II. Conditions in the Camps
*This section contains details that some readers may find disturbing*
The Chinese government operates with limited checks on its exercise of power. Government officials afraid of separatist movements and motivated by a desire for power are capable of enacting any policies they deem necessary. The policies discussed below are the outcome of these desires.
The Chinese government has repeatedly identified its internment camps as schools and places for “reeducation” (Senate Committee). It claims that Muslims attend the “schools” willingly and will graduate once their training is complete. These are not prisons, it says, and the facilities do not brainwash. Rather, the camps are places where extremist thought is eradicated and where Muslims are equipped to positively contribute to society (Senate Committee). The accounts from former detainees tell a different narrative.
Kayrat Samarkand, a former detainee, stated that the “crime” for which he was arrested was being Muslim and visiting neighboring Kazakhstan. He was detained, aggressively interrogated for three days, and sent to a “reeducation camp” for three months (Denyer). Another Muslim records that her “crime” was having WhatsApp downloaded on her phone, an offense resulting in more than a year in the camps. Otarbai, a former detainee, shared a similar story in which he was put through a ‘trial’ and given a seven-year sentence for having used WhatsApp (Mauk). Various women recounted being sent to the camps for violation of birth policies – namely, having too many children (The Associated Press). These “crimes” are targeted claims of religious extremism. Chinese officials have even stated that Muslims in Xinjiang can be “pre-criminals,” showing signs of extremism early in life and in need of reeducation (Hill et al.). This permits officials to arrest Muslims for the practice of their religion. Individuals are detained with no trial, no defense, and placed into camps, often indefinitely (Denyer). The system is a result of unlimited government power by which the CCP is attempting to convert Muslim minorities and ultimately ensure control of the region.
Numerous reports from former detainees allow us to understand the regular practices that occurred. Bekali described that every morning would begin with a flag-raising ceremony, followed by “red” songs praising the communist revolution. After breakfast, “inmates would spend 10 minutes thanking the Communist Party and Xi for providing everything for the people, from food and drink to their livelihoods” (Denyer). Numerous accounts tell of detainees having to watch state-produced news broadcasts and speeches by Xi Jinping for hours each day (Mauk; Hill et al.).
Detainees spend most of their time each day in a classroom (Mauk, B). “Iron bars divided the classroom,” Otarbai said, “once the students were in the classroom, the door was locked” (Mauk). The classes focused on learning Mandarin, political indoctrination, and “to an obsessive degree,” the dangers of Islam (Mauk). Seituly, a Muslim who was detained in the camps, recalled that “they talk about jihadists. They say that if someone doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol, they might be having extremist thoughts” (Mauk). Leaked government documents addressed to camp officials state that the officials must “effectively resolve ideological contradictions, and guide students away from bad emotions.” Confessions were demanded from students to ensure that they “understand deeply the illegal, criminal, and dangerous nature of their past behavior” (Allen-Ebrahimian).
Another method used to measure students’ “progress” is regular tests and examinations. One former detainee recounted that “there were so many things to recite, and if you couldn’t recite them, they wouldn’t allow you to eat, sleep, or sit.” A woman remembered seeing everyone with books in their hands (Hill et al.). People would sit for hours trying to memorize texts. “They brainwash you,” he said, “You must become like a robot. Listen to whatever the party says, listen to the party’s words, follow the party” (Denyer).
Accounts of the use of violence and torture were common among survivors of the camps. Beginning with their arrest, numerous men told of being shackled to chairs for days during interrogations and being deprived of sleep (Wen and Auyezov). Kayrat, the Muslim arrested for visiting nearby Kazakhstan, said disobeying rules would result in being placed in “handcuffs and ankle cuffs for up to 12 hours” (Denyer). If disobedience continued, officials would conduct waterboarding or force detainees to spend “long periods strapped in agony in a metal contraption known as the ‘tiger chair'” (Denyer). In other interviews, survivors recounted the punishment that followed when they asked to be released. Otarbai told of guards forcing him to strip, drenching him in water, and beating him. Another time, he says, he was shocked with an electric prod (Mauk). These are not isolated accounts. Interviews with various survivors across news sources from different places and times tell of similar stories.
The goal of the camps is not only to convert the Muslim minorities but to erode minorities’ cultures and gradually eliminate the population. The mass accounts of the administration of forced sterilization within the camps are evidence for this. Leaked documents have revealed that internment in a camp for having too many children is a written, official policy of at least three counties in Xinjiang (The Associated Press). Within camps, women are subject to forced IUD insertions and what appear to be pregnancy prevention shots. Seven individuals reported being force-fed birth control pills or injected with fluids. Often, this occurred with no explanation (The Associated Press). Tursunay Ziyawudan, a Uyghur nurse who spent around ten months in a camp, said that many women underwent forced IUD insertions and sterilizations. “Only those who were sick or had problems with reproductive organs were exempt” she said (Mauk). In 2018, as one Uyghur woman recounted, one of her cellmates had to recite a confession in Mandarin from behind the iron bars of their cell. She confessed, “I gave birth to too many children,” and “It shows I’m uneducated and know little about the law.” The official responded, “You ethnic minorities are shameless, wild, and uncivilized” (The Associated Press).
Yet, some of the most horrific accounts from within the camp come from a BBC report released in February 2021, titled “‘ Their goal is to destroy everyone’: Uighur camp detainees allege systematic rape.”
Tursunay Ziawudun said that women were removed from their cells every night and raped by one or more masked Chinese men. She told of being tortured and gang-raped on three occasions.
Gulzira Auelkhan, a Kazakh woman from Xinjiang, told the BBC that she was detained for eighteen months. While in the camps, she was forced to strip Uyghur women naked and handcuff them before leaving the women alone with Chinese men. She said, “my job was to remove their clothes above the waist and handcuff them so they cannot move.” “Then I would leave the women in the room and a man would enter…I sat silently next to the door, and when the man left the room, I took the woman for a shower.”
Ziawundun, a 42-year-old Uyghur, told of how she returned to Xinjiang after living in nearby Kazakhstan for five years. Ziawundun and her husband were interrogated upon return and detained in a camp for a month. About a year after being released, Ziawundun was contacted and told that she needed “more education.” She was again taken to a camp and detained for an indefinite sentence. The police began interrogating her, she said, “knocking her to the floor when she resisted and kicking her in the abdomen.” She remembered being taken by a masked man to a dark room where other girls had been. “They had an electric stick” she said, “I didn’t know what it was and it was pushed inside my genital tract, torturing me with an electric shock.”
She continued, saying that “They don’t only rape you but also bite you all over your body, you don’t know if they are human or animal.” The BBC noted that she said this while “pressing a tissue to her eyes to stop her tears and pausing for a long time to collect herself.”
Sauytbay, a former detainee, described witnessing a public gang rape of a young woman before about one hundred other detainees. She was forced to make a confession and “after that, in front of everyone, the police took turns to rape her.” Sauytbay continued, “While carrying out this test, they watched people closely and picked out anyone who resisted, clenched their fists, closed their eyes, or looked away, and took them for punishment.” Sauytbay said that the young woman was crying out for help. “I felt I had died,” she said. “I was dead.”
Ziawundun said that a woman near her cell who was detained for giving birth to too many children disappeared for three days. When she returned, her body was covered with marks. “She couldn’t say it. She wrapped her arms around my neck and sobbed continuously, but she said nothing.”
Internal documents reveal that the Chinese government describes the “education” process as “washing brains, cleansing hearts, strengthening righteousness and eliminating evil.” It claims that it is protecting the “rights and interests of citizens” and that its policies must be adopted so that “we can effectively curb and combat terrorism and extremism in the interests of world peace and stability.” “Happiness is the most important human right” (China). Further explanation of the incongruity between the statements and policies of the government is unnecessary.
Uyghur and other Muslim minorities are being detained in these camps with no due process and under charges totalitarian in nature. They are held often due to the outward practice of their religion. Charles Parton, a former British diplomat and now a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, stated that the policies within the camps are “very centralized and it goes to the very top.” In reference to the accounts of systematic rape, he said, “there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this is Xi Jinping’s policy.” While it is unlikely that Xi Jinping directly authorized rape or torture, he and other top party officials would “certainly be aware of it” (Hill et al.) The claim that China is an exemplar nation of modern success is irreconcilable with the gross human rights violations occurring within its borders. These camps are created with the purpose of securing the region and are intended to quiet calls for separatism and encourage one Chinese nation. The practices reveal not only what evil humankind is capable of but what evil governments willingly endorse in an attempt to secure power and control.
III. Life in Xinjiang, Outside the Camps
While the internment camps are an increasingly common method of controlling the population in Xinjiang, life outside the camps is anything but free. Since 2014 and the “people’s war on terror,” the Chinese government has increased security, making Xinjiang one of the most heavily policed areas in the world (Wen and Auyezov). Neighborhoods have entry and exit checkpoints, guarded by armed police and residents describe seeing armed guards, metal detectors, and police patrols in armored vehicles in their towns and villages (Senate Committee; Mauk). Security cameras are everywhere and almost nowhere is out of the government’s sight (HRW). Surveillance in Xinjiang is so pervasive that the region has been described as an “open-air prison” (Senate Committee).
Checkpoints in Xinjiang serve as security screening and mechanisms for the government to collect and store significant amounts of personal data. At thousands of checkpoints and convenience stations, police have collected DNA samples, voice recordings, fingerprints, and iris and facial scans. A mandatory program called “Physicals for All” allows the government to collect and store biometric data (Maizland). In Xinjiang, residents are given QR codes linked to information about them. Apps that monitor citizens’ movement and private messages are mandated on smartphones (Mauk). However, perhaps the most disturbing repressive measure is the government’s use of mass surveillance systems. Through the collection of personal data, officials use artificial intelligence to identify, profile, and track all residents in Xinjiang. The technology picks out individuals who exhibit certain behavior or characteristics that the officials believe could threaten Communist rule. With these systems, police can also restrict what a resident is permitted to do depending on their perceived levels of “trustworthiness” (HRW).
The intent of much of the restriction in Xinjiang is the destruction of religious practices. An estimated 65 percent of Mosques in Xinjiang have been destroyed and an additional 28 percent have been damaged or altered (Ruser et al.). One mosque was transformed into a hookah bar, serving tobacco and alcohol (Wen and Auyezov). To enforce its religious persecution, the government has instituted a cadres system in which “civil servants”, primarily Han Chinese, are placed in the homes of minority families in Xinjiang. The purported purpose of the system is to “Visit the People, Benefit the People, and Bring Together the Hearts of the People” (Mauk). In their homes, Muslim men and women are pressured to drink and smoke, and any religious items are confiscated. One account describes a male Han cadre ordering the family to dispose of books written in Arabic and to take down wall decorations containing the Kazakh phrase “May Allah Bless You” (Mauk).
In addition, the Chinese government enacts intricate policies preventing the practice of Islamic culture and religion. Uyghur parents are banned from giving their babies certain names, such as Mohammed (Maizland). Police Officers barge into homes and collect prayer rugs, Qurans, and works of Kazakh literature, sometimes burning them in people’s yards (Mauk). Everywhere, Muslim culture is replaced with Chinese propaganda. Mosques are adorned with flags while attendance is banned, calling people to “Love the Party, Love the Country” (Martina). Aynur, a Uyghur resident, told of being forced to give a confession in front of the town. Officials notified her that she must speak at the flag-raising ceremony and give her confession concerning her husband who had been detained in a camp. She stood underneath the Chinese flag and explained that “because she was unable to control her husband, he had become involved with terrorists, and this was why he was living in the camp” (Mauk). Aynur’s story is one demonstration of the government’s attempt to control the Uyghur population. Across the region, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities share similar experiences.
Yet, the government is not only attempting to convert the Muslim minorities but actively enforcing genocide against the people. Permanent sterilization has skyrocketed within Xinjiang while rates have fallen nationally (Follett). In Hotan, an almost entirely Uyghur city, officials offered “free birth-prevention surgery” which aimed to sterilize more than a third of childbearing women by the end of 2019 (Follett). The outcome of such sterilization efforts has been large drops in birth rates among Uyghur populations, with birth rates falling nearly 24 percent in the last year alone (Graham-Harrison and Kuo). The Communist Party is successfully instilling fear in Uyghur families which have deterred couples from having children. However, the government has also implemented forced sterilization policies that are affecting the declining birth rate. In one account, a former Uyghur teacher explained that officials in her compound were “told to insert IUDs in all women of childbearing age. She protested, saying she was nearly 50 with just one child and with no plans to have more. Officials threatened to drag her to a police station and strap her to an iron chair for interrogation” (The Associated Press). These population controls are backed by threats of detention for incompliance. “She was forced into a bus with four armed officers and taken to a hospital where hundreds of Uighur women lined up in silence, waiting for IUDs to be inserted. Some wept quietly, but nobody dared say a word because of the surveillance cameras hanging overhead” (The Associated Press). This account is not an isolated incident. Sterilizations in Xinjiang have continued to increase, as sterilizations across the rest of China decline (The Associated Press).
Forced sterilization at this level is not an attempt at population control and cannot be justified by any government calls for security against extremism. “It’s genocide,” said Joanna Smith Finely, who works at Newcastle University in the UK (The Associated Press). “It’s not immediate, shocking, mass-killing on the spot type of genocide, but it’s slow, painful, creeping genocide” (The Associated Press). The continued rise in sterilization rates indicates that China is not intending to stop this practice. There is no justification for this crime against humanity.
It is evident through the CCP’s policies in Xinjiang that the government is attempting to gain complete control over the Uyghur people. It has created a surveillance state in which citizens are unable to say what they believe, do as they wish, or go where they desire. The Muslim minorities in Xinjiang live in fear and are watching their homeland being taken from them (Martina).
The policies in Xinjiang are one of a repressive government attempting to control a minority population. While reflecting on the situation, one must remember that the attacks from Uyghur Muslims have never posed a legitimate threat to the Communist regime. Yet, the prospect of a possible separatist movement is sufficient for the CCP to justify its tyranny. In an attempt to hold onto power, China allows for the egregious abuse of human rights in the form of mass surveillance, censorship, restriction of religion and thought, forced imprisonment with no due process, torture, violence, and systematic rape. All under the guise of peace. It is sobering to face the truth of what governments, unchecked, are capable of. It is a truth that America cannot forget.
Hope Rawlson is a Freshman double-majoring in political science and international affairs. She is originally from Orlando, FL but loves living in the Northeast! Hope loves reading, debating, hiking, knitting, laughing, and making memories! She has always loved to research and believes that presenting well-supported arguments is one of the most important skills that any student can develop. She hopes to attend law school after graduation and pursue a career in constitutional law. Through this, Hope hopes (no pun intended) to serve her nation by defending the constitution and the fundamental freedoms that it enshrines.