China’s ruling Communist Party government are detaining Muslims in “re-education camps” and forcing them to eat pork and drink alcohol, according to a former internment camp inmate.
Omir Bekali, one among perhaps a million people reportedly arrested and held in mass re-education camps, said he was detained without trial or access to a lawyer and forced to disavow his religious beliefs while praising the Communist Party.
Mr Bekali, a Kazakh citizen, said he contemplated suicide after 20 days in the facility – which itself followed seven months in a prison.
The Independent reports: Since spring last year authorities in Xinjiang region have confined tens or even hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the camps, including some foreign nationals. One estimate put the figure at a million or more.
A US commission called it the “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today” while a leading historian called it “cultural cleansing”.
Asked to comment on the camps by the Associated Press, the ministry said it “had not heard” of the situation. When asked why non-Chinese had been detained, it said the Chinese government protected the rights of foreigners in China and that they should also be law abiding. Chinese officials in Xinjiang did not respond to requests for comment.
When Mr Bekali refused to follow orders each day in the camp, he was forced to stand at a wall for five hours at a time. A week later, he was sent to solitary confinement, where he was deprived of food for 24 hours, he claimed. After 20 days in the heavily guarded camp, he wanted to kill himself.
“The psychological pressure is enormous, when you have to criticise yourself, denounce your thinking – your own ethnic group,” said Mr Bekali, who broke down in tears as he described the camp. “I still think about it every night, until the sun rises. I can’t sleep. The thoughts are with me all the time.”
The detention campaign has swept across Xinjiang, a territory half the area of India.
Chinese officials have largely avoided comment on the camps, but some are quoted in state media as saying that ideological changes are needed to fight separatism and Islamic extremism. Radical Muslim Uighurs have killed hundreds in recent years, and China considers the region a threat to peace in a country where the majority is Han Chinese.
The internment programme aims to rewire the political thinking of detainees, erase their Islamic beliefs and reshape their very identities. The camps have expanded rapidly over the past year, with almost no judicial process or legal paperwork. Detainees who most vigorously criticise the people and things they love are rewarded, and those who refuse to do so are punished with solitary confinement, beatings and food deprivation.
The recollections of Mr Bekali, a heavyset and quiet 42-year-old, offer what appears to be the most detailed account yet of life inside so-called re-education camps. Rare interviews with three other former internees and a former instructor in other centres corroborated Mr Bekali’s depiction. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their families in China.
Mr Bekali’s case stands out because he was a foreign citizen, of Kazakhstan, who was seized by China’s security agencies and detained for eight months last year without recourse. Although some details are impossible to verify, two Kazakh diplomats confirmed he was held for seven months and then sent to re-education.
The detention programme is a hallmark of China’s emboldened state security apparatus under the deeply nationalistic, hard-line rule of President Xi Jinping. It is partly rooted in the ancient Chinese belief in transformation through education – taken once before to terrifying extremes during the mass thought reform campaigns of Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader sometimes channelled by Mr Xi.
“Cultural cleansing is Beijing’s attempt to find a final solution to the Xinjiang problem,” said James Millward, a China historian at Georgetown University.
Rian Thum, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, said China’s re-education system echoed some of the worst human rights violations in history.
“The closest analogue is maybe the Cultural Revolution in that this will leave long-term, psychological effects,” Prof Thum said. “This will create a multigenerational trauma from which many people will never recover.”
However, fragments in state media and journals show the confidence Xinjiang officials hold in methods that they say work well to curb religious extremism. China’s top prosecutor, Zhang Jun, urged Xinjiang’s authorities this month to extensively expand what the government calls the “transformation through education” drive in an “all-out effort” to fight separatism and extremism.
In a June 2017 paper published by a state-run journal, a researcher from Xinjiang’s Communist Party School reported that most of 588 surveyed participants did not know what they had done wrong when they were sent to re-education. But by the time they were released, nearly all – 98.8 percent– had learned their mistakes, the paper said.
Transformation through education, the researcher concluded, “is a permanent cure”.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released earlier this week claimed that Chinese officials were now regularly imposing themselves on families in Xinjiang in “home stays”.
During the visits unwilling hosts are allegedly forced to tell authorities about their lives and political views, and are subject to indoctrination.
“Muslim families across Xinjiang are now literally eating and sleeping under the watchful eye of the state in their own homes,” said HRW’s Maya Wang, a senior researcher. “The latest drive adds to a whole host of pervasive – and perverse – controls on everyday life in Xinjiang.”