Mon, Oct 29, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Inside China’s internment camps

An investigation of purchase records and official documents reveals a story different from that told by Chinese media

By Ben Dooley  /  AFP, BEIJING

Illustration: Yusha

On state television, the vocational education center in China’s far west looked like a modern school where happy students studied Mandarin, brushed up their job skills and pursued hobbies such as sports and folk dance.

However, this year, one of the local government departments in charge of such facilities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’s Hotan Prefecture made several purchases that had little to do with education: 2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs and 2,792 cans of pepper spray.

The shopping list was among more than 1,000 procurement requests made by local governments in the region since early last year related to the construction and management of a sprawling system of “vocational education and training centers.”

The facilities have come under international scrutiny, with rights advocates describing them as political re-education camps holding as many as 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.

Beijing had previously denied their existence, but a global outcry, including from the UN and the US, sparked a public-relations counteroffensive.

Chinese government propaganda insisted that the centers were aimed at countering the spread of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism through “free” education and job training.

However, an examination of more than 1,500 publicly available government documents — ranging from tenders and budgets to official work reports — showed that the centers are run more like jails than schools.

Thousands of guards equipped with tear gas, Tasers, stun guns and spiked clubs keep tight control over “students” in facilities ringed with razor wire and infrared cameras, the documents show.

The centers should “teach like a school, be managed like the military and be defended like a prison,” one document said, quoting Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo (陳全國).

To build new, better Chinese citizens, the centers must first “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins,” another document said.

A center featured on state broadcaster CCTV this month is one of at least 181 such facilities in Xinjiang, according to data collected by reporters.

Participation is voluntary, said CCTV, which showed contented “students” wearing matching uniforms, studying Mandarin and learning trades like knitting, weaving and baking.

The centers first appeared in 2014, the year that authorities launched a new “strike hard” campaign against “terrorism” after deadly violence in Xinjiang.

However, the buildup began in earnest early last year, with local governments in predominantly Uighur southern Xinjiang ordered to speed up the construction of “concentrated educational transformation centers for focus groups” — a euphemism for religious, poor or uneducated people, as well as passport holders and virtually all men of military age.

Shortly afterward, Xinjiang’s regional government issued regulations on managing “religious extremism.”

Extremists could be hiding anywhere, officials said, instructing cadres to be on the lookout for 25 illegal religious activities and 75 signs of extremism, including such seemingly innocuous activities as quitting smoking or buying a tent.

“Detain those who should be detained to the greatest extent possible,” cadres were told.

Detentions surged, catching local governments unprepared.

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