Re-education camps in two counties in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, where mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghurs have protested Beijing’s rule, house thousands of “politically incorrect” inmates who are rarely freed despite undergoing months of “training,” according to sources.
The camps in Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) county, in Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture, and Korla (Kuerle) city, in neighboring Bayin’gholin Mongol (Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture hold at least 3,600 inmates, local officials told RFA’s Uyghur Service, and are labeled “career development centers” in a bid to mask their true nature, they said.
Minewer Ablet, a middle school teacher in Ghulja’s Turpanyuz township who was assigned to work as an assistant cadre and a Chinese instructor at Camp No. 4—one of the county’s five re-education camps—said it was unclear exactly how many people were detained in the county camp system.
“I am responsible for teaching class No. 33, and I have seen on the teacher’s notice board that the last class number is 44,” she said of the county camps, where other courses include “law, regulations, and career training.”
“There are 30 to 50 students in each class, so I estimate the total number of people who are undertaking the re-education program [across the county] to be at least 1,500.”
Assistant cadre Tursun Qadir, who teaches at the same camp, told RFA that of the 45 people in his class, the majority are “former criminals or suspects,” including a number of Uyghurs who had served time in prison following an uprising against Chinese rule in Ghulja 20 years ago.
“Among them are a number of former prisoners who served 10-15 years in prison after being accused of involvement in the Feb. 5, 1997 Ghulja Incident,” Qadir said, referring to protests sparked by reports of the execution of 30 Uyghur independence activists that were violently suppressed by authorities, leaving nine dead, according to official media, though exile groups put the number at as many as 167.
“The most common reason that people are brought here is that they attended [or overheard] illegal [religious] teachings,” he said, adding that other detainees included “men who grew beards 10 years ago” and “parents who sent their children to underground religious schools.”
“The oldest student is 66 years old and the youngest is 19. The group also includes a number of illiterate people.”
None of the four instructors RFA contacted at Camp No. 4 could recall the official name of the facility, but one, who spoke on condition of anonymity, agreed during a phone interview to walk out to the courtyard to read the name of the camp’s sign.
“The name of our camp is ‘The Center for Developing Skills for a Professional Career,’” the instructor said, adding that the reason he hadn’t been able to remember the name was because it was “changed four times in the past eight months.”
“At first, it was called ‘The Law and Regulation Training Center For Citizens’ and then it was renamed ‘The Career Training Center For The Unemployed’ for a while, but now it is called ‘The Center For Developing Skills For a Professional Career,’” he said.
“Obviously, the reason for changing the name is to avoid giving others a bad impression.”
According to the instructor, staff live inside the camp and share the same courtyard with detainees. The center’s main gate is guarded 24 hours a day and instructors are required to obtain permission if they need to leave the facility.
“Students are not allowed to leave the camp until they have completed the full program, but the length of the training is unclear—the rules only say that the program is complete once a ‘satisfactory level has been achieved,’” he said.
“I have been teaching for the last six months, but there is no one in my class who has completed the course and no one knows when the training will end.”
The same instructor passed his phone to a detainee who told RFA that he had been detained at Camp No. 4 after helping his brother send money to his son, who was studying in Turkey.
“Because my ‘crime’ was not deemed serious, I was placed here, but my brother, Abdurshit, is in prison [facing charges for] sending his son abroad without governmental permission,” the detainee said.
“I know this camp is called ‘The Center For Developing Skills For a Professional Career,’ but I was brought here in handcuffs with a black hood over my head. It was only after I passed through the security gate that the handcuffs and hood were removed.”
Another detainee named Osman Tursun, who spoke to RFA on a phone handed to him by an instructor, said he had been placed in the camp after he and several of his fellow residents from Yengitam village overheard religious teachings at a wedding ceremony in 2012.
“Five years ago, I went to a wedding in my neighborhood where a man discussed teachings from the Quran, though I don't remember the exact information,” he said.
“There are 22 of us here from my village because we were at the same wedding and listened to the discussion. Apart from us, there are seven others from my village here who are former prisoners.”
Sources in Bayin’gholin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture’s Korla city, where Uyghurs have protested house-to-house raids on their homes during “strike hard” anti-terrorism campaigns in recent years, told RFA that the municipality houses three re-education camps with at least 2,100 detainees, as well as a “Socialism Institute,” where more than 40 religious figures are being held.
Rehim Yasin, the Communist Party secretary of Korla’s Qara Yulghun village, said that 86 of his village’s 1,678 residents are currently being held in the city’s three re-education camps, which are known as “Professional Career Improvement Centers.”
“They are all designed to re-educate people who are deemed politically incorrect,” he said.
“Each camp holds at least 700 people, so in the three re-education camps there are at least 2,100 people.”
Mutellep Esset, the party secretary for the Saybagh Street office in Korla, told RFA it was unclear how many people from his district had been detained at the city’s re-education centers, but said many of those held had overseas connections.
“I learned through my work that among the detainees [from my district] are 13 people held for traveling abroad with a tourist company, one person who had been on a hajj [Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca] two years ago, and two people who studied in Turkey for a short time before returning home,” he said.
Investigations by RFA suggest there is a vast network of re-education camps throughout the Xinjiang region.
Sources indicate that there are almost no majority ethnic Han Chinese held in the Xinjiang camps, and that the number of detainees in the region’s south—where the highest concentration of Uyghurs are based—far surpasses that in the north.
Earlier this month, local officials in Xinjiang told RFA that thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities—including Kyrgyz and Kazakh—are being held in re-education camps without contact with their families under a policy designed to counter "extremism" in the region.
New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch has called on the Chinese government to free the thousands of Xinjiang people placed in re-education camps since April 2017 and close them down.
China’s ruling Communist Party blames some Uyghurs for a string of violent attacks and clashes in China in recent years, but critics say the government has exaggerated the threat from the ethnic group, and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for violence that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.