Unimaginable horror is taking place in Xinjiang, China. Since April 2017, between 800,000 to 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic minorities have been sent to “re-education camps'' by the Chinese government. They are detained for the crimes of travelling abroad, practising Islam, having apps like WhatsApp on their phones, growing beards, abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes, and having more than three children. The Chinese government has deemed these practices as acts of “terrorism, extremism, and separatism,” that can only be corrected through extensive re-education. A leaked Chinese Communist Party (CCP) document states the purpose of the internment camps is to “wash brains, cleanse hearts, strengthen righteousness and eliminate evil.” Everything known about the camps comes from satellite images, leaked government documents, and accounts from dozens of escaped prisoners. There is no legal recourse for the accused. It is likely the largest internment of ethnic and religious minorities since the Second World War.
The escaped prisoners (who currently live outside of China) tell a harrowing tale of life inside the camps. From dawn to dusk, detainees sit in large classrooms, separated from their teachers by metal bars and armed guards. They learn songs praising the Chinese government and President Xi Jinping (Xi’s portrait adorns practically every wall at the camps).They watch hours of state-sanctioned news, documentaries, and speeches from Xi. Mandarin Chinese is taught to them. The prisoners are instructed to denounce Islam and conform to Han Chinese culture. One detainee, Kayrat Samarkand, recalls how they were taught the “126 lies” about religion. “Religion is opium, religion is bad, you must believe in no religion, you must believe in the Communist Party… Only the Communist Party can lead to a bright future,” he said.
After class, prisoners are sent to their cells. There are typically 8-20 per cell, and less beds. The lights are always on, as are the surveillance cameras. Detainees that cause problems are beaten, placed in handcuffs, electrocuted, waterboarded and tortured in other ways.
Mass abuse is taking place at the camps. Escaped female prisoners have described how they were taken from their cells in the middle of the night by masked men to a “black room,” where there are no surveillance cameras, and tortured and sexually abused. Sayragul Sauytbay, a teacher that was forced to work at the camps, described to the BBC how she witnessed a 20-21 year old girl being forced to make a confession in front of a large group of prisoners, and how she was subsequently assaulted by the police in front of the crowd. The police monitored how the other prisoners responded to the horrific scene, and punished whoever had adverse reactions. Female detainees are forcibly fitted with IUDs and in many cases, sterilized. Since 2017, hundreds of thousands of Uyghur women have been pressured into getting abortions, according to an Associated Press report. Birth rates in Xinjiang dropped by almost a third in 2018 compared to the previous year.
When prisoners are released from the camps, there every move is tracked by a phone app. The Chinese government has their DNA samples, voice recordings, fingerprints, and eye and face scans. Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company, is working on technology that will be capable of identifying Uyghur faces in a crowd. The Chinese Army and government cadres have infiltrated the entire region of Xinjiang, and freed prisoners are often sent back to the camps for further “re-education.” They are interrogated and tortured into giving the names of Uyghurs and others for detention.
Tens of thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are forced to work in factories at the internment camps and after they leave. Xinjiang accounts for 85% of China’s cotton exports, which makes it an important economic region for the country. Thousands of detainees toil the cotton fields. They are also transferred to factories throughout China to work as part of the government’s “labor transfer program.” A study from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that 27 factories in 9 Chinese provinces use Uyghur labor. These factories serve as suppliers for 83 multinational, world-famous brands. The companies include Nike, Adidas, Uniqlo, H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, The North Face, Polo Ralph Lauren, Puma and Zara. BMW, GM, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi also have ties with suppliers that use Uyghur forced labor.
About a year ago, H&M issued a statement condemning the use of forced labor in these f