More than 100,000 minority Uighur Muslims are reportedly being indefinitely detained in overcrowded “re-education” camps on China’s western border.
The detention centres – reminiscent of Mao-era laogai forced labour camps – are said to be holding around 120,000 Muslims in Kahgar, a prefecture in China’s northwest Xinjiang province.
The estimated number of detainees was reportedly given to Radio Free Asia (RFA), a US-funded news organisation, by a Kashgar security chief on the condition of anonymity.
According to RFA’s report, the re-education camps became inundated with detainees around China’s 19th Communist Party Congress last October. The inmates are deemed to have “extremist” or “politically incorrect” views, which can include excessive praying or accessing banned websites, reports Human Rights Watch.
China claims the institutions are merely schools for “extremism eradication” that teach Chinese language, and Chinese laws on Islam and political activity. China officially abolished its “Re-education Through Labour” camps in 2013, but charities have warned they have morphed into modern brainwashing institutions.
Xinjiang, where the majority of China’s 10 million Uighur Muslims live, has seen years of bloodshed, including ethic uprisings, anti-government riots and terrorist attacks targeting civilians. The most deadly recent assaults both occurred in 2014. A car bomb killed 31 in Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi, and a machete attack killed 29 at a train station in Kunming, Yunnan province.
The Chinese government has made a huge push to control the region in the past two years, installing Communist hardliner Chen Quanguo as the party secretary of Xinjiang in the summer of 2016. Chen is credited with containing a surge of self-immolations through a series of repressive policies, such as high-tech surveillance and social controls, in his previous role as party secretary of the Tibet Anonymous Region.
In February 2017, Beijing also sent thousands of gun-toting troops to march the streets of Urumqi in an “all-out offensive” against terrorism. China defends its heavy-handed methods as “extremism eradication”, and insists the re-education centers are an important weapon in the fight against radicalism.
The Telegraph made calls to the Kashgar local government, foreign affairs office and public security bureau, but officials were unavailable for comment.
One source told RFA that the camps, often housed in converted schools and government buildings, have become so crowded that inmates, now sleeping 14 to a room that once held 8, can only lie on their sides because there is no room to lie flat. Human Rights Watch claims the centres are a form of “brainwashing”.