Category Archives: re-education camps

Connecting the dots around the XUAR Camps: bringing together a year of diverse research, by Rune Steenberg (University of Copenhagen)

Scholarship and advocacy

It has been a good year since the international media and organisations world wide have begun to pay increased attention to the internment camps in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. With the Chinese state clouding the issue in secrecy, even the most basic facts about the camps have become grounds for contestation. This ranges from contesting the number of detainees and types of camps and their actual conditions, to debating the intended purpose of the mass internments and their place in contemporary Chinese politics, to still farther discussing the contextualisation of the camps within global political economic structures and which historical comparisons are adequate or even permissible. The debates call to mind the late Elliot Sperling’s brilliant NYT opinion piece “Don’t know much about Tibetan history,” in which he reminds us that simplistic narratives of complex processes rarely stand the test of facts. This does not mean, however that the truth is necessarily to be found half way between the two extreme versions, nor does it mean that the accounts of the victims should be disregarded. On the contrary, they should be listened to attentively in detail.

Uncannily graphic testimonies of violence and abuse in the camps and beyond have been supported by ample evidence. Likewise the purge against Uyghur elites and the surveillance and indoctrination in XUAR more broadly have been convincingly documented. The death sentences of top ranking academics with a history of supporting party politics like Tashpolat Tiyip,[i] Sattar Sawut,[ii] and Halmurat Ghopur,[iii] are but some of the most obvious demonstrations of political motivation and ethnic targeting in the courts. It is beyond doubt that crimes are being committed and great wrong has been done in XUAR, but our analyses and understanding of the situation is still fairly fragmented. Many of our attempts at reaching a larger picture, include extrapolations and estimations based on overly limited information. The still much needed testimonies and other evidence do not always fit neatly together to form a coherent whole. This does not mean that any of it is wrong. It means that we are missing pieces in the puzzle. Denying access to information, as the Chinese state does on XUAR, is a mighty tool of those in power and one that works well with an international media-scape dominated by profit-based outlets. To counter it we need fact focused, critical methods that make maximum use of the limited information available – including those sources we prefer to dismiss.

Political teaching rally in southern Xinjiang. This is not in a camp. Image circulated publicly on Chinese social media spring 2019

If we want to approach a deeper understanding of what has happened, is happening and might come to happen in XUAR, serious scholars working on the issue need to meticulously hold on to two methodological principles: 1) Keep explicitly distinct established facts from estimations and extrapolations. 2) Bring together our results and as far as possible share the data from which they derive. This does not mean that scholars have to stop advocacy. After all, we are not instruments but human beings with a political conscious that we need to express and follow. Most of us have our reasons to choose to engage with certain issues and not others that reflect our political convictions. Yet, it means that we do not let those convictions obscure our methods when moving from empirical data via analysis to conclusions and the honest presentation of those conclusions.

Sources of information

The past year has been impressively productive in terms of research on the camps, policing, surveillance and various issues of labour in XUAR. It is no easy task to bring all of this together, and I harbour no illusions of being able to do it justice here. Not least because the methods used and the scholarly backgrounds of those involved have varied so broadly. Yet this also provides a great chance: that of triangulating and double-checking conclusions reached by one approach with those of others. The connecting link is the reality as it is now playing out behind the veil of CCP propaganda and restrictions on access and reporting. This veil has been perforated by many different means over the past year and as a result we have come to feel several different parts of the elephant behind it.

Government propaganda poster promoting ethnic unity, Kashgar 2016, by author.

In spring 2019, a Central Asian Survey Special Issue[iv] on the situation in XUAR convincingly portrayed the ongoing securitisation of the region. Uyghur diaspora activists and the Uyghur journalists at Radio Free Asia have likewise provided invaluable information even if their analyses sometimes require earnest source criticism. The website shahit.biz run by Gene Bunin has documented an impressive 4800+ testimonies about people detained or disappeared in the Chen Quanguo-era and also provides statistics. The testimonies have been collected in large part with the help of the Almaty based advocacy group Ata Jurt and Uyghur voices are still underrepresented. Based on his cases, Bunin has recently argued that we need to pay less attention to camps and more attention to prisons. Camp inmates are being transferred to prisons in massive numbers, as has also been reported by the New York Times.[v] The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who provided satellite imagery evidence of massive camp extension[vi] in 2017-2018, is according to a Twitter-thread[vii] by Nathan Ruser preparing a new report. He has already concluded that many facilities are being downgraded in terms of security levels and other sources report that schools and other institutions that had come to serve as camps have in part been transformed back to their original functions.

Gate of an early small-scale re-education camp.  Photo August 2016 in Karakash by author.

These reports should not be hastily interpreted as either the problem being solved due to international pressure or as lies and pure cosmetic maneuvers. Rather they should be brought together with other information, such as the transitions of inmates from internment or re-education to forms of coerced labour, recently reported by Adrian Zenz and others.[viii] This also applies to the announcement in late July by XUAR governor and Uyghur face of Chen Quanguo’s reign, Shohret Zakir, that most camp inmates had been released and 90% of those had found work (in many outlets mistranslated as 90% having been released). Instead of whole sale dismissing such a statement as propaganda lies unworthy of our time, we need to consider what it may mean. What is it intended to show and what kind of distorted information does it carry if read critically against the grain of its speakers intent? The camp landscape in XUAR is evidently changing, with inmates being transferred to prisons with an extensive history of forced labour and to sweatshop-like factories. Signing a contract looks voluntary, but is for many the only way out of camp. Read in this light, Zakir’s words sound darkly cynical rather than fabricated and the security downgrading looks less like a solved problem than an obscured one.

Generally the economic aspects have begun to receive increased attention. This includes the involvement of western companies as exposed in the work of Benjamin Haas[ix] and on the website ChinaFile.[x] Yet, the full connection to China’s more general economic strategy, including the Belt and Road Initiative that has continuously been mentioned as a motivating factor for mass detentions in XUAR, has to my knowledge not yet been convincingly established. Again, this does in no way mean that it does not exist. It is merely another one of many bricks in this giant puzzle that is still not in place. The same is true for connecting the XUAR camps to global trends of forced labour, mass incarceration and surveillance more generally. Such contextualisations provide fruitful fields for further study.

The flag raising ceremony, since 2016 a weekly event for most Uyghurs in southern Xinjiang. Image circulated publicly on Chinese social media spring 2019

It is important to stress that honest uncertainty about details or numbers does not imply a general questioning of the unlawfulness and violence of the detentions. The same is true for calling out the political motivations of involved actors: US condemnations of China on the issue of XUAR and their sanctions put on individuals and companies[xi] involved in the securitisation of Xinjiang, welcome as they are, seem to come at a conveniently opportune moment for the White House and others intent on retaining US domination of markets and political spheres of influence. To recognize this fact certainly invokes skepticism towards particular “facts” and numbers presented without evidence or as CIA intelligence by an administration infamous for its strategical relation to the truth. But it in no way implies that the atrocities committed in XUAR do not take place. This is one of the factors that makes critical, scientifically committed research on this issue, independent of governments, companies and other actors with vested interest in it so crucially important.

Asking the right questions: Testimonies in Context

I have myself been involved in the collection of testimonies of former detainees of centers and camps in XUAR. I have personally interviewed about a dozen camp survivors now residing outside of China and read or seen testimonies of about as many more. Some of these testimonies offered hours of embarrassingly minute detail. The picture they provide, cross-verifying details repeated by people who did not know of each other and lived on different continents, documents a very sophisticated and highly government-controlled system of abuse around the so-called re-education camps.

From inside the camps we know as established fact that torture and abuse take place. We cannot say for certain how wide-spread or frequent it is across the camps and in time. We also know of camps where such abuse was not experienced by particular inmates during their months of incarceration. We know that many inmates were given pills on a regular basis and that several have reported experiencing memory loss and halting of their menstrual cycle. We cannot establish a proven causal effect between these facts. We also know of suicide attempts and that many former inmates suffer from post-traumatic stress. We know of deaths in camp by both old and young inmates but mostly we do not have reliable data on their exact causes. We know that almost every corner of camps, homes and neighbourhoods is surveilled, but we also know that many arrests and interrogations still take place on the basis of personal denunciations and that even inmates in their cells have managed to outsmart the guards to a degree. We know that in many camps the inmates were forbidden to communicate with each other and speak their native languages, Uyghur or Kazakh. But we also have ample testimony of inmates who could relay long and detailed stories of those they shared a cell with, and we know that Uyghur and Kazakh in some camps were used as languages of instruction.

This does not mean that the testimonies contradict each other or are invalid! It means that things are complex and more research is needed. A big part of this is to connect the information we already have, as we are closing in on being able to ask the right questions. The most effective strategy is not to try to consolidate our various attempts at extrapolation but to connect the actual data and thus test and continuously revise our understanding of the larger picture.

Family members visiting detainees in an unknown facility in Xinjiang. Image circulated publicly on Chinese social media spring 2019

As a small contribution, I would like to share with you some of the lesser discussed facts I have come to know through interviews. While nightly raids had been common in many parts of XUAR since 2014, in early 2017 a new element was added. Instead of merely searching the house, family members were taken away for hour-long interrogations at night and brought back before sunrise. Questioning often took place in regular government offices that had been equipped with a so-called “black box” of iron inside which the person was handcuffed onto an iron chair. In the months before, high ranking cadre had been informed about the re-education facilities in secret meetings. In several villages neighbours disappeared one by one until many places were left half empty.

Nathan Ruser has described different security levels of camps, but in our interviews we also heard of the inmates being sorted into different levels of security within the same compound. Depending on behavior they could be shifted up and down the ladder. While in some camps rote learning of propaganda and regulations was examined in multiple-choice tests, in others the teaching was very informal being administered by a chosen prisoner with good language skills who was made responsible for a cell of 30-50 people. Here most teaching and examination happened orally amongst the inmates themselves. In several facilities, methods reminiscent of behavioristic cognitive psychology were used such as excessive repetition of one sentence for a full hour, morning routines involving expressing loudly the three gratitudes (to the party, to Xi Jinping and to the country) and three wishes (long life for Xi Jinping, prosperity of the country and – ironically – ethnic harmony) as well as daily rehearsals of self-criticism and repentance.

Much effort seems to have been spent on erasing paper trails from the camps. Much crucial communication took place orally and we have reports of papers being routinely collected and burnt. Still, many inmates report signing documents with camp rules and regulations when entering, policy papers explaining the purpose of the camps were shown to its teachers, and we also have reports of archive files about each interned person. So far the most important p aper traces from the camps reaching us are release certificates and three published letters written by inmates to their relatives. More is likely to appear and serve as central points of reference for analysis.

Some of our interviews suggest that camps of the type shown to foreign journalists on the carefully curated government guided tours really do exist, though actual dance or art classes have not been described. Vocational training also seemingly takes place to prepare inmates for their transfer to factories. This in no way legitimates any of the camps. Even under acceptable conditions, internment is still a traumatising experience and most all have stayed in overcrowded detention centers previous to the camps. We need to recognize all the evidence we can collect – even the parts that do not at first sight fit with our own understanding of the larger picture or our political inclinations – in order to reach at a picture that is complex enough to be trustworthy. A differentiated picture created in genuine effort to understand the situation in all its aspects, besides being closer to the truth is also much more solid and less easily dismissed than those based on selective evidence and estimations.

The scientific method may prove to be a sharper tool than the various shades of propaganda regularly put forth by all sides, as well-meaning as some of them may be.

[i]  https://www.centraleurasia.org/2019/statement-concerning-disappearance-and-sentencing-of-tashpolat-tiyip-former-president-of-xinjiang-university/; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-49956088

[ii]  https://sinopsis.cz/en/appeal-to-stop-the-execution-of-three-uyghur-intellectuals/

[iii] https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/sentence-09282018145150.html 

[iv] https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ccas20/38/1

[v] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/31/world/asia/xinjiang-china-uighurs-prisons.html

[vi] https://www.aspi.org.au/report/mapping-xinjiangs-re-education-camps

[vii]https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1175353408749891584.html

[viii] https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/8tsk2

[ix]   https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/21/opinion/xinjiang-business.html ; http://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/features/which-european-companies-are-working-xinjiang

[x] http://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/features/here-are-fortune-500-companies-doing-business-xinjiang

[xi]  https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/08/business/us-china-xinjiang-black-list-intl-hnk/index.html; https://www.state.gov/u-s-department-of-state-imposes-visa-restrictions-on-chinese-officials-for-repression-in-xinjiang/