Former inmates of China’s Muslim ‘reeducation’ camps tell of brainwashing, torture
BEIJING — Kayrat Samarkand says his only “crime” was being a Muslim who had visited neighboring Kazakhstan. On that basis alone, he was detained by police, aggressively interrogated for three days, then dispatched in November to a “reeducation camp” in China’s western province of Xinjiang for three months.
There, he faced seemingly endless brainwashing and humiliation, he said in an interview, and was forced to study communist propaganda for hours every day and chant slogans giving thanks and wishing long life to President Xi Jinping.
“Those who disobeyed the rules, refused to be on duty, engaged in fights or were late for studies were placed in handcuffs and ankle cuffs for up to 12 hours,” he said. Further disobedience would result in waterboarding or long periods strapped in agony in a metal contraption known as a “tiger chair,” Samarkand said, a punishment he said he suffered.
Between several hundred thousand and more than 1 million Muslims have been detained in China’s mass “reeducation” camps in the restive province of Xinjiang, Adrian Zenz of the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Germany, said in a report released Tuesday. Zenz is a leading authority on the current crackdown in Xinjiang.
In a region of 21 million people, including 11 million Muslims, the number of those he reports to be detained would be a significant proportion of the population, especially of young adult men.
Emerging accounts of the conditions in these camps make for chilling reading.
“China’s pacification drive in Xinjiang is, more than likely, the country’s most intense campaign of coercive social re-engineering since the end of the Cultural Revolution,” Zenz wrote, referring to the chaos unleashed by Mao Zedong in the 1960s.
“The state’s proclaimed ‘war on terror’ in the region is increasingly turning into a war on religion, ethnic languages and other expressions of ethnic identity,” he wrote.
China has blamed violent attacks in Xinjiang in recent years on Islamist extremists bent on waging holy war on the state, with radical ideas said to be coming from abroad over the Internet and from visits to foreign countries by Uighurs, the region’s predominant ethnic group.
In response, Beijing has turned the entire region into a 21st-century surveillance state, with ubiquitous checkpoints and widespread use of facial-recognition technology, and has even forced Muslims to install spyware on their phones allowing authorities to monitor their activity online, experts say. Long beards and veils have been banned, and overt expression of religious sentiment is likely to cause immediate suspicion.
In an extension of the already pervasive program of human surveillance, more than 1 million Communist Party cadres have been dispatched to spend days on end staying in the homes of families — most of them Muslim — throughout Xinjiang, according to a report by Human Rights Watch released this week. There, they carry out political indoctrination and report back on anything from the extent of religious beliefs to uncleanliness and alcoholism.
“Muslim families across Xinjiang are now literally eating and sleeping under the watchful eye of the state in their own homes,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The latest drive adds to a whole host of pervasive — and perverse — controls on everyday life in Xinjiang.”
The 30-year-old stayed in a dormitory with 14 other men. After the room was searched every morning, he said, the day began with two hours of study on subjects including “the spirit of the 19th Party Congress,” where Xi expounded his political dogma in a three-hour speech, and China’s policies on minorities and religion. Inmates would sing communist songs, chant “Long live Xi Jinping” and do military-style training in the afternoon before writing accounts of their day, he said.