Chinese "Internment Camps" Detain One Million Muslims

Remote buildings fenced in by barbed wire, governmental slogans urging citizens to declare their loyalty, and armed guards preventing entry and exit: history has highlighted these as familiar omens of totalitarian oppression. Now the international community is condemning the Chinese government's "re-education camps," in which approximately one million Uighur Muslims have been detained, as the latest government machination violating human rights.

Under claims of combating religious radicalism," Chinese authorities have revised a law to condone the use of detention centers "to carry out the educational transformation of those affected by extremism." However, witness testimony and government documents have exposed a litany of human rights violations taking place in the camps under the guise of "vocational training" for the Uighur and other Muslim minority populations.

Chinese security in XinjiangThe New York Times

Within the camps, "re-education" programs not only restrict Muslims from practicing their religion, but impose a militant regimen of psychological indoctrination, including studying communist propaganda, reciting hymns to praise the Chinese Communist Party, writing "self-criticism" essays, and ritually giving thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping. In what The New York Times calls "the country's most sweeping internment program since the Mao era," detainees are disciplined by thousands of guards armed with police batons, electric cattle prods, and pepper spray.

Camps are located in Xinjiang, an autonomous, arid region in the northwest. It's the largest region of China and noted as the residence of about 10 million Uighur Muslims among China's 1.4 billion population. Gay McDougall of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination condemned the Chinese authorities' treatment of Muslims "as enemies of the state solely on the basis of their ethno-religious identity." Despite the Chinese government's initial claims that the camps' "students" were treated to amenities from ping-pong and TV to air conditioning and free dining, McDougall makes clear that Xinjiang has become "something resembling a massive internment camp, shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no-rights zone."

Most concerning are the reports of torture methods like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and beatings for those who deviate from the program. A former detainee named Omir told the BBC in September, "They have a chair called the 'tiger.' My ankles were shackled, my hands locked to the chair. I couldn't move. They wouldn't let me sleep. They also hung me up for hours, and they beat me. They had thick wooden and rubber batons, whips made from twisted wire, needles to pierce the skin, pliers for pulling out your nails."

Abdusalam Muhemet and his 3 children in their Istanbul home.The New York Times

Abdusalam Muhemet, a 41-year-old former restaurant owner, recited a verse from the Quran at a funeral in 2015 and was subsequently detained in a prison cell for seven months before being relocated to a Xinjiang camp. "That was not a place for getting rid of extremism," he recalled to The New York Times. "That was a place that will breed vengeful feelings and erase Uighur identity." Muhemet was released after two months of detainment; he was never charged with a crime.

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.