Xinjiang were indiscriminately sending ethnic Uighurs to the camps to meet numerical quotas.
The study, by Qiu Yuanyuan, a scholar at the Xinjiang Party School, where officials are trained, warned that the detentions could backfire and fan radicalism. “Recklessly setting quantitative goals for transformation through education has been erroneously used” in some areas, she wrote. “The targeting is imprecise, and the scope has been expanding.”
The Xinjiang government issued “deradicalization” rules in 2017 that gave vague authorization for the camps, and many counties now run several of them, according to government documents, including requests for bids from construction companies to build them.
In government documents, local officials sometimes liken inmates to patients requiring isolation and emergency intervention.
“Anyone infected with an ideological ‘virus’ must be swiftly sent for the ‘residential care’ of transformation-through-education classes before illness arises,” a document issued by party officials in Hotan said.
The number of Uighurs, as well as Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities, who have been detained in the camps is unclear. Estimates range from several hundred thousand to perhaps 1 million, with exiled Uighur groups saying the number is even higher.
The Chinese government says it is winning a war against Islamic extremism and separatism, which it blames for attacks that have killed hundreds in recent years. Information about such violence is censored and incomplete, but incidents appear to have fallen off sharply since 2014.
Still, many who have emerged from the indoctrination program say it has hardened public attitudes against Beijing.
“It was of absolutely no use,” Omurbek Eli, a Kazakh businessman, said of his time held in a camp in 2017. “The outcome will be the opposite. They will become even more resistant to Chinese influence.”
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