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Xinjian Re-education Camp – the purgatory of Uyghurs

According to a US congressional report, around one million Uyghurs (Turkic Muslims based in Xinjian) are being held in camps in Western China. Althought the Chinese government insists that the camps are ‘vocational training centers’ that ‘local students are happy to attend,’ this seems to be a falsely positive image. The other side of the story is provided by an open letter released in August 2018 by Chinese democracy activists abroad which states: ‘Abuse and torture are common in re-education centers, and reports of deaths in custody due to torture have become common.’ While people in other countries are dying for the right to receive education, Chinese nationals seem to be literally dying for re-education.

What is happening in Xinjian?

The Chinese government has been detaining Uyghurs since 2017. In November 2017, the Financial Times discovered that nearly every Uyghur resident interviewed by them had a friend or relative who had been detained in unmarked detention centers for two or three months. One interviewee told the Financial Times that they are ‘political education centers’ which are ‘like a university, only you cannot leave.’[1] One year on, the situation does not seem to have improved. In August 2018, the NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders reported: ‘In the villages of Southern Xinjiang, approximately 660,000 rural residents of ethnic Uyghur background may have been taken from their homes and detained in re-education camps, while another 1.3 million may have been forced to attend mandatory day or evening re-education sessions in locations in their villages or town centres, amounting to a total of about 2 million South Xinjiang villagers in these two types of ‘re-education’ programs.’[2]

Responses from the Chinese government

Facing the growing international concern over the large-scale disappearances happening in Xinjian, how did the government respond? In August, China denied allegations that it had locked up one million people but recently they have come up with a ‘creative’ explanation for the disappearances. The Chinese officials admitted that Uyghurs ‘deceived by religious extremism’ are undergoing re-education and resettlement in some ‘vocational skills and educational training centres,’ which is the term used in the newly established Xinjian legislation. The legislation states that the ‘centres’ are for people ‘influenced by extremism’ and aim to correct bad behaviours through psychological counselling and ideological education. The purpose of the new legislation is to combat Islamic extremism in Xinjian.[3] Gulchehra Hoja, a US-based Uyghur journalist, told CNN that her aunt knows more than three languages and is retired from the Xinjian Museum, yet she was arrested and sent to one of the centres.[4] Why was her aunt in need of vocational training? Hoja suggested that her work as a journalist in the US has led to negative consequences for her family.[5] Are those camps really for vocational skills and education training? ‘Creative’ seems to be an understatement for their response. The truth of the camp is much darker than it sounds.

The truth of re-education

Under the fig leaf of re-education, these camps actually have nothing to do with combating Islamic extremism. BuzzFeed reported that having a relative who has been convicted of a crime, having the content on your phone which appears to be too religious, having travelled abroad to a Muslim country or even growing a beard is enough to put you in those camps.[6] It seems to me that the government is simply trying to destroy the Muslim religion in China to stabilize their ruling. Further evidence can be found in the ‘education’ content. Inmates are forced to repeat Communist Party slogans and sing Red songs for hours every day. Megha Rajagopalan wrote in her second report on Xinjian that subjugating the Muslim population in Xinjian and Uyghur seems to be the primary purpose of the camps.[7]

Potential Anti-Human Rights Crime

According to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.’[8] Therefore, arrests made based on religion are an infringement on basic human rights. Inside the camps more human rights abuses are committed, according to the Washington Post, punishments inside the camps include torture techniques, such as being chained up by wrists and ankles for hours or days and being waterboarded.[9] The United Nations Convention against Torture has explicitly stated that torturing is illegal under Article 4.[10] Therefore, the allegations of anti-human rights crimes regarding the camps are well-grounded.

Response from the world

Spotting the crisis in Xinjian, a number of states have urged China to release the inmates. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has recommended China halt the current practice in Xinjian and release those who do not have a legal ground to be detained.[11] France and Germany have also called on China to close the ‘re-education camps.’[12] But is that enough? So far, the United Nations and other countries have not imposed any sanctions or punishments on China and apparently and there appears to be no sign of China closing the camps.

Who can save the Uyghurs?

Captain America stormed the Nazi Concentration Camps and rescued the internees in the movie. Sadly, there is no Captain China. I have a solution that does not require the assistance of a superhuman. Any person on Earth can be their savior from the purgatory. All that we have to do is to spread the news and arouse the world’s attention on the issue. The process can be long, and one might lose hope. But as V said in V for Vendetta, ‘there is no certainty, only opportunity’. I believe with enough pressure on our governments, the UN will take action and eventually the Uyghurs will get justice.

Myron Lo

Asia Section Feature Writer

15 December 2018


[1] (2018). Security clampdown bites in China’s Xinjiang region | Financial Times. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2018].

[2] (2018). China: Massive Numbers of Uyghurs & Other Ethnic Minorities Forced into Re-education Programs | Chinese Human Rights Defenders. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2018].

[3] South China Morning Post. (2018). China changes law to recognise 're-education camps' in Xinjiang. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2018].

[4] Ivan Watson and Ben Westcott, C. 'Cultural genocide': How China is tearing Uyghur families apart in Xinjiang

[5] Ibid.

[6] [Accessed 28 Nov. 2018].

[7] [Accessed 28 Nov. 2018].

[8] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948 UNGA Res 217 A) (UDHR) art 18

[9] [Accessed 28 Nov. 2018].

[10] Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (adopted 10 December 1984 GAS 39/46) (UNCAT) Art 4

[11] U.S. (2018). U.N. calls on China to free Uighurs from alleged re-education camps. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2018].

[12] U.S. (2018). Calls grow for U.N. action on China's Muslim 're-education camps'. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Nov. 2018].

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

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