More than one out of every six ethnic Uyghurs in one county in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are being detained in political “re-education camps,” according to local officials.
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in political “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.
Onsu (in Chinese, Wensu) county, in the XUAR’s Aksu (Akesu) prefecture is home to around 230,000 people, according to the county government’s website. Some 180,000 of them are members of minority groups—the largest of which is Uyghurs.
While investigating the political re-education camp network in Aksu, RFA’s Uyghur Service spoke with an officer at the Onsu county police station who said that “30,000 people” from the county are currently held in re-education camps.
As reports indicate that nearly none of the people held in the camps are Han Chinese, the police officer’s statement suggests that more than 16 percent of the county’s Uyghur population, or slightly more than one out of every six Uyghurs in the region, are currently detained for “re-education.”
Speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity, the officer said that the 30,000 detainees are held in five main camps in the county.
The biggest camp is housed in a recently constructed four-story building located approximately 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the seat of Onsu county in Yangaq Plaza, and holds around 10,000 inmates, he said.
A second camp is located in Jam Bazar village and holds around 7,000 people.
A third camp, holding around 5,000 people, is located in Qizil Bazar village, around 40 kilometers (25 miles) outside of the seat of Onsu county and some 17 kilometers (10 miles) outside of Aksu city.
The fourth and fifth camps, known as the Party School Re-Education Camp and the No. 2 Middle School Re-Education Camp because it is housed in a four-story former school building, are both located inside of Onsu township and hold 1,000 and 7,000 people, respectively.
According to the officer, 3,000 of Jam Bazar village’s 25,000 residents have been sent for re-education, or 12 percent of the area’s total population.
“I haven’t heard of anyone being released,” the officer said, when asked about whether any of the 30,000 county residents had been permitted to leave the five camps.
State employees held
Meanwhile, an officer at the Orman township police station, in Aksu’s Toksu (Xinhe) county, told RFA that there are specific police stations in the region dedicated to detaining various state employees in re-education camps.
The officer, who also asked to remain unnamed, said his unit of 10 policemen had been charged with apprehending state bank employees in particular.
“There are roughly 150, and approximately 30 who have retired,” said the officer, when asked how many government employees work in state banks in the county.
“There are 17 in total [who have been sent to re-education], of which four were bank managers.”
Memet Niyaz, a 45-year-old male who managed the secure loan department in Peyshenbe Bazar, was detained for “sharing inappropriate messages on WeChat,” the officer said.
Semet Kadir, a 32-year-old male who managed the bank security department of Tasheriq village, was detained for having “inappropriate information on his phone.”
Marigul Kadir, a 47-year-old female who managed the Tasheriq village loan department, and Alim Ahmet, a 47-year-old male who managed the Bazarliq village loan department, were also detained, the officer said, without providing any information about why they were taken into custody.
All four former bank managers are being held in the county’s Party School Camp, he said, which is also known as the No. 3 Re-Education Camp, while camps No. 1 and No. 2 are reserved for “ordinary citizens.”
In December last year, sources told RFA that rewards provided by authorities in the XUAR to tipsters reporting “two-faced” Uyghur officials and public figures suspected of “disloyalty” to Beijing.
“Two-faced” is a term applied by the government to Uyghur cadres who pay lip service to Communist Party rule in the XUAR, but secretly chafe against state policies repressing members of their ethnic group.
While authorities have generally avoided harassing the families of Uyghur security personnel and public servants during past crackdowns in Xinjiang, reports suggest that even Uyghurs who serve the state risk arrest amid a string of harsh policies attacking the legitimate rights and freedoms of Uyghurs enacted since Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo was appointed to run the region in August 2016.
China's central government authorities have rarely acknowledged the existence of political 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.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the re-education camps, which equates to 10-11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region.
Earlier this month, a delegate from China present for the country’s review at the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) admitted the existence of "resettlement or re-education programs," but said the suggestion that some 1 million Uyghurs were held in the camps was “completely untrue.” He refused to provide information about how many are detained in the facilities.
On Thursday, CERD issued conclusions based on the two-day review saying it was alarmed by "numerous reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism."
"We are recommending to China if this practice exists, to halt it. We are asking China to release people if they don't have a legal ground to be detained," panel member Nicolas Marugan told Reuters.
In Beijing on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the U.N. experts' comments had "no factual basis” and restated China’s assertion that its policies were aimed at combatting terrorism.
Ahead of the review, China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) and a partner NGO, Equal Rights Initiative, said they had found through interviews with people in the region that up to 3 million residents of the XUAR, especially ethnic Uyghurs, may have been detained in the political re-education camps or forced to attend “education sessions” for “de-radicalization” as of June this year.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.