Xinjiang Government Formally Legalizes “Re-Education Camps,” Defends as “Humane”
The government of China’s western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has formally legalized local government-operated “re-education camps” designed to “educate and transform” individuals with extremist ideologies. The revised legislation, which took effect on Oct. 9, 2018, comes only two months after a 49-member-strong Chinese delegation denied the existence of any camps at a hearing of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination held earlier this year in Geneva.
The new additional clause in the “Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Regulation on Anti-Extremism” permits local governments to set up “education and transformation organizations and supervising departments such as vocational training centers.” Such centers are mandated to provide education on written and spoken Chinese, organize “ideological education to eliminate extremism,’ and “help trainees to transform their thoughts and return to society and their families.”
In response to international criticism over the alleged internment camps, Shohrat Zakir, Chairman of the Government of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and a Uyghur himself, extensively defended the “re-education camps” in an interview with China’s state-run news agency Xinhua News published on Oct. 16. Defending the internment camps as “humane,” Zakir said that “students” and “trainees” in these camps live in air-conditioned dormitories and are provided free, nutritious meals amongst other facilities.
Furthermore, according to Zakir, the “re-education and vocational training program” offered in these camps is instrumental in rooting out the “evil forces” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism that have plagued Xinjiang since the 1990s. Through education in Chinese language, culture, and history, citizenship, and rule of law, Zakir stated that the program causes “trainees” to “reflect on their mistakes.” He further claimed that these camps have made lives of the trainees more “colorful.”
While Zakir did not reveal the current number of individuals in these “re-education camps,” he suggested that people may be compelled to live in the camp facilities — against their will for months, and in some cases, years — as he noted that the programs in the camps deal with people suspected of wrongdoings but fell short of actual crimes. After meeting certain criteria of the program and signing agreements, the program awards detainees with “graduation certificates” as a return ticket to society.
The state of living conditions in these camps has been the main area of contention between the Chinese government and the international community. In an effort to clear the image of the camps as inhumane, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV released a 15-minute documentary portraying smiling detainees in the “re-education camps.” One detainee, Mijiti Azezi, claims “My brain is rich now. My life is rich as well.” Another detainee expressed that “the Party and government discovered me and saved me” from following “religious extremists.”
However, Uyghurs that have experienced the camps and later fled China characterize the experience in “re-education camps” far more negatively. Omurbek Eli — a businessman detained in a camp in 2017 before being released with the help of the government of Kazakhstan — told The New York Times of his days in the camp dominated by long hours of marching, singing Chinese patriotic songs, and memorizing Chinese laws. Additionally, he noted that detainees of the camp were doctors, intellectuals, lawyers, and even officials “who had nothing to do with extremism” and called the camps “prisons.”
International bodies such as the European Union are concerned about the “forced political indoctrination and reported ill-treatment of detainees.” About a week ago, the United States Congressional-Executive Commission on China condemned the repression of the Uyghurs in internment camps in Xinjiang. Non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch has also criticized the “re-education camps” for allegedly sending children of the camp detainees to orphanages.