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China Is Treating Muslims Like Drug Addicts
Extralegal camps in Xinjiang are modeled on the country’s internment of drug users.
The camps in Xinjiang, China, made global headlines this month. The exact number of members of the Muslim Uighur and Kazakh ethnic minorities imprisoned there is unknown. Some estimate hundreds of thousands, others a million. United Nation bodies and international human rights organizations have called on the Chinese government to release those detained. But as shocking as these reports are, indefinite detention on such a massive scale in China is not new. For years, centers across China have detained hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens—not on religious grounds, but for drug use. Understanding this process helps situate Xinjiang’s camps inside China’s larger carceral system.
In China, drug use is technically decriminalized; under Chinese law, it is an administrative, not a criminal, offense. China, however, is not Portugal, where drug use was fully decriminalized in 2001 and where the police help those who use drugs find appropriate medical and social care. While the Chinese government funds methadone maintenance therapy and needle exchanges, police still detain thousands of people every year for using drugs.
But rather than being jailed, they are held in drug detention centers (known in Chinese as “compulsory quarantine detoxification centers”). Under China’s 2008 anti-drug law, people caught using drugs can be held in these centers for up to two years. By 2016, approximately 357,000 people were detained in 700 centers, an increase of more than 100,000 since 2013. And despite their name, it is the Ministries of Justice and Public Security—not the health ministry—that run them.
Why the police provide “detoxification services” can be explained by looking at China’s now-abolished system of reeducation through labor. Created in the 1950s, these camps held those considered a threat to public order but who had not committed a criminal offense. Who constituted a threat changed with the times. During the Mao era, most were “rightists” or counterrevolutionaries; by the 1990s, they were petty thieves, sex workers, and users of drugs. Having not been found guilty of a criminal offense, detainees were denied trials or access to legal counsel. Yet unlike prisoners in ordinary jails, they could be indefinitely detained for years at a time.
Public criticism of reeducation through labor grew through the early 2000s, with legal experts arguing that it violated the constitutional provision against arbitrary deprivation of personal liberty. In some cases, people had been detained simply for criticizing local authorities. When the system was abolished in 2013, the Chinese government hailed the news as evidence of its commitment to the rule of law. Yet for those detained for drug use—who by 2013 were the majority of detainees—abolition changed little. It quickly mutated into a new system of drug detention where people continued to be held, often in repurposed labor reeducation buildings, for years without trial. This was widely covered in the Chinese press. To this day, Chinese TV journalists regularly interview detainees about life in the centers, with detainees expressing regret about their former drug use and pledging to reform themselves into upstanding citizens.
Such reports paint an optimistic picture of drug detention. But as the United States’ war on drugs shows, jailing people for possession does nothing to curb demand. Despite nearly three decades of prohibitionist policies, drug use in China continues to rise—from 1.3 million registered users of drugs in 2009 to 2.5 million in 2016—and the actual number may be many times higher.
Detention does little to treat addiction. According to official estimates, roughly 90 percent of detainees continue to use following their release. Government surveillance continues long after release as well. For up to three years, former detainees are kept on government lists of “registered users” and subjected to scheduled and random drug urine tests. A positive test means another two-year stint in detention. And because registration is associated with the national ID card, a key part of everyday life in China, even the act of using an ID to book a hotel or purchase a train ticket online can trigger a visit from the police and another urine test.
Like drug detention centers, Xinjiang’s reeducation centers seem modeled on the reeducation through labor system. Detained Uighurs and Kazakhs have not committed criminal offenses; in many cases, they haven’t even committed administrative ones. Yet today, hundreds of thousands of people are being held without trial for anything from praying too often to having religiously themed text messages on their phones. As with their counterparts in China’s drug detention centers, moral and political rectification play key roles in the detainees’ lives. Detainees are expected to repent for their supposed extremism and work toward becoming good Chinese citizens. And like users of drugs, those released from the reeducation camps are reportedly required to meet regularly with local police.
Xinjiang’s Muslims are being defined by who they are, and users of drugs by what they do. But these differences should not obscure fundamental similarities. Rather than an aberration from the norm, Xinjiang’s reeducation camps are an extension of existing models long used within the administrative detention system. Citizens labeled as threats to the social order—whether drug users or Muslim minorities—can be detained for years. Because detainees are not charged with criminal offenses, the police can avoid overwhelming the judicial or prison systems with thousands of cases. Nor do changes need be made to China’s criminal law to justify their imprisonment. Administrative infractions can be used or created as needed to account for their arrest and detention.
I believe these centers also serve two fundamentally similar purposes: to demonstrate to target communities that they are under constant state surveillance and to signal to the wider society the government’s commitment to harshly deal with any group considered a threat. Can these camps compel Muslims detainees to permanently renounce their faith? Probably not. Will this be seen by the government as a failure? Again, I suspect not. Drug detention centers aim to permanently wean people off drugs, yet their inability to do so has not led to the abolition of this system. Getting Muslims to abandon their faith, or compelling people to abstain from drug use, may just be the maximal objectives of these centers. Surveillance and intimidation are probably the core aims.
There may also be more banal bureaucratic motivations at work. Facing layoffs in the wake of the abolition of reeducation through labor, police officers found new jobs at drug detention centers. Xinjiang’s reeducation camps may help justify larger budgets and increased hiring for the region’s security services. Arrest quotas may also fuel the growth of these centers. The rising number of people detained in drug detention centers is thanks in part to police officers filling arrest quotas or local governments showing their commitment to China’s “people’s war on drugs.” Reports suggest a similar system in use in Xinjiang, with local police arresting Muslims to meet government quotas and local officials building camps to show their dedication to the region’s wars on “separatism,” “extremism,” and “terrorism”.
Whatever motivation lies behind the creation of Xinjiang’s reeducation camps, the Chinese government seems confident that the average Chinese citizen will be indifferent to their existence. This confidence may be well founded. By the time reeducation through labor was abolished, public and expert opinion was overwhelmingly opposed to this system. Yet once it was transformed into drug detention, public concern disappeared. People could sympathize with citizen petitioners unfairly detained for protesting the abuses of local officials; they were less sympathetic to those detained for drug use, who were maligned as addicts at best, criminals at worst.
The Chinese government may be counting on a similar level of public indifference toward the fate of fellow citizens detained in Xinjiang, who are routinely characterized in state media as terrorists or religious extremists. How long this system of reeducation in Xinjiang will last and how large it will grow is unclear. The history of administrative detention in China does not inspire optimism, however. Even if these reeducation camps are abolished, China’s drug detention centers suggest that something just as bad may take their place.