THE CHINESE government has dropped a bombshell.
The country’s far-west Xinjiang has just revised its legislation to allow local governments to detain those it believes to be influenced by religious extremism.
The revised laws effectively give the government power to imprison people in propaganda camps for patriotic “re-education”.
The facilities have drawn an international outcry, with allegations of torture and authoritarian force used against the country’s minority one million Uighur Muslim population.
WHAT IS THE NEW LAW?
According to the new Article 33 of Xinjiang’s regulations against extremism: “Educational transformation institutions such as vocational skill education and training centres shall teach the national common language, laws and regulations, and vocational skills.”
It goes on: “The centres should organise and carry out anti-extremist ideological education, psychological correction, and behaviour correction to transform the thinking of the trainees so as to help them return to society, and to their family.”
This is vastly different to the previous law, which advised “concentrated education” and “behaviour correction” against extremism, which was defined as inciting hatred, discrimination, and violence.
It did not imply that subjects would be separated from their families, as the new article does.
The new law also suggests the Chinese government is no longer denying the brutality of the camps, by acknowledging “psychological correction” and that those detained will be isolated from society and their families.
WHAT’S GOING ON IN XINJIANG?
Xinjiang is a large autonomous region in the country’s northwest bordering the former Soviet Central Asian republics, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Estimated hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs — a Turkic ethnic group primarily based in Xinjiang — have been subjected to arbitrary detention and torture here for years.
As we speak, over a million Muslims in China’s northwest region of Xinjiang are allegedly being held in prison-like camps disguised as “re-education facilities”, according to human rights organisations, US officials and survivors.
There are also reports of Muslim inmates forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, which are forbidden in their religion.
The Chinese government has not previously denied the existence of the camps, but claimed the institutions are just re-education facilities that teach Chinese language and Chinese laws on Islam and political activity.
An official Chinese Communist Party recording compared Islam to an “infectious disease”.
The recording, obtained by Radio Free Asia, said: “Members of the public who have been chosen for re-education have been infected by an ideological illness.
“Being infected by religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology and not seeking treatment is like being infected by a disease that has not been treated in time, or like taking toxic drugs … There is no guarantee that it will not trigger and affect you in the future.”
Former inmates have described disturbing indoctrination programs that can last several months, in which they’re forced to renounce their religion and pledge allegiance to the state.
Over the past decade, the region has transformed into an occupied surveillance state, where the people, including their movements and beliefs, are controlled by the government.
It all started in 2009, when thousands took to the streets in a mass demonstration in the region’s capital, Urumqi.
They were protesting the recent killing of Uighur migrant workers in Guangdong, in the country’s south.
Buses were smashed, stones were thrown through shop windows and passers-by were assaulted, according to media reports. They set vehicles on fire, with riot squads brought in to restore order with tear gas and armoured vehicles.
There were 197 fatalities, and almost 2000 injuries before order was restored.
By any country’s standards, such a protest would be heavy-handed, but in authoritarian China — where protests are neither allowed nor tolerated by the Communist government — it was next-level, and armed police were brought in to contain the violence.
Communist Party officials responded by effectively creating a surveillance state.
In a Black Mirror-style system, every resident of the region was given a label: “Safe”, “Normal” or “Unsafe”, which was determined by their age, faith, religion, foreign contacts and overseas travel. Those in the “Unsafe” category were sent to internment camps.
According to US officials, they installed facial recognition cameras, mobile phone scans, conducted DNA collections, and increased an intrusive police presence.
The Chinese government claims the institutions are just re-education facilities that teach Chinese language and Chinese laws on Islam and political activity. But those who have lived through them beg to differ.
XINJIANG’S MUSLIM INTERNMENT CAMPS
Mass detentions of Uighurs are reported to have started early last year. Citizens might simply disappear in the middle of the night, or upon disembarking a returning flight to the region.
Iman*, who came from a middle-class Uighur family, studied in the United States and elsewhere in China.
When he came back to Xinjiang, he was detained upon arrival, despite breezing through interrogators’ questions and having nothing incriminating on his person.
He was later taken to a prison-like internment house, where his meticulously-structured days would consist of re-education films and workshops in which he was taught to reinterpret Islam. The light in the bedroom, which he shared with two dozen other men, was never turned off.
After 17 days of hell, the guards released him with a chilling warning: “I’m sure you may have had some ideological changes because of your unpleasant experience but remember: Whatever you say or do in North America, your family is still here and so are we.”
But now, he was part of Xinjiang’s intrusive surveillance database — his “criminal” status forbade him from entering shopping centres, boarding public transport and setting foot in public buildings.
Another inmate, a Kazakh Muslim named Bekali, had an even more difficult experience.
He said if he refused to follow orders each day, he was forced to stand at a wall for five hours at a time. Then, he was sent to solitary confinement and deprived of food for 24 hours straight. After 20 days in the camp, he wanted to commit suicide.
“The psychological pressure is enormous, when you have to criticise yourself, denounce your thinking — your own ethnic group,” Bekali told Associated Press in tears. “I still think about it every night, until the sun rises. I can’t sleep. The thoughts are with me all the time.”
After a torturous interrogation program, in which he was hung by his wrists and mined for information, he was taken to a re-education camp.
He said inmates would wake up together before dawn, sing the Chinese national anthem, and raise the Chinese flag at 7.30am. They gathered back inside large classrooms to learn “red songs” like “Without the Communist Party, there is no New China,” and study Chinese language and history.
Before meals of vegetable soup and buns, the inmates would be ordered to chant: “Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland! Thank President Xi!”
Bekali was kept in a locked room almost around the clock with eight other internees, who shared beds and a wretched toilet. Cameras were installed in toilets and even outhouses.
Inmates were forced to criticise themselves and their religion in front of each other, and apologise for wearing Islamic clothing and teaching the Qu’ran. Praying, of course, was strictly forbidden.
It’s unknown how many prisoners may be held in the camps, but a Human Rights Watch report estimates that up to 800,000 of the region’s 22 million population may have been in them.
Even outside of the camps, all aspects of life are controlled for the minority residents.
According to a Buzzfeed News report, growing a beard or naming your child Muhammad or Medina can get you reported to police.
Women are reportedly banned from wearing burqas and veils in Xinjiang. Residents are no longer allowed to fast. And as of 2016, millions of residents were made to surrender their passports and seek permission from the government in order to leave China.
The city is rife with checkpoints, where authority figures can go through your phone for any evidence of religious language in text messages, overseas phone calls or banned social media apps like Facebook and Twitter.
By Gavin Fernando
News Corp.— with wires