China tries to brain­wash Mus­lims in mass in­tern­ment camps

Num­ber of de­tainees es­ti­mated to be more than 1 mil­lion

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - WORLD -

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.

AP PHOTO

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,...

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