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In summer 2018, I remember talking to my friends while working on an article about the estimated 1 million Muslim minorities, mostly Uighurs, held in reeducation camps in China’s Xinjiang region. None of those friends had heard about the situation, and they were shocked to learn that concentration camps had reemerged with merely a blip on the world’s radar.
It’s been difficult to pin down facts and figures about the camps as communication between Xinjiang and the rest of the world has been largely cut off. Chinese officials initially denied the existence of the camps, but intrepid journalists began investigating them. Researchers used government tenders, job ads, and Google Earth to determine the size and scope of the camps. Members of the Uighur diaspora posted images of missing family members on social media. As the evidence mounted, Chinese officials began claiming the camps were vocational training centers for Muslim minorities with terrorist tendencies.
Despite the injustice of the forced detentions, the world was slow to respond. Muslim countries remained silent, fearful of losing lucrative Chinese investments. Western countries crafted strongly worded statements against the camps, but seemingly took little action.
In the past few months, however, it seems the tide is turning. Major leaks of classified government documents from the region revealed that the Chinese government had planned the massive crackdown on Xinjiang and was willing to use any tactic necessary to rid the region of religious extremism. The U.S. House of Representatives then passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act on Dec. 3, a bill that condemns the mass detentions and recommends sanctions on Communist officials responsible for the camps. The bill also blocks U.S. tech companies from selling technology to China that could contribute to the surveillance state.
In mid-November, The New York Times reported it had obtained 400 pages of leaked Chinese government documents about Xinjiang. The trove included a classified directive that provided local officials with a script to help them explain to Uighur students studying outside the region why their parents were missing when they returned home. The authorized answer: “They’re in a training school set up by the government.” Officials were told to warn students that their behavior could shorten or extend their relatives’ detention.
The leaked documents also provided a glimpse into the motivation for the crackdown: Private speeches by President Xi Jinping in 2014 called for the government to show “absolutely no mercy” in the “struggle against terrorism, infiltration, and separatism.” That speech came weeks after Uighur militants stabbed 150 people at a train station in Kunming, killing 31. Xi called for the party to use tools of “dictatorship” to eradicate radical Islam in the region. He likened extremism to a virus that needed treatment.
A little more than a week later, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published another trove of government documents—dubbed the “China Cables”—that included operation manuals for the reeducation camps. The documents from 2017 described how dormitory rooms had to be double locked and how camps required patrols, guard posts, video surveillance, and alarms to keep detainees from escaping. The manuals discussed how to keep the camps a secret, how to indoctrinate the detainees, and when to allow them to see relatives.
“It really shows that from the onset, the Chinese government had a plan for how to secure the vocational training centers, how to lock in the ‘students’ into their dorms, how to keep them there for at least one year,” Adrian Zenz, a leading German researcher of the camps, told ICIJ. He estimates Chinese authorities have detained between 900,000 and 1.8 million people in Xinjiang since the spring of 2017.
In response to the recent leaks and the U.S. bill, China launched a propaganda campaign claiming to show the “truth” about Xinjiang and how the vocational training centers are necessary to fight terrorism. Videos posted on YouTube in various languages depicted graphic terrorist attacks by Uighur extremists.
Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir claimed the reports were “pure fabrication” but wouldn’t say how many people had been placed in the camps. He claimed all the students in the “vocational education centers” have completed their courses and “returned to society."
Yet Zenz wrote in Foreign Policy that, according to other leaked documents, after finishing indoctrination courses Uighurs are involuntarily sent to labor-intensive sweatshops, even though many of them are highly skilled intellectuals, scientists, or businesspeople. Spreadsheets from Xinjiang’s Yarkant County reveal most factory workers earned less than minimum wage and nearly half of them are over 40. The oldest worker is 74.
“The combination of full-time work and centralized elder care and child care is to ensure family members spend more time in state-controlled settings than with each other, under constant surveillance and control,” Zenz wrote.
A photo went viral recently that showed two women burning banned books outside a library in Gansu province. The library said in a post that it had “cleaned up illegal and religious publications” by removing 65 books, which its staff then destroyed. Authorities later said they would punish the staff members, although such illegal publications are still banned from libraries in the country.