Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are making “preparations” in advance of international monitors who might start investigating reports of mass incarcerations of ethnic Uyghurs by improving the appearance of political re-education camps and warning residents against speaking out about the facilities, according to sources.
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout the XUAR, and some 1.1 million people are believed to have been held in the network—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region.
The mass detentions have drawn significant attention from the international community, and particularly from the U.S., where lawmakers have called for access to the camps and proposed sanctions against officials and entities in China deemed responsible for abusing the rights of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the XUAR.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, the chairman of the XUAR government, Shohrat Zakir, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations has shown that those held in the camps are detained against their will, are subjected to political indoctrination and rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities. The atmosphere is more like a prison than any kind of school, multiple sources say.
A source recently told RFA that residents of Awat (in Chinese, Awati) county, in the XUAR’s Aksu (Akesu) prefecture, had been informed that an “inspection team” would soon be visiting the area, which is home to three re-education camps.
Of the 5,700 detainees at No. 2 Re-education Camp, 2,700 had been transferred to No. 1 and No. 3 camps, the source said, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity, and authorities are removing all barbed wire from the perimeter of the camp walls, as well as other security measures, such as metal bars on the doors and windows.
If anyone is asked by the inspection team how many camps exist in Awat, residents should say only one, the source added.
The source provided RFA with a copy of a "confidentiality agreement" authorities in Awat are requiring re-education camp detainees to sign, which states that they will not discuss the workings of the camps, accept any interviews, or use communication channels such as social media or SMS messaging to disseminate information about the camp system.
Those who violate the agreement are subject to "accountability according to related national laws," it reads.
Officers at police stations in Awat were unable to confirm the preparations and referred additional questions to their superiors.
However, officers at police stations in Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture’s Kargilik (Yecheng) county recently told RFA that an inspection team is believed to be arriving there within weeks, and said preparations were underway for its arrival.
When asked about the team, an officer from the Janggilieski Township Police Station told RFA that “we have done all of the preparation work,” and referred further questions to his superiors.
An officer at the Tazghun Township Police Station said “work at the local level has increased dramatically due to the forthcoming inspection,” and that he and others had been “attending to the preparation tasks.”
He referred additional questions to a team that includes public security officers, the local Communist Party secretary, and assistant police officers, which is preparing for the inspection, adding that “I can’t afford to say anything wrong.”
However, the officer confirmed that authorities had been coaching residents to refrain from saying negative things about the local government or mentioning the re-education camps, and that they had been removing barbed wire and CCTV cameras from the camps.
A businessman from Ghulja (Yining) city, in Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture, who is trading in neighboring Kazakhstan, recently told RFA of a similar situation in his hometown.
“I have heard that officials are visiting households door to door, informing people that there is an inspection team coming soon,” he said.
“People are taught what to say, and they were warned not to mention the difficulties they are facing.”
According to the businessman, who also declined to provide his name, residents were told to “praise the [Communist] Party’s policies” and to “say only good things about the government.”
They were also warned that there “may be foreigners among them,” so they should refrain from mentioning anything about re-education camps.
“If you are asked about them, you must say that after attending the program they will become good people,” the businessman said.
Authorities threatened residents that any negative comments could lead to imprisonment or detention in the re-education camps, he added, while those who complain about the situation in the region will have “three generations of their family blacklisted,” and the government “will not leave them alone.”
The businessman said that his colleagues who had been to Ghulja in recent weeks had seen national flags, which are hung every 50-100 meters (165-330 feet) along streets in the city, replaced with “decorative reproductions of Uyghur musical instruments.”
“I also heard that people are being trained to sing and dance, and were repeatedly told that they must look happy and enthusiastic when visited by the inspection team,” he said.
“Authorities tell them, ‘to show your contentment with life, you must dance happily, and everyone must smile joyfully. No one may look sad, otherwise there will be consequences.’”
Meanwhile, the businessman said, police vans can regularly be seen driving about on area roads, and are believed to be transporting detainees from one camp to another.
“The scene gives people the impression that [the authorities] are preparing for a very important event,” he said.
“There used to be barbed wire on the walls of all the camps, but now it has all been removed. No one knows what is happening inside the walled compounds, or why the police vans are so busy.”
Call for access
Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, and other Uyghur exile leaders have long said Zakir’s claims that Uyghurs are benefiting from free job training centers in the XUAR are “aimed at deceiving the international community” and suggested that if he is telling the truth, Beijing should grant the U.N. and Western governments unfettered access to the region to investigate the camp network.
Washington-based lawyer and Uyghur activist Nury Turkel recently said that international pressure has forced China to “deny its brutal treatment and criminalization of the Uyghur people based on their race, religion, culture and traditions,” and create a narrative to suggest that Beijing “is doing a favor for the Uyghurs.”
He has urged the international community “to be extremely cautious of China’s calculated propaganda campaigns to mislead the world while continuing its onslaught on the Uyghur people.”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.