China tries to brainwash Muslims in mass internment camps
Number of detainees estimated to be more than 1 million
Day after day, Omir Bekali and other detainees in far western China’s new indoctrination camps had to disavow their Islamic beliefs, criticize themselves and their loved ones and give thanks to the ruling Communist Party.
When Bekali, a Kazakh Muslim, refused, he was forced to stand at a wall for five hours at a time. A week later, he was sent to solitary confinement and deprived of food for 24 hours. After 20 days, he wanted to kill himself.
“The psychological pressure is enormous, when you have to criticize yourself, denounce your thinking — your own ethnic group,’’ said Bekali, 42, who broke down in tears while describing the camp. “I still think about it every night, until the sun rises.’’
Since last spring, Chinese authorities in the heavily Muslim region of Xinjiang have ensnared tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Muslim Chinese — and even foreign citizens — in mass internment camps. This detention campaign has swept across Xinjiang, a territory half the area of India, leading to what a U.S. commission on China last month said is “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.’’
The internment program tries to rewire the political thinking of detainees, erase their Islamic beliefs and reshape their very identities. Chinese officials have largely avoided comment, but some have said in state media that ideological changes are needed to fight separatism and Islamic extremism. Radical Muslim Uighurs killed hundreds in China in years past.
Three other former internees and a former instructor in different centres corroborated Bekali’s depiction. Taken together, the recollections offer the most detailed account yet of life inside so-called re-education.
The program is a hallmark of China’s emboldened state security apparatus under the deeply nationalistic, hard-line rule of President Xi Jinping. It is partly rooted in the ancient Chinese belief in transformation through education — taken once before to terrifying extremes during the mass thought reform campaigns of Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader sometimes channeled by Xi.
“Cultural cleansing is Beijing’s attempt to find a final solution to the Xinjiang problem,’’ said James Millward, a China historian at Georgetown University.
The internment system is shrouded in secrecy, with no publicly available data. The U.S. State Department estimates those being held are “at the very least in the tens of thousands.’’ A Turkey-based TV station run by Xinjiang exiles said almost 900,000 were detained, citing leaked government documents. Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology, puts the number between several hundreds of thousands and just over 1 million, and government bids suggest construction is ongoing.
Asked to comment on the camps, China’s foreign ministry said it “had not heard’’ of the situation. Chinese officials in Xinjiang did not respond to requests for comment. However, China’s top prosecutor, Zhang Jun, urged Xinjiang’s authorities this month to extensively expand what the government calls “transformation through education’’ in an “all-out effort’’ to fight extremism.
Residents watch a convoy of security personnel and armoured vehicles in a show of force through central Kashgar in western China’s Xinjiang region in 2017. Since 2016, Chinese authorities in the heavily Muslim region of Xinjiang have ensnared tens,...