‘Thank the Party!’ China tries to brain­wash Mus­lims in camps

The Maui News - - FRONT PAGE - By GERRY SHIH

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. “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 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.

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 “all­out ef­fort” to fight ex­trem­ism.

China-born Bekali moved to Kaza­khstan in 2006 and re­ceived cit­i­zen­ship three years later.

On March 25 last year, Bekali vis­ited his par­ents in Xin­jiang. The next day, police took him away.

They strapped him into a “tiger chair” that clamped down his wrists and an­kles. They hung him by his wrists against a barred wall. They in­ter­ro­gated him about his work invit­ing Chi­nese to ap­ply for Kazakh tourist visas.

“I haven’t com­mit­ted any crimes!” Bekali yelled.

Seven months later, Bekali was taken out of his cell and handed a re­lease paper. But he was not free.

Bekali was driven to a fenced com­pound in Kara­may, where three build­ings held more than 1,000 in­ternees.

They would wake up to­gether be­fore dawn, sing the Chi­nese na­tional an­them, and raise the Chi­nese flag at 7:30 am. They sang songs prais­ing the party and stud­ied Chi­nese lan­guage and his­tory. They were told that the indige­nous sheep­herd­ing Cen­tral Asian peo­ple of Xin­jiang were back­ward be­fore they were “lib­er­ated” by the Com­mu­nist Party in the 1950s.

When they ate meals of veg­etable soup and buns, they first had to chant: “Thank the Party! Thank the Mother­land! Thank Pres­i­dent Xi!”

Bekali was kept in a locked room al­most around the clock with eight other in­ternees, who shared beds and a wretched toi­let. Cam­eras were in­stalled in toi­lets and out­houses. Baths were rare, as was wash­ing of hands and feet, equated with Is­lamic ablu­tion.

In 4-hour ses­sions, in­struc­tors lec­tured about the dan­gers of Is­lam and drilled in­ternees with quizzes that they had to an­swer cor­rectly or be sent to stand near a wall for hours on end.

“Do you obey Chi­nese law or Sharia?” in­struc­tors asked. “Do you un­der­stand why reli­gion is danger­ous?”

The de­tainees had to crit­i­cize and be crit­i­cized by their peers. One by one, they would also stand up be­fore 60 class­mates to present self-crit­i­cisms of their religious his­tory.

“I was taught the Holy Qu­ran by my fa­ther and I learned it be­cause I didn’t know bet­ter,” Bekali heard one say.

“I trav­eled out­side China with­out know­ing that I could be ex­posed to ex­trem­ist thoughts abroad,” an­other said. “Now I know.”

Af­ter a week, Bekali went to his first stint in soli­tary con­fine­ment. He yelled out to a vis­it­ing of­fi­cial.

“Take me in the back and kill me, or send me back to prison,” he shouted. “I can’t be here any­more.”

He was again hauled off to soli­tary con­fine­ment. It lasted 24 hours, end­ing late after­noon on Nov. 24, when Bekali was sud­denly re­leased.

At first, Bekali did not want the AP to pub­lish his ac­count for fear his sis­ter and mother in China would be de­tained.

But on March 10, the police took his sis­ter, Adila Bekali. A week later, they took his mother, Amina Sadik. And on April 24, his fa­ther, Ebrayem.

Bekali changed his mind and said he wanted to tell his story.

“Things have al­ready come this far,” he said. “I have noth­ing left to lose.”

AP file photo

A child rests near the en­trance to the mosque where a ban­ner in red reads “Love the party, Love the coun­try” last year in the old city dis­trict of Kash­gar in western China’s Xin­jiang re­gion. Since 2016, Chi­nese author­i­ties in the heav­ily Mus­lim re­gion...

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