The fate of estimated up to one million people is unknown and most of the detainees’ families have been kept in the dark.
China has intensified its campaign of mass internment, intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation against the region’s Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups.
Amnesty International has interviewed more than 100 people outside of China whose relatives in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are still missing, as well as individuals who said they were tortured while in detention camps there.
The internment of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in the XUAR intensified after highly restrictive and discriminatory “Regulations on De-extremification” were adopted in March 2017.
Open or even private displays of religious and cultural affiliation, including growing an “abnormal” beard, wearing a veil or headscarf, regular prayer, fasting or avoidance of alcohol, or possessing books or articles about Islam or Uighur culture can be considered “extremist” under the regulation.
Travel abroad for work or education, particularly to majority Muslim countries, or contact with people outside China are also major reasons for suspicion. Male, female; young, old; urban, rural, all are at risk of being detained.
The ubiquitous security checks that are now a routine part of daily life for all in the XUAR provide ample opportunity to search mobile phones for suspicious content or check people’s identities using facial recognition software.
Individuals might come under suspicion through routine monitoring of messages sent on social media apps like WeChat, which does not use end-to-end encryption. Use of alternative messaging apps with encryption, such as WhatsApp, can also be a cause for detention.Syrlas Kalimkhan said he installed WhatsApp on his father’s phone and tested it by texting, “Hi, Dad.” Later, the police asked his father, Kalimkhan Aitkali, 53, a farmer, why he had WhatsApp on his phone. He was later sent to a “re-education camp”
Inside a Detention Camp
The authorities label the camps as centers for “transformation-through-education” but most people refer to them simply as “re-education camps”. Those sent to such camps are not put on trial, have no access to lawyers or right to challenge the decision. Individuals could be left to languish in detention for months, as it is the authorities who decide when an individual has been “transformed”. Kairat Samarkan was sent to a detention camp in October 2017, after he returned to the XUAR following a short visit to neighboring Kazakhstan.
Kairat told Amnesty that he was hooded, made to wear shackles on his arms and legs and was forced to stand in a fixed position for 12 hours when first detained. There were nearly 6,000 people held in the same camp, where they were forced to sing political songs and study speeches of the Chinese Communist Party. They could not talk to each other and were forced to chant “Long live Xi Jinping” before meals. Kairat told Amnesty that his treatment drove him to attempt suicide just before his release.
Those who resist or fail to show enough progress face punishments ranging from verbal abuse to food deprivation, solitary confinement, beatings and use of restraints and stress positions. There have been reports of deaths inside the facilities, including suicides of those unable to bear the mistreatment.
The authorities justify the extreme measures as necessary to prevent religious “extremism” and “terrorist activities”, and to ensure “ethnic unity” and national security. While states do have the right and responsibility to prevent violent attacks, the measures deployed must be necessary and proportionate and as narrow and targeted as possible to address a specific threat. There is no plausible justification for mass detentions of members of a particular ethnic group or religion of the type witnessed in the XUAR.
“So-called ‘re-education camps’ are places of brainwashing, torture and punishment that hark back to the darkest hours of the Mao-era, when anyone suspected of not being loyal enough to the state or the Chinese Communist Party could end up in China’s notorious labour camps. Members of predominately Muslim ethnic minority groups are living in permanent fear for themselves and for their detained relatives,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia Director.
Families Torn Apart
For months, relatives of the missing kept their anguish to themselves. They hoped the loss of contact with loved ones back home would be temporary. They feared to make things worse if they sought outside help, since the Chinese government views contact with relatives living abroad as suspect, and, in some cases, grounds for detention in “re-education camps”. Now, with no clear end in sight for their torment, more and more are willing to speak up. Bota Kussaiyn, an ethnic Kazakh student studying at Moscow State University, last spoke with her father, Kussaiyn Sagymbai, over WeChat in November 2017. Originally from the XUAR, their family had re-settled in Kazakhstan in 2013. Bota’s father had returned to China in late 2017 to visit a doctor, but the authorities confiscated his passport after he arrived in the XUAR. Both subsequently learned from relatives there that her father had been sent to a “re-education camp”
Her relatives in the XUAR were so afraid that further contact might put them under suspicion that they stopped communicating with her after that.
Bota told Amnesty: “My father is an ordinary citizen. We were a happy family before he was detained. We laughed together. We can’t laugh anymore, and we can’t sleep at night. We live in fear every day. It has done great harm to my mother. We don’t know where he is. We don’t even know if he’s still alive. I want to see my father again.”
A Global Problem
Many relatives and friends abroad report that the situation is making them feel responsible and “guilty” for the fate of their relatives because it seems to be precisely these overseas connections that in many cases are causing their loved ones in the XUAR to fall under suspicion. The authorities accuse them of having ties to outside groups the Chinese government alleges promote “extremist” religious views or plot “terrorist activity”. The real purpose, though, seems to be the enforcement of an information blackout about the current crackdown against ethnic minorities in the XUAR. To avoid arousing such suspicion, Uighurs, Kazakhs, and others inside the XUAR have reportedly been cutting all ties with friends and family living outside China. They warn acquaintances not to call and delete outside contacts from social media applications. Unable to get reliable information from home, many living abroad inevitably fear the worst.