In recent months news that China is rounding up Muslims (mostly Uighurs) en masse in its northwestern Xinjiang region to political re-education camps has shocked many, although the story is still massively under-reported. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people have been disappeared in a campaign with absolutely no due process. Victims can be held indefinitely. No one is safe. Even Uighur celebrities – a footballer and a pop singer – have been snatched.
Dr. Adrian Zenz is one of several scholars hunting down information on this secretive practice. He uses local government documents – construction bids, job listings, and other official postings – to piece together what is going on. Recently he talked with RSDLmonitor about what he has found out so far.
Q: What knowledge do you have of Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) in Xinjiang?
I don’t think there’s been any information on that. Which, of course, does not indicate an absence, just at least I have not heard about it.
Q: What is the legal status of the re-education camps in Xinjiang?
I’m not entirely sure. There is, of course, this ordinance [by the Xinjiang government, that came into force in April 2017]. This ordinance mandates the use of the “de-extremification (去极端化) measures” including re-education (教育转化). The document specifically mentions these but does not go into any detail. This is probably the most direct document of a legal nature that would speak into that. I would add that there is an existing system of re-education that was established, for example, to treat Falun Gong practitioners, and there is the existing coerced detoxification system for drug addicts. [Both have been around for several decades].
From what we can see in Xinjiang, re-education is taking a whole new number of shapes and forms. To an extent, it’s tucked onto existing facilities and systems but it’s also had outcroppings of its own nature. By extension, the de-extremification measures which have been mandated, I am sure, give legal leeway for political re-education. A lot of this can be interpreted broadly – the Chinese don’t necessarily stipulate all the details, and they do this on purpose, because if there are broad statements, it gives the authorities a lot of leeway.
There’s also the anti-terrorism law. Article 38 [of that] comes closest to a legal provision for extrajudicial re-education in Xinjiang. It stops short of mentioning that this may take place under internment-like conditions and for longer times, therefore pertaining more to pre-2017 style re-education.
The authorities, if they wanted, could probably try and construe some kind of legal umbrella [for the camps]. But I don’t think they feel the need.
Q: RSDL facilities are run by the police. Who runs Xinjiang’s re-education camps?
It is typically under the police or PSB ( 公安局) or the legal system, the justice bureau (司法局) also run some of the facilities — they are indicated as the host agency in a number of bids. And I believe that’s also consistent with how the former re-education through labour (劳教) was run. I think it’s been inherited from that.
Q: Who has oversight over how these places are run?
Good question. I’m not sure how much I’ve looked into this question. Of course, some of this is attached to the prison system. One document [in Chinese] from the Urumqi Party School, gives some context in how the centres are located.
I think there’s probably not a consistent body of oversight precisely because some of these things take different contexts. Some are extensions of criminal detention centres or police training centres and of course the detention system is under the oversight of the legal system. In some cases there have been reports where these detention centres themselves function in a re-education like setting, while they are waiting for their case to be decided. It’s a very messy situation.
Q: Are inmates to these centres dressed in prison clothing/have their heads shaved?
The official documentation that I’ve analysed does not discuss this, but in the recent AP piece by Gerry Shih, it does speak about wearing different colours.
The police then sent Bekali to a 10 by 10m(32- by 32-foot) cell in the prison with 17 others, their feet chained to the posts of two large beds. Some wore dark blue uniforms, while others wore orange for political crimes. Bekali was given orange. [AP]
And that’s almost the first time I’ve read about this. I think for this kind of information we have to rely on eye witness accounts. However, I would caution that this is very likely to be highly inconsistent. As I have said before, re-education takes places in different facilities in different contexts: it’s a huge system, it’s grown very rapidly. But the one thing I can say is that, for example, in the construction contracts, the tenders, the governing authorities are almost always the PSB or the justice bureau.
Q: Do we have any access to the teaching materials that are used in these camps?
No. I have not seen any document that shows the actual content – only reports – as cited in my report – that talk about the curriculum but not showing the actual curriculum.
Q: Do we find any evidence that these camps are also located outside Xinjiang, say for example in Tibet or other Muslim areas such as Ningxia?
Not specifically in this context. Like in Tibetan areas, typically, from anecdotal evidence that I’ve heard in the past some 10 years ago – so this is not current information – it basically occurs in the regular prison and detention centres. I don’t think you have a re-education network in Tibetan areas.
What you do have of course are [maybe] the existing Laojiao (劳动教育) facilities which were often converted into detoxification centres after the system was abolished in 2013 (this happened in Beijing). You don’t really know what is going on.
Q: How is the re-education system changing in Xinjiang?
In Xinjiang the system is so different because it’s not really being targeted any more. It used to target so-called extremists, but now the system is trying to round up entire percentages of the population, and that’s the reason why they’re having to use all kinds of facilities, and build new ones, convert existing ones, and it’s also the reason why there’s no consistent practice, because they themselves are being overwhelmed.
Q: What do they look like inside? Are there any religious facilities?
You can be sure that there are no facilities for praying. If they are praying, they will be punished. There are most certainly no rooms for prayer. If you look at the table of 73 bids that I have in my report — that’s about what I would be able to tell you – we see a lot of facilities for long-term stay, we see dormitories, we see dining halls, we see sanitary facilities – toilets bathrooms — we see teaching buildings, we see police rooms, guard rooms, or separate stations. Some are larger compounds that have different things, some have fire stations, one had a hospital and supermarket, although that might be an exception, we don’t know. Some have detention and re-education centres in the same compound, it might be for different purposes, there’s a great deal of variation but there’s usually a sleeping facility, eating facility and teaching facility.
Q: What do people who are allowed to leave do?
I’ve seen reports of some people who returned to their original place and said nothing, absolutely nothing about what happened. There’s this one media report that I cite in my report that talks about some of them being assigned to vegetable planting, and then others were given money to buy vegetables from them to help them have a livelihood. For some they are just training to take people away from the countryside – farmers, or people who do seasonal work – they try to get them out of that and into wage labour work – jobs in factories. That’s a big program that’s being run.
The state basically sees southern Xinjiang as a big problem area and a concentration of difficult-to-control populations. They want people in regular wage jobs and also in different places in Xinjiang where they are under much more control and in very non-religious settings. They want people to secularize and to modernize.
Q: Can this really win the hearts and minds of the people in Xinjiang?
I would say firstly that this type of re-education is a classic ingredient of Communism. Communism is all about ideological change and especially away from religion — which is thought to be opium for the masses. It’s a classic and has basically been used by all Communist regimes. It’s a belief that you can change a person and liberate them… I think the particular combination of communism and Chinese culture is particularly potent in thinking that this can actually be done and that there’s determination. Yes, there’ll be some cost on the way but in the end, I think they generally believe this will work.
Q: Do you think it will work?
[laughs!] Well, define work!
I think a side effect of this is that a good number of Uighurs will become very cautious about anything religious; they will become extremely intimidated about what they will do. They will try to stay out of trouble and on the surface it may seem to “work”. But the long-term cost is quite evident, I think, some people for sure will be turned towards extremism – who would otherwise have not become extremist – the long-term cost I am very sure is that it will make things much worse than if it had never been done.
Q: How about Hui ethnic group? (the other main Muslim group)
There’s very little information about the Hui in Xinjiang. For example, in public recruitment notices, the Hui are often very similarly treated to the Han – traditionally, they’re considered a non-problem. The Hui do publicly practice their religion, and any practice of Islam in Xinjiang is a problem, so in that way they may be caught up more in it than in the past. There’s very little detail on that.
We don’t have [any information if Hui are being held] but we can suspect that anyone who practices their religion quite actively, goes to a mosque, owns a Koran will be caught up. These regulations of course apply in general. So even though there might have been more leeway with the Hui in the past from everything that I have seen, I have my feelings that this leeway has shrunk considerably.
Q: When will this end?
If you look at the construction bids, there definitely was a peak in construction and these facilities are now being used. There is some extension also some vocational training – like a continuum of re-education, so some expansion is still happening, though not as rapid as last year. So currently, there’s no end in sight.
But a lot of these people are not being released. I know several people who have been taken … some over a year. It’s very inconsistent and there’s no telling when people will be released or when the campaign will be over. I think they are taking a long-term perspective on this, they are looking for a real definitive solution to this Uighur question, they want to settle it once and for all. That’s what it seems to me. And if it takes 3-5 years, that’s nothing for them.