Authorities in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture, in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), are forcing Uyghur families to divide their courtyards according to strict regulations or risk detention in internment camps, according to sources.
A recent article in the official Aksu Daily claimed that the “Three Separates” campaign, which requires household courtyards to include an animal pen, a vegetable garden, and a paved verandah, is part of a bid to ensure that neighborhoods are “hygienic and beautiful.”
The article said the new campaign comes on the heels of the “major success” of one begun last year, known as “Sanxin Huodong,” or “Three News,” which required Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities to “modernize” their homes by abandoning the rugs and pillows they traditionally use as furniture and replacing them with sofas, beds, and desks.
RFA’s Uyghur Service reported in January that residents were often only given a week—and in some cases, only two or three days—to comply with the Three News campaign, while those who did not risked being labeled religious extremists and placed in the region’s vast network of internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held some 1.8 million people since April 2017.
After being contacted about the new campaign by sources inside the region, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, RFA spoke with a Uyghur police officer in Aksu’s Uchturpan (Wushi) county who said that nearly half the households under his jurisdiction had already made the changes required by the campaign.
“Our village has eight units … as of now, three of them have been renovated [as part of the campaign],” the officer said, adding that authorities “are working on it.”
“They’ve separated the yard into three [spaces]. There’s a pen for animals in one place, a verandah in another, and a yard in the other. And they pave the ground over.”
According to the officer, residents are forced to complete all renovations “within three days.”
Local police officers, along with members of work teams who have been “sent down” into townships and villages by regional authorities, are responsible for overseeing the implementation of the policy on the household level, he said.
“There are [higher-level] police involved. Three of them work for us, telling us what we have to do [to enforce compliance],” the officer told RFA.
“There are threats and consequences if people don’t comply … They might make them do janitorial work in the village unit office for a week or, if the circumstances are really serious, they might also threaten to take them to ‘re-education,’” he added, using a euphemism for the internment camps.
Beijing initially denied the existence of internment camps in the XUAR, but last year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets, however, indicates that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities.
Punishment for noncompliance
One camp survivor named Zumrat Dawut, who fled to the U.S. with her family in 2019 and has since shared firsthand information about the campaign of repression in the XUAR, recently told RFA the story of a young cook in the region who was locked up by police and forced to do janitorial work on their behalf as punishment for not meeting the deadline for the Three News campaign.
Dawut, who provided what she said was a picture of the young man, claimed he was unable to finish the necessary renovations because of the time he was required to put in with his job at a local restaurant.
“Someone from the village management office was watching for him at the front gate and detained him when he got home one night,” she said.
“They took him straight to the police station and told him that he had to do janitorial work in the restrooms for 15 days [as punishment]. They locked him up for 15 days.”
At one point during his detention, Dawut said, the man’s wife went to the police station to give him food.
“I guess the guy looked out the window and talked to her a bit,” she said.
“He told her to go stay with her mother, not to worry about him, and that’s when she took this picture of him.”
RFA also spoke with Jewlan Shirmemet, a Uyghur activist in Turkey who has spent the last six months campaigning for his family’s release from arbitrary detention.
He said that while the Aksu Daily article suggests home “modernization” campaigns like the Three Separates are supposed to improve the culture of the Uyghur community, the policy is really aimed at “eliminating the Uyghurs’ own culture and forcing them to adopt [that of the Han Chinese].”
“If we look at Han people’s courtyards, their cooking areas and animal pens are very close to one another—right across from one another,” unlike for Uyghurs, he said.
“Uyghurs wake up and immediately sweep the courtyard every morning—it’s something that’s become a part of our culture,” he added, suggesting that such practices would be more difficult with the renovations required by the new campaign.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson with transcription assistance by Shahrezad Ghayrat. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.