China Puts On a Show for Media at Muslim Re-Education Camps

Uighur men in Kashgar make bread under a poster of Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping, in 2017. Detainees are reportedly forced to chant patriotic songs about Xi in order to get food in detention camps.Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

China reluctantly began allowing select foreign journalists to visit the massive re-education camps of Xinjiang province last month, staging performances to reinforce the Communist Party line that the hundreds of thousands of Muslims consigned to the camps for reprogramming are actually the happy voluntary residents of “vocational schools.”

Judging from NPR’s account of China’s media blitz, things got pretty weird. NPR reported:

On the fifth day of a government-sponsored media tour last month, at a detention facility in the far-western city of Kashgar, two dozen Uighur detainees belted out the American children’s song “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.”

The group of adults, some as old as 40 and dressed in colorful ethnic Uighur costumes, stumbled over the English lyrics. From the front of a classroom, their teacher guided them to stand up, sing and — at the song’s cue — clap their hands in unison: an attempt to show the visiting group of skeptical reporters that, despite the circumstances, they were living up to the lyrics.

It was a tough sell. The detainees have been locked away for months — for being, as authorities put it, “infected with extremist thoughts.” The U.S. and United Nations estimate that China has detained hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslims in internment camps in the vast, predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang.

Some who have been released and managed to flee China have described these places to NPR as concentration camps where authorities brainwash detainees with Communist Party doctrine. Some claim they were tortured.

Even the obliging Uighurs hired to put the happiest possible face on this reprogramming effort have a tendency to slip up and admit that that was exactly what it is. NPR reported:

Mejit Mahmut, the ethnic Uighur principal of what authorities call the Kashgar Vocational Education and Training Center, insists that the 1,500 students under his watch, most of whom are Uighur, are treated well and are free to return home to their families on weekends.

“People here have been infected by extremist thoughts,” says Mahmut. “They broke the relevant laws, but their crimes are so minor that they are exempted from criminal punishment. The government wants to save and educate them, converting them here at this center.”

NPR quoted Mahmut awkwardly admitting he has no actual proof that China’s re-education camps have prevented extremist activity and indicated a good deal of the “education” occurring at these “vocational schools” involves telling the Uighurs they are interpreting Islam incorrectly. Visiting reporters were allowed to talk to some detainees who described themselves as “extremists” and thanked the Communist Party for teaching them the error of their ways.

Challenged with the oppressive unfairness of incarcerating people on a titanic scale for “crimes” they did not understand and thoughts they did not know were “extreme,” one Chinese official replied that seeking justice through “due process, as in only punishing terrorists after they fired shots and hurt victims,” is insufficient.

“Take the Sri Lanka and 9/11 attacks as examples. What’s the point of ensuring justice after due process, when all the victims have been killed? That’s why I’m emphasizing the preventative measures the Chinese government takes. It’s proven that this measure is the key to fight terrorism,” he said.

NPR noted some Kazakhs living across the border from Xinjiang province are speaking up about human rights violations at the camps, citing testimony from Uighurs who fled into Kazakhstan, but unfortunately, the Kazakh government is firmly allied with Beijing and an eager client of China’s Belt and Road initiative, so outspoken Kazakhs are punished.

CNN on Thursday conveyed the testimony of former Xinjiang detention camp employee Sayragul Sauytbay who fled to Kazakhstan and has requested asylum there. She said she witnessed physical and psychological abuse at the camps and heard stories of other atrocities, including the use of drugs to brainwash detainees.

Another account of brutality at the camps was published in USA Today on Thursday by activist Rushan Abbas, an American citizen of Uighur extraction who says her sister and aunt were kidnapped by Chinese authorities in a bid to silence her.

“The truth is these are nothing less than modern concentration camps, complete with armed guards, forced labor and barbed-wire fences. Inside, prisoners are indoctrinated with Communist Party propaganda, forced to renounce Islam, and have been forced to eat pork and drink alcohol in violation of their religious beliefs,” Abbas wrote.

Reports of Muslims forced to violate their dietary laws at the Xinjiang camp have surfaced before and would track with NPR’s report of Chinese officials determined to convince the Uighurs they are wrong about Islam’s concept of halal.

“Detainees are subject to rape and torture, according to testimonies of witnesses and those who have been released. Additionally, thousands of Uighur children have been separated from their families and sent away to state-run orphanages, where they are raised to forsake Uighur identity and be loyal Chinese Communist Party members. Uighur prisoners may also be dispersed throughout China as an attempt to hide the numbers of those in detention,” Abbas added.

According to Abbas, Xinjiang residents are developing secret codes that help them communicate with the outside world without getting caught by the pervasive electronic surveillance system China has constructed in the province.

Abbas joined other human rights activists in urging the U.S. government to impose sanctions against Chinese officials under the Global Magnitsky Act and make the fate of the Uighurs part of Washington’s trade negotiations with Beijing.

“Despite the horrendous atrocities the Uighurs are facing, including my own family, we are confronted by a muted world. Is an entire ethnic group and vulnerable religious minority to become collateral damage to short-term politics? Or will the United States take a stand for its highest ideals of human dignity and freedom?” she asked.

The European Union’s ambassador to Beijing, Nicolas Chapuis, said on Thursday the EU has requested access to the camps and called on China to find a different approach to “de-radicalization.”

“We have made clear to the Chinese side our evaluation and our expectations. We are calling for a change in the situation in Xinjiang,” Chapuis said.

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