A Summer Vacation in China’s Muslim Gulag

How one university student was almost buried by the “people's war on terror.”

An officer speaks into a radio transmitter at a prison in China. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)
An officer speaks into a radio transmitter at a prison in China. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

Since announcing a “people’s war on terror” in 2014, the Chinese Communist Party has created an unprecedented network of re-education camps in the autonomous Xinjiang region that are essentially ethnic gulags. Unlike the surgical “strike hard” campaigns of the recent past, the people’s war uses a carpet-bombing approach to the country’s tumultuous western border region. Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s party secretary and the architect of this security program, encouraged his forces to “bury the corpses of terrorists in the vast sea of a people’s war.” But the attempt to drown a few combatants has pulled thousands of innocent people under in its wake.

Sporadic violence has rattled the region since July 5, 2009, when indigenous Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority, took to the streets of Urumqi, the regional capital, to protest the murder of fellow Uighurs who worked in the southern Chinese city of Shaoguan. The protests spiraled into a riot, which claimed 197 lives and nearly 2,000 injuries before order was restored. Insurrection has since spread beyond the capital, and skirmishes between Uighurs and security personnel have become common occurrences.

Amid the protracted conflict and rising Islamophobia in China, Communist Party officials are responding by creating a surveillance state. In the 12 months preceding September 2017 alone, the party-state advertised nearly 100,000 security positions in Xinjiang. Every resident of the region has been affixed with the label “safe,” “normal,” or “unsafe,” based on metrics such as age, faith, religious practices, foreign contacts, and experience abroad. Those deemed unsafe, whether or not they are guilty of wrongdoing, are regularly detained and imprisoned without due process.

Estimates indicate that as many as 800,000 individuals, mostly Uighurs, have been incarcerated in the re-education camps. Based on the current population of Uighurs in Xinjiang, which stands at some 11 million, this amounts to the extrajudicial detention of nearly 10 percent of the ethno-national group.

While Chinese officials maintain that these re-education camps are schools for eradicating extremism, teaching Chinese language, and promoting correct political thought, Radio Free Asia has reported that the detention centers are overpopulated and detainees poorly treated. Those reports are confirmed by testimony from a young Uighur man studying in the United States, torn from the American university where he studied, and where I work, to a Chinese gulag. He shared his story with me over four meetings in 2017 and 2018. (Due to concerns for Iman’s security — the Chinese government has previously targeted the families of Uighur writers — pseudonyms have been used for all parties.)

Iman, from a middle-class Uighur family, came to study in the United States a few years ago. He succeeded in the Chinese education system, even earning a degree from a university in eastern China. In 2017, Iman flew back to China for the summer recess, planning to spend time with friends on the east coast before he returned to Xinjiang to see his mother. Despite the exhaustion from the long flight, he was filled with joy as he landed in the Chinese metropolis where he’d previously lived for several years, despite the discrimination he would likely face. Ethnic minorities in China, especially Uighurs, are often denied hotel rooms.

As he remained strapped in his seat, a flight attendant approached. “They are asking for you,” the woman told him. “It’s probably just a visa issue.” Her words were of little comfort — after all, he possessed a Chinese passport.

Three uniformed Han Chinese border patrol officers waited for the young Uighur student on the jet bridge. Taken into custody, he was subject to a cavity search and then had his devices checked. “I knew to delete any sensitive files before the flight,” Iman recalled with a smirk. Unable to find incrementing files, an officer rattled off a barrage of questions: “What do you do in North America? Where do you study? We found business cards of Chinese professors. You know a lot of important people, don’t you?”

Although unnerved, Iman answered each question with carefully constructed responses. Airport interrogations were nothing new to the young man — he was subjected to questioning after landing in China the previous year — but the protocol was different this time. The inspection was much more thorough, the officers more meticulous and less friendly. “I knew something was wrong when an officer inspected my shoes. They took out the soles, looked inside, turned them upside-down, and violently shook them. This never happened in the past.”

Another officer approached Iman and told him he would be transported to a local jail. The young man demanded an explanation or at least a formal charge. He was given neither. “May I at least call my mother?” Iman asked. “I want to let her know I’ve arrived safely.” His request was denied. “Will you call her for me?” the young man pleaded. The officer retorted, “No, we can’t call her. The local police in Xinjiang should provide her with an update.”

Iman was held for nine days in a local jail while the border authorities contacted law enforcement from his hometown in Xinjiang. He was the only Uighur in a room of 34. On the ninth day of his incarceration, the police squad from Xinjiang arrived. They cuffed Iman tightly and transported him to the train station. “Are the handcuffs necessary?” Iman asked. “Don’t ask questions,” one officer demanded. “We are being lenient — you are supposed to be shackled, too.”

The three Han officers from Iman’s hometown escorted the young man to a train bound for Xinjiang. First, though, these three officers had their own questions. They repeatedly asked if Iman received a notice from his local police station requesting his return before May 20, 2017, in reference to a regionwide order that required Uighurs studying outside China to return to their hometowns. Iman had not. The four individuals spent the next 50 hours packed in a hard sleeper compartment set aside for the security personnel. As they settled on the train, one of the Han officers handed Iman, who observes Islamic dietary laws, a sack of bread. “It was more difficult to find halal food in this city than we expected. This is the best we could do. It has to last you until we reach Xinjiang.”

Iman’s hands remained bound for the entire trip. He was only permitted to leave the compartment to use the restroom but was accompanied by at least one officer on each occasion. While awake, he spent his time reading textbooks he brought from America. “I wore my glasses and read for hours. I thought if I looked as if I was studious, the officers wouldn’t consider me a threat.”

The four detrained in Turpan in eastern Xinjiang. “Put this on,” one officer barked as he shoved a hood stitched of heavy fabric at Iman. The three officers then guided him to a vehicle and departed for Iman’s hometown. The poor ventilation under the hood was made more suffocating by the stale air inside the vehicle, hunger, and dehydration. Iman began suffering from severe nausea. The officers agreed to remove the hood. His symptoms slightly alleviated, and Iman began to engage in small talk with the officers. Coincidently, the chief was Iman’s former classmate, and they reminisced about their school days.

The camaraderie was brief; the vehicle was pulling into the local police station. It was the police chief’s turn to interrogate Iman, who was eating his first proper meal since he landed in China, a bowl of soyman, a dish made of small, flat noodles mixed with vegetables. The meal, however, could not prevent the panic attack that soon overcame Iman. During this third round of interrogation, Iman became dizzy and sweated profusely. “I felt as if I had just played a grueling soccer game. My discomfort induced uncontrollable laughter and then a sensation that I was going to faint.”

The stress intensified as he was taken to the detention center, or kanshousuo. “I was terrified as we approached.” (As we talked, for the first time Iman directed his gaze at the ground, avoiding eye contact.) “The compound was surrounded by towering walls. Military guards patrolled the metal gate. Inside, there was little light. It was so dark,” he continued.

He was immediately processed. An officer took his photograph, measured his height and weight, and told him to strip down to his underwear. They also shaved his head. Less than two weeks before, Iman was an aspiring graduate at one of the top research universities in the United States. Now, he was a prisoner in an extrajudicial detention center.

Still in his underwear, Iman was assigned to a room with 19 other Uighur men. Upon entering the quarters, lit by a single light bulb, a guard issued Iman a bright yellow vest. An inmate then offered the young man a pair of shorts. Iman began scanning the cell. The tiled room was equipped with one toilet, a faucet, and one large kang-style platform bedsupa in Uighur — where all of the inmates slept. He was provided with simple eating utensils: a thin metal bowl and a spoon.

Daily routines were monotonous and highly scripted, Iman said. “We were awoken every morning at 5 a.m. and given 20 minutes to wash. The guards only provided three thermoses of hot water each day for 20 men, though. I had to vie with the others for hot water. I didn’t properly bathe for a week. We were then required to tidy the bed. The guards inspected our work: The corners had to be crisp and the two blankets, which covered the entire platform, wrinkle-free. Breakfast was served at 6 a.m. The menu did not change: moma or steamed bread. After breakfast, we marched inside our cell, calling out cadences in Chinese: ‘Train hard, study diligently.’ Huh, I can’t remember the rest of the verse. I bet it’s on Baidu [Chinese search engine]. Anyway, we marched for several hours. We then viewed ‘re-education’ films until lunch.

“The videos featured a state-appointed imam who explained legal religious practices and appropriate interpretations of Islam. Sometimes the videos had skits warning about the consequences of engaging in ‘illegal religious activities,’ which are displayed on large posters outside every religious site in the region. In one skit, a young man was apprehended for studying the Quran at an underground school, a practice authorities are trying to eliminate. We watched until it was time for lunch, when we were again served moma and ‘vegetable soup,’ minus the vegetables. After lunch, we were allowed to rest in our quarters, but we were only permitted to sit on the platform bed; lying down was forbidden. After this break, we repeated the morning routine — more marching and videos — until we got the same food for dinner. We were permitted to sleep at 8 p.m. Beijing time, but the light was never turned off.” (Xinjiang’s real time zone is two hours behind Beijing, but the government imposes a single clock across the country.)

In his crowded cell, Iman suffered from loneliness and isolation. It was often too disheartening to speak to the others, he said, so he kept to himself. “Most of my cellmates had already been incarcerated for over two months without being formally charged. I did befriend a man in his 60s who, during my detention, was sentenced to six years in prison. His ‘crime’? He sent a religious teaching [tabligh in Uighur], a simple explanation of the Quran, though one not produced by a state-appointed cleric, to his daughter using his mobile phone. She shared it with a friend. The authorities convicted him of possession and dissemination of extremist religious content.”

The days in the detention center accumulated with no end in sight. Three days turned into a week. A week into 10 days. Ten days into two weeks. Yet Iman was never formally charged. Although arbitrary and prolonged detentions violate international law, in China law enforcement may detain “major suspects” for as many as 30 days.

On the 17th day of his incarceration, Iman was called over by a guard. “Grab your things,” he shouted as he handed Iman the clothes he wore when he arrived. “You are being released.” A neighborhood watch group, or jumin weiyuan hui, from his hometown arrived at the detention center to escort Iman to his house but not before they delivered him again to the local police chief. The man looked at Iman and warned: “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.”

Thirty days after landing in China, Iman finally reached home. But there, he was now behind electronic bars. His resident ID card, which would be scanned at security checkpoints ubiquitous to the region, now contained information about his “criminal” past. Trapped inside Xinjiang’s dystopian surveillance apparatus, he wouldn’t be allowed to step foot in any public buildings, board public transportation, or even enter a shopping center.

Yet much to his surprise, Iman was allowed to return to the United States in time for the fall term. Unable to provide a definitive explanation for this abrupt change of fate, Iman offered two possibilities: He did not, after all, commit any crimes and was deemed unthreatening, or a distant relative who worked in law enforcement negotiated his release and ensured his safe return to school.

Although free, Iman now faces the confines of exile. He does not know when or if he can return home. Calling or emailing his mother, who herself has been in a re-education center since last October for traveling to Turkey, risks her safety: Contact with relatives abroad is punishable by interrogation and detention.

The Chinese Communist Party’s approach is radical but one officials will not abandon anytime soon. At a recent security meeting in Kashgar in Xinjiang, a Han Chinese official told a crowd of Uighurs: “You can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one by one — you need to spray chemicals to kill them all.”

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