Re-education camps in China’s ‘no-rights zone’ for Muslims: What everyone needs to know

Adem yoq — “Everybody’s gone.” 

A human rights atrocity is unfolding in western China, where the “entire culture” of Uyghur Muslims is being effectively criminalized, scholars say. Arbitrary detentions in “transformation through education” centers have reportedly reached up to 1 million Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

Let us explain.


Contents (click to jump to section):


Timeline of recent reporting, from October 2017 to present

Re-education camps: What we know
“Crimes” and punishment • Prominent Uyghurs detained • UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

China’s response
“There is no such thing as so-called ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang”

Why now?
Chen Quanguo • Belt and Road • “Stability”

The bigger story: Global significance
Uyghurs abroad • Experimental surveillance • International response • Journalist harassment


Top photo: One of the few publicly available images of mass incarcerated ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region of China shows inmates of the “Lop County number 4 education and training center” (洛浦县第四教育培训中心 luòpǔ xiàn dì sì jiàoyù péixùn zhōngxīn) listening to a “de-extremification” (去极端化 qù jíduān huà) speech on April 7, 2018. Photo identified by Concerned Scholars of Xinjiang, full-resolution image courtesy of Twitter user @AYNUR22630941, original source archived here.

Who are the Uyghurs and what is happening in Xinjiang?

The outside of a newly built internment camp in Turpan, Xinjiang. Picture by Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Chin.

From day-to-day discrimination to systematic, mass detentions

For years, Uyghurs have complained of day-to-day discrimination, both in Xinjiang and around the country. Islamophobia is widespread in China, and policies that repress Uyghur culture and religion — such as bans on long beards and religious veils, and multiple campaigns to force Uyghurs to change “overly religious” names — have been justified in the name of “counterterrorism.” Human rights activists like Amnesty International’s Nicholas Bequelin draw a “direct line” from the American “war on terror” to the Chinese campaign that took the name “People’s war” against terrorism in 2014, and targeted Uyghurs.


These political re-education camps technically fit within the definition of “concentration camp”


But everything is much worse now, reports from the last year indicate. Some of these reports focused on the intensification of surveillance and police control, which has reached totalitarian levels. But even more alarmingly, these reports began to reveal the massive scope of arbitrary detentions in a vast system of political re-education camps. These facilities technically fit within the definition of “concentration camp,” as reports indicate that the detainees are targeted for their affiliation with a religious and cultural minority, held extralegally without indictment or fair trial, and subject to conditions clearly designed to reinforce the state’s political control. Here is a timeline of the major reports on the security state, and the re-education camps:


21 percent of all criminal arrests in China happens in Xinjiang, despite the fact that the region contains only 1.5 percent of the country’s population.


This picture, the only known image of an opening ceremony of a Xinjiang re-education camp, was posted by the government in Korla, Xinjiang, in June 2018, and quickly picked up by international media. On the left, the partially obscured words for “Transformation Through Education Center” (教育转化中心 jiàoyù zhuǎnhuà zhōngxīn) can be read directly behind the man in the white shirt.

What do we know about the re-education camps?

For one, we know that the system of detention centers already built in Xinjiang is massive. Jerome Cohen, one of the most authoritative scholars of China’s legal system, writes that it’s probably the largest mass detention program in China in 60 years: “Perhaps the last time so many people have been detained outside the formal criminal process was in the 1957–59 ‘anti-rightist’ campaign.” A few sources in particular have attempted to quantify the progression and extent of the mass detention campaign:

“In the villages of Southern Xinjiang, about 660,000 rural residents of ethnic Uyghur background may have been taken away from their homes and detained in re-education camps, while another up to 1.3 million may have been forced to attend mandatory day or evening re-education sessions in locations in their villages or town centers, amounting to a total of about 2 million South Xinjiang villagers in these two types of ‘re-education’ programs. The total number for Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or Xinjiang) as a whole, including other ethnic minorities and city residents, is certainly higher.”

We also know that detentions are arbitrary. There is no criminal process or trial preceding before victims are sent to political education. As Megha Rajagopalan at BuzzFeed News noted in October 2017: “Detention for political education of this kind is not considered a form of criminal punishment in China, so no formal charges or sentences are given.”

Omir Bekali, a Kazakh Muslim who was one of the first to provide an on-the-record, named eyewitness account of the Xinjiang camps, told the Associated Press that the psychological stress he was forced to endure was so extreme, he wanted to kill himself after 20 days.

Prominent Uyghur individuals have been detained, in addition to hundreds of thousands of innocent common people. Rachel Harris of SOAS London lists them:

Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur writer and economics professor serving a life sentence in China on trumped-up separatism-related charges, is not included in this list. He was detained in 2014.

China’s oddly specific denial

International attention focused on the situation in Xinjiang came in early August, as Chinese representatives were called to answer questions by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in Geneva, Switzerland. On August 10, Gay McDougall, vice-chair of CERD, said:

We are deeply concerned at the many numerous and credible reports that we have received that in the name of combating religious extremism and maintaining social stability (China) has changed the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of “no rights zone.”

Yemhelhe Mint Mohamed, another panel member at CERD, raised concerns over the “arbitrary and mass detention of almost 1 million Uighurs.”

On August 13, the Chinese delegation to CERD responded. At 1:08:44 in this video recording of the UN testimony (in Chinese), you can hear a member of the Chinese delegation, Hu Lianhe 胡联合, issue this specific denial: “There is no such thing as so-called ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang” (新疆不存在所谓的‘再教育中心’ xīnjiāng bù cúnzài suǒwèi de ‘zài jiàoyù zhōngxīn’).

Chinese officials often use the phrase “so-called” (所谓的 suǒwèi de) when dismissing what they see as Western Lies, but here it is apparently used literally: The Chinese government does not call them “re-education camps.”

Instead of the term “re-education camp” (再教育中心 zài jiàoyù zhōngxīn), the Chinese government officially calls these facilities things like “transformation through education” (教育转化 jiàoyù zhuǎnhuà) or “counter-extremism education” (去极端化教育 qù jíduān huà jiàoyù) centers in Chinese, Adrian Zenz documents in his research.

But while the Chinese delegates called the figure of 1 million detainees “completely untrue,” and declined to give their own figure on the number of those detained, the Wall Street Journal reports that they did admit that at least some Xinjiang residents who had been imprisoned in anti-terrorism campaigns had been taken to “vocational education.”

“I noticed you didn’t quite deny these re-education or indoctrination programs,” Gay McDougall said in closing remarks at the hearing.

This is normal practice for China, as BuzzFeed wrote in October 2017: “Chinese state media has acknowledged the existence of the centers, and often boasts of the benefits they confer on the Uighur populace” — though true numbers on the extent of detentions have never been admitted by the government.

Why is this happening in Xinjiang, and why now?

Similar to Tibet, Xinjiang has been subject to various degrees of control by Chinese emperors for centuries but was only really incorporated into China during the 18th century. Xinjiang briefly regained independence in the early 20th century before being subjugated again by the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The government has since then continually sought to identify and crush individuals and groups supporting “separatism” in both regions.

But Xinjiang is different in one obvious way: It is China’s most heavily Muslim region. Relations between the Chinese government and China’s ethnic minorities are complicated, and Islamophobia is a complex, deeply rooted problem in the country. Rachel Harris of SOAS London writes that “strike hard” campaigns against Uyghur separatism were common throughout the 1990s, but that this morphed into a “People’s War on Terror” — and “counterterrorism” became a primary justification for harsh policies clamping down on Uyghurs — “soon after the September 11 attacks on the United States.”

“Counterterrorism” was increasingly relied on to justify the continued “strike hard” campaigns and “war on terror” in Xinjiang, following Uyghur-connected terrorist attacks in Beijing in 2013 and Kunming and Urumqi in 2014.

Then, two factors have accompanied the Uyghur repression going dramatically into overdrive in the past couple of years.

The first is Communist Party official Chen Quanguo 陈全国.

Chen Quanguo

Scholars who study ethnic policies and domestic security in China, like Adrian Zenz and James Leibold, are quick to point out that Chen, whose securitization strategies were proven in Tibet, brought many of his same strategies to Xinjiang when he was transferred as Party Secretary from Tibet to Xinjiang. He is particularly well known for establishing “convenience police stations” (便民警务站 biàn mínjǐng wù zhàn), or small outposts to maintain order set every few hundred feet along major roads, and for perfecting the Party’s “grid-style social management” (社会网格化管理 shèhuì wǎnggé huà guǎnlǐ), a system of all-encompassing surveillance. Chen’s firm grip produced the result the Party wanted: no major social unrest in Tibet for five years during Chen’s entire time in power from 2011 to 2016 (though there was a spike in protests by self-immolation).

Since Chen was transferred to Party Secretary of Xinjiang in 2016, he has applied the same techniques. In his first year, the regional government “advertised more than 84,000 security-related positions…nearly 50 percent more than it did in the past 10 years,” the South China Morning Post reported. The Wall Street Journal notes, “During the first quarter of 2017, the government announced the equivalent of more than $1 billion in security-related investment projects in Xinjiang, up from $27 million in all of 2015, according to research in April by Chinese brokerage firm Industrial Securities.” When Wall Street Journal reporters visited Xinjiang a year ago, they found that the “surveillance state overwhelms daily life” — even entering and leaving a grocery store requires passing through a checkpoint, and many Uyghurs with black marks on their records are unable to pass checkpoints. Criminal arrests in Xinjiang — which do not even account for the hundreds of thousands of re-education camp detentions, which occur outside the legal system — have skyrocketed 731 percent from 2016 to 2017.

The second is the Belt and Road Initiative.

General Secretary Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy seeks to build infrastructure and new trading relationships across Eurasia, and Xinjiang is an essential crossroads of two major parts of Belt and Road: The land “belt” part, which goes through Urumqi and passes into Kazakhstan, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which starts in Kashgar and ends at the important seaport of Gwadar. The ambition of the Belt and Road has greatly expanded in the past two years, just like the repression in Xinjiang. The Belt and Road cannot succeed without stability in Xinjiang, the thinking goes, so the Party took extreme measures to ensure that stability.

The underlying factor, and prime justification the Party always claims, is “stability”

For years, the Party has avoided trying to justify its harsh measures in Xinjiang to an international audience, choosing instead to focus on the broad benefits of securitization and social stability programs. For instance, the Global Times, which often reflects, but does not officially represent, official opinion in Beijing, argued on August 12 that “the high intensity of regulations” and ubiquitous “police and security posts” are necessary to maintain peace and ensure future development in Xinjiang. It further assures us that a “transition to normal governance” will resume at some unspecified future time. And as it summarized in the tweet of the article:

Official statements in recent weeks were at first more circumspect, but that appears to be changing. Here’s what officials have said so far:


The very fact that so many Uyghurs have been detained has pushed the entire Uyghur diaspora into a state of anxiety.


Adrian Zenz, a leading scholar studying the Xinjiang camps, who is cited many times above in this article, pointed out that “effective preventive measures” means mass internment in re-education camps, and this is an “evident shift from denial to justification” that we are seeing unfold.

Robert Barnett, a scholar of Tibet and Xinjiang, says that the inspiration for mass re-education in Xinjiang actually came from Tibet. He says, “my understanding of the decision to return to mass re-education rather than relying only on securitization was that it was presented to (or imposed on) Chen Quanguo in Tibet in 2011 by the inspection teams sent by Beijing for 3 yrs to assess the causes of 2008 unrest.”

James Leibold, a scholar of ethnic relations in China, wrote in 2012 that there were then calls for a “major rethink of ethnic policies,” and that a “series of bloody ethnic riots” in the previous decade had made the nationalistic arguments for mass assimilation much more popular. We can only assume that since 2012, with continued Uyghur terrorist attacks and unrest in Xinjiang, the Party has decided to go all-in on a mass assimilation policy in Xinjiang.

Why this isn’t just a ‘thing happening in a remote part of China’

In short, the way that China is treating Uyghurs, and information about Uyghurs, shares many similarities with how China treats dissidents around the world and information unfavorable to the Communist Party broadly. As China hones its techniques to repress and silence Uyghurs in Xinjiang and elsewhere, there is no reason to think it won’t apply the same techniques to more and more people. There are a few aspects to this:

Uyghurs abroad are being blackmailed into silence by China

There have been reports for years that China was exerting pressure on Uyghurs abroad — see, for example, a SupChina roundup of a few stories in August 2017: A chill for Uyghurs sweeps across the Mediterranean. Also see a report by Emily Feng at the Financial Times from the same time that indicated, “Chinese officials have since May been sending notices to overseas Uighur students demanding their immediate return — often after detaining their parents in China,” and that “about 150” Uyghur students at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Eygpt, had been detained by local authorities, with at least 22 being deported.

But the threat of re-education camps has recently become a primary method of blackmail. Megha Rajagopalan’s July 2018 report in BuzzFeed cited “10 people in the exiled Uighur community who were targeted by Chinese state security after they moved overseas,” and “every person interviewed…said state security operatives told them their families could be sent to, or would remain in, internment camps for ‘reeducation’ if they did not comply with their demands. It was a campaign, they said, that aimed not only to gather details about Uighurs’ activities abroad, but also to sow discord within exile communities in the West and intimidate people in hopes of preventing them from speaking out against the Chinese state.”

And although “China has used such tactics since at least the 1990s to put pressure on those it believes are seeking to undermine the state,” the campaign against Uyghurs “has gotten far more aggressive over the past two years and has been bolstered by digital surveillance tactics.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian has also written two pieces on Chinese pressure on specific Uyghur communities abroad: “Chinese cops now spying on American soil,” in the Daily Beast, and “Chinese police are demanding personal information from Uighurs in France,” in Foreign Policy.

The very fact that so many Uyghurs have been detained has pushed the entire Uyghur diaspora into a state of anxiety. The Globe and Mail tells some of these stories: “Exporting persecution: Uyghur diaspora haunted by anxiety, guilt as family held in Chinese camps,” and “Uyghurs around the world feel new pressure as China increases its focus on those abroad.”

Why would we doubt that these newly honed techniques wouldn’t be applied — or aren’t already being applied — to all sorts of dissident groups abroad?

The surveillance equipment pioneered in Xinjiang is being exported

Xinjiang officials spent $9 billion on surveillance equipment in 2017. The ubiquity of surveillance and techniques used was perhaps most comprehensively captured in the Wall Street Journal’s December 2017 report.

Reuters reported this month that a handheld scanner commonly used by police in Xinjiang, which can “break into smartphones and extract and analyze contact lists, photos, videos, social media posts and email,” was ordered by “police stations in almost every province” since 2016.

Adrian Zenz told BuzzFeed last year that Xinjiang is “a kind of frontline laboratory for surveillance… Because it’s a bit outside of the public eye, there can be more experimentation there.”

Some reports have also shown how Chinese surveillance technology is being exported abroad, including two pieces in Foreign Policy: “Ecuador’s all-seeing eye is made in China” and “Beijing’s Big Brother tech needs African faces.”

China is testing the world’s response to its human rights abuses, and so far, the response is underwhelming

Recent reports have indicated that the repression of Islam in Xinjiang is spreading to other parts of China, in particular neighboring Gansu. Agence France-Presse reports:

The Communist Party has banned minors under 16 from religious activity or study in Linxia, worrying many of the local Hui people. One senior imam reflected on the policies’ similarities to those in Xinjiang, stating, “Frankly, I’m very afraid they’re going to implement the Xinjiang model here.”

This makes the relative radio silence from Muslim countries all the more stunning.

Jerome Cohen, one of the most authoritative scholars of Chinese law and a specialist in human rights in China, has recommended that “the U.S. Government adopt Magnitsky Act sanctions against those responsible for Xinjiang, starting with Xi Jinping.” In April, a U.S. State Department official said that the government was considering pursuing sanctions on officials involved in Xinjiang. Multiple scholars and civil society representatives in July urged the U.S. to sanction Chinese officials — in particular, Chen Quanguo 陈全国 — but so far, nothing.

That’s not to say there’s not discussion. A debate has begun about how sinologists and academics who research China should respond to the enormous repression and social engineering under way in Xinjiang. Scholar Andrew Chubb has summarized the different arguments in a useful Twitter thread.

And then there’s this: Harassment and abuse of journalists reflects a broader trend

Globe and Mail China correspondent Nathan Vanderklippe was detained a year ago when he reported on Xinjiang.

Family relatives of four ethnic Uighur journalists, including three who are U.S. citizens, working for the U.S.-funded outlet Radio Free Asia, were “detained or have disappeared” in Xinjiang, the Washington Post reported in January 2018.

BuzzFeed journalist Megha Rajagopalan, who wrote essential reporting on Xinjiang that is cited countless times in this article, was recently forced to leave China after her journalism visa application was denied by authorities without an explanation.

As Joanna Chiu, a journalist and writer on China, notes, it is “part of a pattern of denying visa access to foreign correspondents who covered sensitive issues.”


To sum up, with every step toward more repression and more restriction on information, we are less likely to know the full extent of China’s human rights abuses. It’s remarkable we know as much as we do about Xinjiang, how fast the situation has deteriorated, and how little the world is doing about it.

Update 8/23/18: A few links to Financial Times reporting added; timeline of when construction of mass internment camps began highlighted and clarified.

NOTE: This article was originally titled “Chinas re-education camps for a million Muslims.” Although there may very well be a million people who are or have been detained, and above there is documentation that suggests a number as large as a million, we do not yet have verifiable numbers.