Frontier injustice: Inside China's campaign to 're-educate' Uyghurs
Expanding on a playbook used to squelch dissent in Tibet, and employing Mao-era techniques of social engineering, China is systematically rounding up thousands of Muslim citizens in the far western Xinjiang region, Nathan VanderKlippe reports
Early each Monday morning, villagers across Shanshan County gather for a flag-raising ceremony. They sing patriotic songs and listen to speeches from local leaders as sun lights the nearby oasis vineyards.
Many of them are Uyghurs, members of a largely Muslim minority in far western China's Xinjiang region who have been accused of harbouring radicalism and in whom Chinese authorities are now trying to inculcate a new love of country.
It's a campaign aimed squarely at the thoughts and religious beliefs of a minority that has already come under years of heavy government pressure, one conducted under the banner of what Chinese authorities call "extremism eradication," under a new local leader who has imported and expanded a playbook used to squelch dissent in Tibet.
The campaign is designed to reconfigure the thinking of people Chinese authorities deem suspicious of radicalism, a group that includes those who pray regularly, have studied Islamic teaching, or have family who live in Muslim countries. It is taking place in a country that just this week introduced new regulations regarding "religious-affairs maintenance" – rules, to take effect early next year, that will focus on "blocking extremism" and "resisting infiltration."
The early-morning flag ceremonies offer a small public demonstration of what has, in the past year, grown into a large-scale attempt by the world's second-largest economic power – a country that has asserted an increasingly large role in global governance and maintains that it respects the rights of its own people – to create political compliance in a region of geostrategic importance.
To do so, authorities are reviving some of the techniques that decades ago helped the Communist Party sweep into power and solidify its ideological grip on the country.
On Monday mornings in Shanshan, villagers sing not only the national anthem, but such 70-year-old revolution-era tunes as Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China. But on some occasions, they are also required to go quiet, in order to listen to other villagers, neighbours and friends who are reappearing after long absences. They are returnees from the places where the extremism-eradication campaign is being carried out in more pointed form: a secretive re-education system that has brought in enough people to leave noticeable population gaps in some smaller Uyghur communities.
Many of those taken into the indoctrination system are men, placed into locations called "training centres," where they spend weeks and months repeating political slogans, studying, and proving their loyalty to the Chinese state. They can be kept without charges, isolated from family and friends as they are instructed in national unity and gratitude to the Chinese "motherland."
They can go home only once they have sufficiently proved their political bona fides to a Communist state that demands allegiance to its flag take primacy over anything else, including religious belief.
"One person who returned said that he had studied what the Party has done for us, and how we needed to feel gratitude," said Huriyat, a local Uyghur high-school student, who heard the person speak at a flag-raising ceremony. Speaking to The Globe as he rebuilt a brick wall inside his family home, Huriyat recalled that the returnee pointed to "the street lights, the paving of roads – they have brought us many positive things." The public address, he added, seemed like it "was from the heart."
It was also exactly what Chinese authorities wanted to hear.
A fearsome show of force
China says it wants to reorient people in Xinjiang effected by radical thought and to help them gain a better understanding of Chinese law and the benefits of citizenship. (The Globe and Mail was directed to send faxed questions about re-education to propaganda officials in Xinjiang, an autonomous region that operates much like a province; it received no reply beyond an acknowledgment that the questions had been received. Local academics also declined interview requests.)
Critics, however, call re-education a form of social re-engineering whose tactics resemble those used during the tumult of the Mao Zedong era.
Little has been said publicly about the extent of the campaign. But in more than a dozen interviews inside and outside Xinjiang, with local Uyghurs, exiles and researchers, The Globe has learned that local authorities place people into re-education for any of a lengthy list of personal attributes and behaviours considered potentially risky. Some have phones with religious materials deemed contraband; others have accessed foreign Internet sites; others have travelled to or studied in Muslim countries; still others dress too conservatively.
Since 2009, hundreds of people have died in multiple outbreaks of violence in Xinjiang, many of them deemed terrorist attacks by China, although some of those incidents have been linked to local unrest over restrictions on religious practice. Beijing's worries about Islamic radicalization on Chinese territory have been further bolstered by the presence of Uyghurs in places such as Syria, where some have joined the Islamic State; and, earlier, Afghanistan, where some were taken away to be imprisoned at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
China has responded with a fearsome show of force in Xinjiang, lending the region the look of a place under siege.
Long rows of military vehicles move down highways, and police stand on street corners holding an array of weapons, including assault rifles, pistols and long black pikes tipped with spear-like points. China has hired huge numbers of new security personnel in the region, advertising more than 53,000 new positions in the first seven months of this year alone. Uyghur people must submit national identification cards to travel, buy fuel or enter mosques.
The re-education campaign is less visible but, to many Uyghurs, more disquieting. The mere act of talking about what is happening can be dangerous. "Please, do not ask these questions," one elderly man told The Globe and Mail. "Whoever speaks will get into trouble." In fact, Chinese authorities detained this Globe reporter in Xinjiang while I was working on this story, and Chinese state security in the region's western Yarkand County seized a Globe laptop for 12 hours, insisting it was against Chinese law to report in their area without prior government permission.
Billions spent to control the 'contaminated'
Comprehensive statistics on the re-education program are not available. But Uyghurs, foreign scholars and human-rights researchers say the number in individual cities has reached into the thousands – people who have been placed in Communist Party-run training facilities, detention centres and even, one person told the Globe, a converted retirement home.
Heavy spending on the project is reflected in budget figures published by local authorities. In the first six months of this year, Xinjiang spent $1.89-billion of "special work" funds to build new police stations, construct an integrated video and media surveillance sharing platform, and, among other things, fund "centralized closed education and training," local budget documents show. The last of those appears to include re-education. (The region's total special funding on "stability maintenance" reached nearly $7-billion, outstripping the education budget by 10 per cent.)
The budget numbers, and statistics on security hiring, were uncovered by Adrian Zenz, a researcher who specializes in Tibet and Xinjiang at the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal-Münchingen, Germany. Re-education is "Chinese Communist Soviet-style social re-engineering," he told The Globe and Mail. China is attempting a "systematic replacement of the previous cultural structure, which was really religion-dominated, with secular Chinese Communist values."
"These are the methods of the Cultural Revolution and of the early Mao era, where you indoctrinate a people."
China, Mr. Zenz said, wants to root out not just extremism but deep-seated religious adherence. Religion is acceptable as a costume worn on holidays. "But within your heart and core, you must be compatible firstly with Han culture, and capable of speaking the language, but also politically."
Evidence for this is laid out for all to see in Xinjiang, where a sheet of paper posted in a residential area of Turpan late this summer stated that a disciplinary inspection tour in July and August would target a list of infractions committed by officials and deemed serious. Among its targets: anyone found to be "opposing the secularization of religion."
In April, one Xinjiang official was demoted for declining to smoke in front of religious people, with state media saying "his behaviour of 'not daring' to smoke conforms with extreme religious thought in Xinjiang."
Chinese authorities have given the effort a scientific underpinning, with a senior Xinjiang judicial official saying that, of those exposed to extreme thought, 70 per cent follow blindly and can easily be turned away – but that roughly 30 per cent are "contaminated." It's these people whose thoughts must be readjusted, the official told China's Phoenix Media in an extensive 2015 report on extremism in Xinjiang.
A phone call from authorities – and then, he vanished
In the village of Amanxia alone, 80 to 90 men were taken away in April, including the husband of Miryam, a 24-year-old Uyghur woman with two young children. (As is the case with other Chinese Uyghurs in this story, The Globe and Mail is not using her real name out of concern for her safety.)
Amanxia lies in a narrow oasis bounded by deserts and sharp-fingered sandstone mountains. It is a fertile haven in an arid land, its fields verdant with grapes that, when they are ripe, are hung to dry into raisins. Just over 4,500 people live here.
On a recent day, Miryam was working with her parents and in-laws inside a long, rectangular building whose mud-brick walls were pocked with gaps to allow the wind to sweep through.
It has been a difficult harvest season without her husband, whom Miryam last saw April 10. On that day, village authorities called the 26-year-old Muslim man on the phone, asking him to come, urgently, to their office. He rode over on a motorcycle.
Then, he vanished.
There was no trial, no court ruling, no formal charges that Miryam has been informed about.
It's been "tough," she said. The "kids have asked when their dad will be back. I told them he would be home when the grapes were ready to harvest. But he hasn't come back."
Next to her, another woman also helps hang grapes. That woman's husband disappeared April 13.
The two men have not been kept in the same place. The other woman's husband is in a school-like setting, Miryam said, where once a month he is allowed a brief remote video chat with his family. Miryam believes her husband is in a county detention house, but does not know for sure. She has not been allowed to speak with him.
"We cannot see him. We cannot call him," she said.
None of the men who disappeared in April has returned, Miryam said. They "are in education," she says.
What she has been told is that her husband is being taught the Chinese language and national laws, and has been given computer training. Village leaders have given her gasoline, milk powder and a total of $56 in cash to support expenses, she said. But mostly, help has come from relatives.
Miryam says she doesn't know why her husband was taken away.
Erkin, a 17-year-old student from a nearby town, also says he doesn't know exactly why his mother disappeared this spring – or his friend's husband, their three daughters and a son-in-law, who "were all carried away."
Merciless metrics and high-tech surveillance
"The primary reason is religion," according to Askhar, a young Uyghur law-school graduate who spoke with The Globe in Beijing, but whose family remains in Xinjiang – "because," he says, "the government believes the thinking of people there is different from the country's needs and requirements and must be corrected." Other local Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, have also been placed in re-education, researchers say.
Askhar has given up on pursuing a career related to his educational background and is now running a restaurant; he says there's no point working as a lawyer in a place where the law is "up to whatever the local police say."
Re-education in Xinjiang, he adds, is tightly linked to China's "one belt, one road" initiative, a major plan to spread the Chinese development model and corporate activities across Central Asia. It has thrust Xinjiang, which occupies a sixth of the Chinese land mass, into a place of greater geostrategic importance. "Xinjiang is a very important place for this project," he said. "So Xinjiang's priority is safety."
In their effort to ensure that, authorities have created metrics to assess "extremist existence or behaviour," said Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who has done extensive studies of the re-education system. He has assembled 10 categories of potential risk, including age (between 15 and 55), ethnicity (Uyghur), work status (unemployed), prayer habits (prays five times a day), knowledge of Islamic teaching, possession of a passport, and visits to or association with people in a banned country – a list that includes Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Central Asian nations.
Those who meet three or more criteria can be made "subject to questioning," Mr. Byler said. Given that age and ethnicity are immutable traits, "for many Uyghurs, the very categories of their existence made them suspicious."
People to whom five or more categories apply can be subjected "to detention and political re-education for a minimum of 30 days," he said. Some Uyghurs who return to Xinjiang from travels abroad to Muslim countries never leave the airport on arrival, several people said. They are placed directly into re-education, a process that Mr. Byler said seems designed to break the spirits of those brought in, asking them to "re-articulate their personal biographies" in such a way that they deny elements of Islam and express "undying loyalty to the state."
That push comes amid an atmosphere of increasing hostility to the cultural and religious distinctness of Uyghurs, an ethnic group that has lived in what is now western China for more than a millennium, and whose widespread belief in Islam dates back more than five centuries.
In March, a new "de-extremification regulation" banned "abnormal" beards on men, full face coverings on women, and "refusing to take part in state cultural and recreational activities," according to a recent summary published by Amnesty International.
"Now it appears that anyone who does not advocate for the repression of religion and the assimilation of the Uyghur population can be seen as a threat to the state," Mr. Byler said. He recently spoke with a Uyghur intellectual in Urumqi, the busy trading hub that is Xinjiang's capital, who told him: "If you wear white shoes, they will arrest you for not wearing black shoes. If you wear black shoes, they will arrest you for not wearing white shoes."
At the same time, sophisticated new technology has allowed Chinese police to pry deeply into the digital lives of its people, too. Photos seen by The Globe show a hand-held device, barely larger than a cellphone, used to scan the content of smartphones. In some places, Uyghurs have been ordered to install a government-approved app on their phones that can monitor their contents.
Scrutiny of telecommunications is particularly strict when it involves contact with foreigners. Uyghurs living abroad say that relatives in China have in recent months cut off all communication out of fear, given the potential consequences, including re-education, for even inadvertent violations.
One young Uyghur man was browsing pornography at an Internet café when he fell asleep. Porn is illegal in China, but the larger problem arose when the porn site directed the browser to a foreign website, said Erkin, the 17-year-old who lives in Shanshan County.
"The next morning," Erkin said, "police took him away."
Winning over a new generation
Like all Uyghurs, Erkin is unable to attend mosque until he reaches the age of 18. Chinese law regulates the transmission of religion to minors, but that policy is enforced more rigorously in Xinjiang than elsewhere.
In the Turpan area, a sign seen by The Globe and Mail listed 21 local restrictions, violation of which can lead to "serious" punishment. One deemed it "strictly forbidden for minors and schoolteachers to attend or organize religious activities, or wear religious clothes or accessories with religious signs."
The policy creates a gap inside families – between children educated in schools that instill a keen patriotism, on the one hand, and older, religious generations on the other.
As a result, young men like Erkin can have dramatically different views from their parents, and offer a preview of the kind of outcome China desires from its "extremism eradication" schools, which locals often refer to as "training."
People are sent to re-education "to keep them far away from the terrorists. The Party is doing so for our good," Erkin said. The objective, he added confidently, is to ensure that extremists "won't be able to lure the hearts of our good people and turn us into bad people. So they are taken to a school and told to learn skills for a better life."
China has won loyalty, too, by giving Uyghurs opportunities, including health care and social benefits that exceed what others in China receive. In areas where government leaders want to see development, Uyghurs receive large subsidies toward new homes. Working Uyghurs complain that benefits of local development accrue unevenly to ethnic Han Chinese – but for young Uyghurs, in particular, China has smoothed a path to success. The brightest students are taken from their villages and brought to larger cities, in Xinjiang and elsewhere, for free schooling.
For those students, the Monday-morning flag-raising ceremonies echo truths they've already been taught. Huriyat, the young man who listened to the returnee at a flag-raising ceremony, was himself invited to speak on a recent Monday morning. He encouraged "young people to study hard and to guard national unity." The 15-year-old has attended middle school in Urumqi for two years, but China has done well for people in his hometown, he said. "In the past, none of the roads here were paved. When I left, it was all dusty. Now all of the roads here are lit and so well built."
In Amanxia, the village where Miryam's husband was taken away, local officials have said they are motivated by the well being of their people. "We must do our best to provide for the villagers' needs and answer their demands. People are more easily manipulated by the extremists when they are unhappy," village Party Chief Ismayil Metiniaz told the Press Trust of India in 2015.
Amanxia has been condemned as a site of radical Islamic activity; in 2013, three people there were shot and killed after a terrorist attack in the area left 24 dead, Chinese media reported. And local officials have said they co-ordinate with religious leaders to root out extremism, the two sides working hand-in-hand to meet people infected by radical ideology. "When we visited them at home, we were always accompanied by religious personnel who explained the Koran and answered their questions about the religion," Sayit Yusup, a local official working in the village, told the state-run China Daily in 2015.
Tibet, take two
Local media accounts suggest that the use of re-education dates back at least to 2014 in Xinjiang, although its use has intensified in the last year. That timeline roughly matches the August, 2016, arrival of Chen Quanguo as Party secretary of Xinjiang. He previously held the same post in Tibet, another region that has made heavy use of state power to quell dissent and suppress religious practice. Mr. Chen is seen as a front-runner to join the elite 25-member Politburo that rules China, a step that would give a stamp of national approval to the campaigns he has waged in both frontier regions.
Human-rights advocates have expressed alarm over the use of re-education under his rule. Maya Wang, China researcher with Human Rights Watch, told The Globe and Mail: "The entire system is unprecedented in the recent history even of Xinjiang, which has a long history of repression." One Uyghur man told her that 20 members in his extended family alone had been taken away.
It's "a form of enforced disappearances in a very organized way," she said. People "are being detained for no more than having ties to people abroad. So it's punishment by association."
Dru Gladney, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., who has studied the Xinjiang region, likened the effort to a kind of state-sponsored medical intervention. China is "treating social and cultural identity almost in epidemiological terms, isolating these populations from each other, taking people away, putting them under social quarantine and trying to purify them."
Though local officials have claimed success in the effort, international scholars question their methods. Re-education is a form of "social engineering," and it's "certainly counterproductive," said Clarke Jones, an Australian National University expert in countering violent extremism. Before 2010, he spent more than a half-decade working with China on Uyghur-related counterterrorism issues. "They see anything that's outside of the Communist way of life, or the Chinese way of life, as a threat to the country," he said.
China is not alone in struggling to combat violent ideology. Prof. Clarke is critical of methods used by many Western countries, including Australia, the U.S. and the U.K., which have also sought to adjust ideology rather than to emphasize changes that would address some of the underlying causes of violence, including perceptions of discrimination on the part of those swayed by extremist thinking. In France, a deradicalization program that taught French history and philosophy was called a "total fiasco" and its only centre "for reintegration and citizenship" shut down in late July. What's required is "a total rethink of how we engage Muslim communities and how we address the problem," he said.
But China's use of forced instruction is especially problematic, he said. "You end up creating your own enemies" without effecting much change. "When people are placed in states of coercion, the only focus, really, is to try to escape that. And they will say anything to try to make their captors believe they've gone through a period of change, rather than actually change."
That makes it difficult to assess how successful re-education has been – although those who have emerged from the system insist they are changed for the better.
One Uyghur woman described the re-education of her mother to Rukiye Turdush, a Uyghur advocate who lives in Canada and maintains extensive contacts among the Uyghur exile community around the world. In the re-education centre, people's lives were highly regimented: waking up early each morning to run and then eat breakfast before beginning their studies. Classes, she said, involved repeatedly echoing political slogans and watching videos of violent attacks in Iraq, Syria and Palestine. Teachers talked about "how lucky we are that we will not be killed like them." Those being re-educated did homework each day, writing and explaining their own feelings. Their knowledge was tested in exams.
Because the woman was a good student, she was released after four months, in mid-August, with a certificate of completion of political study. "I am very grateful to the government and Communist Party for opening my eyes," she told her daughter.
She added: "I will be strongly loyal to the Party."
Nathan VanderKlippe is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Beijing.
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