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China pushes Xinjiang internment camps out of sight, out of reach

© Simina Mistreanu/dpa

An estimated 1 million members of ethnic minorities are being held in internment camps in China’s far west. Beijing says the camps offer 'training' and people will gradually be released, but in fact the camps are growing larger and more isolated.

Yining, China (dpa) – At first, word spread that many of the Uighurs who had gone missing in Yining, a city cradled between mountains in north-west China, were being held inside a former Communist Party school. Some had been there a few months, others a year or two. Men and women of all ages. Their relatives found out and could visit them once a month and call every week.

Others were held at a local high school, retrofitted to house detainees on a football field. They were there "to study," locals said.

"They can’t come home," said a middle-aged Uighur man who lives on a leafy, sleepy street around a kilometre away from the party school. He wasn’t sure how many people in his community had disappeared. "Oh, lots, lots, lots," he said.

China’s Xinjiang region, roughly the size of Iran, has for the past two years been the setting for the largest incarceration of ethnic minorities since World War II, according to US lawmakers. An estimated 1 million people have been put in what the Chinese government calls "vocational training centres."

Beijing says the centres are needed to prevent separatism, religious extremism and terrorism. Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority, have been the most affected, but the camps are also filled with Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tartars and Huis, known as Chinese Muslims.

In the face of mounting criticism, Xinjiang authorities in December organized meticulously staged tours of the camps for non-Western diplomats and some news agencies. Uighurs inside were displayed singing, dancing and renouncing their past "extremist thoughts."

The region’s governor, Shohrat Zakir, told Reuters that reports of oppression inside the camps were "slanderous lies." He also said the detainees will be "fewer and fewer."

But investigations on the ground coupled with analyses of official planning documents and satellite data show the camps are not only being expanded but are also becoming increasingly isolated and inaccessible.

Research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute shows the total surface area of 28 camps in Xinjiang has more than quadrupled since 2016. Several camps close to city centres have been shut in the past year, and new facilities are being built or expanded in counties, where access is tightly controlled.


Alfred, a 22-year-old student in the United States, started losing contact with his parents in Yining in 2016. That was the year when Xinjiang received a new party chief, Chen Quanguo, known for instituting strict security policies at his previous posting in Tibet.

Chen is widely believed to be the architect of Xinjiang’s growing web of internment camps, which are paired with ubiquitous surveillance using high-tech methods including facial recognition, iris scanning and gait analysis, as well as additional police boots on the ground.

Under his watch, Xinjiang’s spending on policing nearly doubled in 2017, according to research by the Jamestown Foundation, a US thinktank. Spending in counties with higher numbers of Muslim minorities more than tripled.

Alfred, a Uighur who asked that his last name not be disclosed, noticed at first that his parents’ vocabulary changed. His father, an award-winning local journalist, took to ending their conversations by expressing gratitude to "the great Communist Party" and saying their family was living a great life.

"They were like propaganda words I used to hear when I was in school in China," Alfred said.

It gradually became harder to contact his parents through Chinese messaging app WeChat, until he eventually lost contact entirely. Speaking to relatives abroad is one of the common reasons why Uighurs are detained, along with praying, growing a beard or having banned apps on their phones, among other things.

Alfred later learned his dad had been imprisoned and his mum sent to a camp – the one opened inside the former Communist Party school in downtown Yining.

By the time dpa correspondents visited Yining, in November, the camp had been closed and the detainees moved elsewhere.

More camps existed in Yining County, outside the city, according to research by Shawn Zhang, a student at the University of British Columbia. But getting there proved impossible.

Police stopped the reporters at the heavily guarded crossing between city and county. Two officers interrogated them for an hour and a half, over tea and naan, before escorting them to their hotel. The police told them there were more beautiful grasslands and mountains to visit in other counties.

"This is not the best time to visit," one said. "There’s nothing much to see here."


In the oasis town of Kashgar, in south Xinjiang, security is even tighter than in the northern part of the region. There are surveillance cameras inside taxis, and checkpoints and police stations abound.

During a five-day trip to Xinjiang, dpa reporters were followed by up to eight state police at a time and repeatedly forced to delete pictures.

One evening, the reporters rode on a bus jam-packed with people, mostly Uighurs, to a checkpoint separating Kashgar from Shule County. The Uighurs had to get off and pass through a security check that matched their facial features with their ID, while the majority Han Chinese waited on the bus.

The next day local officials agreed to drive dpa to a park in Shule County that celebrates the Silk Road – ancient trade routes connecting China to the Middle East and Europe through Xinjiang that President Xi Jinping wants to revive and expand.

Across the street from the park was an internment camp: a group of red-and-white buildings surrounded by a tall fence with barbed wire. Two women clad in winter jackets waited outside, most likely to visit. The officials said people inside were "learning skills."

The government says the camps teach Mandarin Chinese, job skills and the country’s laws.

The internment system is a continuation of repressive policies against Uighurs that intensified after ethnic riots left hundreds dead in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, in 2009, followed by attacks blamed on the Uighurs elsewhere in the country.

But survivors told dpa they were beaten, tortured and harassed inside the camps.

"I was sitting there humiliated with chains, and whenever I said I didn’t know Chinese, they would beat me with sticks or slap me," said Orynbek Koksebek, who was held last year in a camp in Xinjiang, though he is a Kazakh citizen. Koksebek tried to kill himself after being tortured and sent to solitary confinement.

The deep personal trauma bred in the camps will likely increase the hate and dissent toward the state and the Han majority, said Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology in Germany.

"It’s not a good policy, but we can do nothing better than that," said an official in Xinjiang. "They were brainwashed by extremists. We need to brainwash them back."

The campaign inspires mixed feelings among Han people, many of whom believe the government propaganda saying Uighurs are dangerous.

A young Han woman in Kashgar admitted the situation for Uighurs is "hopeless."

"At least in prison, your family knows when you get out," she said. "In the lovely heart schools, you never know when you’ll be let free."

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