Detainees speak of brainwashing, torture in camps
ALMATY, Kazakhstan — 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.
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 centers 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.
China-born Bekali moved to Kazakhstan in 2006 and received citizenship three years later.
Omir Bekali, a Kazakh Muslim, demonstrates how he was strung up during detention in Xinjiang province. At an internment camp, he was told to disavow his Islamic beliefs.