Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) city, in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is home to five different “political re-education camps,” according to a Uyghur businessman, who said the facilities are “actually prisons” where detainees are “brainwashed” by authorities.
Since April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” views have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
A Uyghur businessman based in Central Asia, who recently visited Ghulja, in Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that five buildings in the city had been repurposed as re-education camps in the past year to accommodate a growing number of detainees who have been held for months, despite being told they were only required to briefly “study” there.
“In Ghulja city, the Flax Factory has been turned into a re-education camp, there is another one close to the Electrical Power Station, the former Communist Party School … and there is one in No. 7 Street in the Qardong district, where most of the cadres are locked up,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Do you know the Su Derwaza Hospital? It was moved somewhere else 10 days ago, and they are moving in beds and other items as a matter of urgency to turn it into a re-education camp.”
According to the source, who is originally from the area, the detainees include “teachers,” “people who have travelled abroad,” and even “people who have received phone calls from outside the country,” including from neighboring Kazakhstan, where many local residents have relatives.
“There are numerous teachers in these prisons, and it is difficult for me to understand how they can return to teaching when they are released,” the source said, due to the conditions they are held under in the camps.
“I have visited these camps myself and they are actually prisons, with detainees wearing the same type of prison uniform.”
The source dismissed claims by authorities that the camps provide opportunities for local residents to learn Mandarin Chinese, laws and regulations, and technical skills that can allow them to find better jobs.
“That is a lie—they are locking up these people purely to brainwash them and are driving them insane,” he said.
“My friend’s wife was locked up in the Flax Factory re-education camp and her teeth turned black after eating the food there—it seems like they were adding something to the food.”
The source said that while visiting one of the camps, he noted that the detainees “didn’t look normal” and “appeared to be in a daze.”
“Security is tight and they are under surveillance at all times,” he said.
“On the ground floor there are many armed police guards. When a prisoner needs the toilet, he or she cannot go without first getting permission. How you can call that kind of place an education center? It’s no different than a prison.”
According to the source, the Flax Factory was initially used as a training center for some 1,500 police officers who were recruited in the area following ethnic unrest in the XUAR capital Urumqi in 2009, but the facility was repurposed after authorities began detaining area residents for “political re-education” last year.
“They are now arbitrarily arresting people,” he said.
“Those who were first arrested have been inside now for more than eight months. Many were told they would only be at the camps ‘studying’ for 15 days, but that was a big lie.”
China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in the XUAR, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but local officials in many parts of the region have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.
Maya Wang of the New York-based Human Rights Watch told The Guardian in January that estimates of XUAR residents who had spent time in the camps went as high as 800,000, while at least one Uyghur exile group estimates that up to 1 million Uyghurs have been detained throughout the region since April 2017, and some Uyghur activists say nearly every Uyghur household has been affected by the campaign.
Last week, the U.S. State Department said in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices that official repression of the freedoms of speech, religion, movement, association, and assembly of Uyghurs in the XUAR and Tibetans in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) “worsened and were more severe than in other areas of the country” in 2017.
Officials in the XUAR “imposed new regulations, increased severely repressive security measures, and subjected individuals engaged in peaceful expression of political and religious views to arbitrary arrest, detention harassment, and expedited judicial procedures without due process in the name of combatting terrorism and extremism,” the report said.
The State Department noted that many of the Uyghurs who disappeared in the XUAR in 2017 had been detained after returning home from studying abroad, that Uyghurs reported great difficulty in getting passports, and that they also faced restrictions on movement within the XUAR itself.
Since XUAR party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to his post in August 2016, he has initiated unprecedented repressive measures against the Uyghur people and ideological purges against so-called “two-faced” Uyghur officials—a term applied by the government to Uyghurs who do not willingly follow directives and exhibit signs of “disloyalty.”
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in the XUAR, 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.
While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service and Joshua Lipes. Translated by RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.