Beyond Cheery State Propaganda, Internal Documents Reveal Prison-like Conditions for Ethnic Minorities in Xinjiang

Published July 3rd, 2019 - 07:09 GMT
 Prison-like Conditions for Ethnic Minorities in Xinjiang
Construction workers walk outside a "vocational" center in Xinjiang, China (AFP/FILE)


China has been cracking down against its Ethnic Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims, but insists it’s merely providing training and vocational skills, showing off flashy videos of Uyghurs apparently enjoying their time in the detention centers.


But while journalists have found a difficult time penetrating the surveillance state, official state documents lay bare the true nature of the detention centers. Adrian Zens, an expert on China's treatment of its ethnic and religious minorities, has published an analysis and translation of documents describing the prison-like conditions of the centers.

His report, which includes anonymous accounts from detainees, shows classrooms surrounded by metal cages to prevent escapes, explicit references to brainwashing targets of the crackdown and references to the fact that detainees are being held against their will—all contradicting the government’s public portrayal of the centers as helpful, voluntary centers.

The Chinese government has constructed a police state inside Xinjiang, a northwestern province of China dominated by Uyghur and Kazkh Muslims. There, Uyghur residents are subject to the most advanced forms of surveillance on Earth, combining high-tech, A.I.-driven tracking with regular interrogations and monitoring by citizens and police alike.

"The goal of the camps and surveillance, “is to mass engineer the identity of the Muslims."

In his new report, Zenz estimates that 1.5 million members of the targeted minority groups have been forced into the so-called ‘re-education camps,’ which represents about 17 percent of the total adult population.

In an interview with Al Bawaba, Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang, explained the goal of the camps and surveillance, “is to mass engineer the identity of the Muslims--which are too different from Hans [the main ethnicity in China], from the state's perspective-- so they become loyal, obedient subjects of the CCP.

“This is done through pervasive surveillance, political indoctrination and control--particularly over their movement--over the Muslims of that region,” she added.

In order to conceal this campaign, which activists and advocates say is ethnic cleansing, the state has produced a surreal array of curated propaganda, and has even occasionally invited journalists to take a carefully guided tour of some of the camps.

An otherworldly tour of one such camp by BBC journalists showed Uyghurs joyfully dancing in front of the camera. “This is what it wants the world to see,” the commentator observes over the choreographed routine. 


“They are affected by religious extremism,” one operator of the camp tells reporters. “Our purpose is to get rid of their extremist thoughts,” she adds, as four rows of detainees sit perfectly still, planted in front of computer screens.

“Numerous documents make clear that these ‘trainees’ are in involuntary detention.”

The state publicly insists the camps are public spaces, that people come in voluntarily to get free career counseling, skills training, and general courses on how to live a more civilized life. 

However, “Xinjiang’s ‘Vocational Skills Education Training Centers,’” Zenz writes in his report analyzing the government’s internal documents, “are referred to as ‘Vocational Training Internment Camps’ (VTICs). This terminology acknowledges that these facilities offer some form of vocational training, although this ‘training’ only constitutes a relatively small part of the whole indoctrination package. At the same time, this terminology clarifies that these facilities function in a prison-like internment fashion.”

According to the report,“numerous documents make clear that these ‘trainees’ are in involuntary detention.”

Both types deploy the Chinese word for “concentrated,” which can also be translated as “centralized,” effectively meaning they are concentration camps.

“The author never found a single government document that supports government claims that people willingly consent to being placed into a VTIC, they sign any kind of agreement to that end, or they can request leave,” Zenz notes.

Moreover, each detention camp is outfitted with five preventative measures, reportedly “demanded by Chen Quanguo,” the CCP’s head official in the region. One such preventative measure being implemented is the use of large metal cages trapping detainees into classrooms.

An anonymous former detainee re-created the cages he saw using 3D modeling for the report.

“3D model of the teaching building with classroom, metal fencing and female security guard outside the classroom door. The witness saw the interior of the classroom through the iron bar doors.” (JPR)



These jail rooms will doubtless remain hidden from the view of curious journalists or international officials inspecting China’s detention and ‘re-education camps.’

Zenz breaks down the seven types of detention facilities the Chinese state has been operating in Xinjiang, and finds two to involve an especially disturbing terminology: “Centralized transformation through education training centers (jizhong jiaoyu zhuanhua peixun zhongxin集中教育转化培训中心),” and “Centralized closed education training centers (jiaoyu peixun zhongxin集中封闭教育培训中心).” Both types deploy the Chinese word for “concentrated,” which can also be translated as “centralized,” effectively meaning they are concentration camps.

“People are interned in a concentrated fashion in order to more effectively guard and indoctrinate large numbers of them in a limited amount of space,” Zenz writes.

Since 2018, reports have surfaced of ethnic minorities being tortured, psychologically abused, thrown in solitary confinement, forced to break religious tenants and even dying in custody.

Uyghurs abroad who have family still in Xinjiang report having no knowledge of their families’ whereabouts, and describe the region as one big open-air prison.


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