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“It was like being in hell.” Accounts of those having been in Chinese camps

Orynbek Koksebek, a former inmate of a “political re-education center” in China

This is a translation of an Azattyq article by Нұртай Лахан that was published this past May. It is translated here by Gene Bunin for documentation and “broader consumption” purposes.

An additional two Kazakhstan citizens have recounted how they were detained and forcefully placed in so-called “political re-education centers” in China.

38-year-old Orynbek Koksebek was born in China and moved to the Urzhar district of East Kazakhstan Region together with his parents in 2004. He obtained his Kazakhstan citizenship in 2005. On November 22 of last year, he took a trip to the city of Ghulja (Yining) in China, where he was born, in order to carry out his deregistration procedures there. [translator’s potential correction: in my interview with him, he said that he went there out of the curiosity to see his hometown; he also said he went to Chochek and not to Ghulja]

“The first time I crossed the border [through the Bakhty crossing],” he recounts, “[the Chinese border guards] asked me if I had completed my deregistration in China. They told that I wouldn’t be able to cross back if I didn’t. After arriving in China, I would go to the local Chochek (Tacheng) police branch for issues related to my passport. There, they’d tell me that I still hadn’t deregistered and gave me some documents to sign. As it turned out, these were documents for reestablishing my Chinese registration.”


According to Orynbek, he only completed two years of grade school in Xinjiang, after which he didn’t go to school anymore and grew up in livestock-raising areas. He doesn’t know any Chinese, and cannot read or write well.

“I didn’t understand what was written on that paper,” he recalls. “They told me that it was a document for deregistering from my Chinese residency. I trusted them and signed. Then, on December 15, I got a call from the Chochek police station and was told that my deregistration was complete, and that they just needed to do a health examination and would then let me cross the border. The officer who called me over was named Jenis.”

According to Orynbek, the police in Xinjiang tricked him into coming to the station, from where he was immediately sent to a “political re-education center”. At the time, he thought that he was being sent “to a school”. The employees at the center started by showing him photographs of his relatives, starting with his parents, and asking him about them.

“They first showed me a photo of my father and asked me if I knew him,” Orynbek says. “I told them that this was my late father. Right before my eyes, they ripped apart his photo and threw it into the trash bin. They then took out the photos of my mother and my father’s younger brother. They wrote down their information. I was accused of having dual citizenship and betrayal.”

Over the past several years, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a province [sic.] in western China that is home to both Kazakhs and Uyghurs – the two relatively large ethnic groups – has seen an increase in inspections and mass arrests among the local population.

Beijing worries about Uyghur separatism and religious extremism in the region, and has taken various measures to strengthen security. Meanwhile, both Uyghur activists who have fled abroad and international human rights advocates complain of China’s hardline policies, which they say limit the ethnic minorities’ political, cultural, and religious freedoms.

In recent years, ethnic Kazakhs have also started to report facing repressions and restrictions in Xinjiang. Among them are Kazakhs who have immigrated to their historical homeland from China and who have been granted Kazakhstan citizenship. They were detained during trips to Xinjiang.

Orynbek, who lives in the Urzhar selo, originally told Azattyq that he was worried about giving interviews. He said that the Chinese police had him, as part of his release, sign a nondisclosure agreement regarding what he experienced, and threatened that he’d be taken from Kazakhstan and put in jail for five years if he talked about it.

While visiting relatives in the Almaty area, however, he agreed to meet with an Azattyq reporter in the town of Kaskelen on May 21 and give an interview.

“They [the Chochek police] accused me of having ‘dual citizenship’ because in November I personally signed the statement of reestablishing my Chinese registration,” he says. “In other words, my registration made me a Chinese citizen. That’s how they explained it to me. Exploiting my low educational status, they did whatever they wanted to me.”

According to Orynbek, the police staff at the “political re-education center” in Chochek “made him remain standing for 24 hours straight” on his first day there. They demanded that he learn Chinese and Party songs.

“I was in handcuffs for seven days,” he says. “They took the handcuffs off at night, but I’d have to sleep with my feet shackled. On the seventh day, they undid the handcuffs and led me to another interrogation. There, they told me that I had a year to learn Chinese, or they would jail me for five years.”


Orynbek Koksebek recounts how the Chinese guards “threw him into a deep well and dumped ice-cold water on him, causing him to faint until his body eventually became used to the torture”. He said that he doesn’t want to recall this experience.

“It was like being in hell,” Orynbek recounts. “My hands were cuffed, I couldn’t even turn my head. It was cramped. I feel the fear as I recount this to you. They dumped buckets of water on me. Apparently, I was screaming really sharply then. Others would tell me about that later. When I came to, I was surrounded by several people. There was a young Kazakh among them. ‘Aka,’ he said to me, ‘we all know you’re not made of steel. Confess to everything.’ They wanted me to admit to having exploited the dual citizenship and to being indebted to the Chinese people. I refused these demands, however.”

According to Orynbek, his suffering did not end there. He had no choice but to use the Arabic script to write down the lyrics to Chinese-language Party songs and to memorize them. The staff at the “political re-education center” would force him to listen to a song, in Chinese, performed by the popular Kazakhstan singer Dimash Kudaibergen.

“As it turns out, a person can endure quite a lot, but the human body can’t go without salt,” Orynbek recounts. “About three months later, they transferred me to another place. There, they gave us two kinds of dishware. One for boiled water and another for rice-based food. Once, they brought us a cup of salt. I took a handful, added it to the water, stirred it up, and drank. ‘Salt! Salt!’ I cried out loud. Hearing about salt caused a stir among everyone.”

Orynbek Koksebek says that he left the “political re-education center” in Chochek on April 13, 2018 [translator’s correction: April 12]. No independent sources in China have been able to confirm his account. No relevant information has been provided by the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan either. Azattyq asked the Chinese consulate in Almaty for comment on May 22, but was not given a reply.


Almaty resident Aman Zhanseyit, another Kazakhstan citizen who was detained in the same “political re-education center” as Orynbek Koksebek, says that he was interned for over 50 days.

Kazakhstan citizen Aman Zhanseyit, who says that he spent nearly two months in a camp in China.

On May 22, Aman was invited to partake in a round-table discussion held by the youth activist group “Atazhurt” at Almaty’s “Kazakhstan” hotel. During this meeting, those who had been released from China’s “re-education centers” expressed their gratitude to the media outlets that wrote about them and to Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

“On February 18, 2018, I flew to Beijing on business,” he recalls. “There, I was detained and told that I’d be taken to Chochek. From their words, I was able to gather that they were planning to deliver me there in handcuffs and leg shackles, and so told them that I’d go to Chochek on my own volition. At the Chochek airport, I was met by three people and detained.” [translator’s correction: having heard Aman’s testimony twice in person and having read about it elsewhere, I can say with 99% confidence that he was detained at the Urumqi airport and then driven about 10 hours to Chochek]

According to Aman, the Chochek police then interrogated him for three days, asking him about his profession and asking him what his relatives did.

“After four days, I was taken to an education center [political re-education center],” Aman says. “I barely made it out of there 53 days later. We would sing the national anthem before breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The uncertainty was the worst. We didn’t know when we’d get out – if it’d take one year or two. No one could say. I kept telling them that ‘I have four kids in Kazakhstan and that it’ll be hard for them without me there’. They’d reply and say that my kids would survive without me. Every two weeks they’d summon me for a chat.

When asked how we were doing, we had to say that everything was good. To everything they said, we’d say maqul [‘okay’ in Uyghur]. You got a special punishment if you didn’t say maqul. They had rooms for solitary confinement, and they could put you in there. Those were really dark and cold. And so I was Maqul-bai [‘Mr. Maqul’] for two months straight.”

Aman says that in addition to housing local Xinjiang Kazakhs, the political education centers also had Kazakhs who had immigrated to Kazakhstan and obtained residence there, only to later be detained while back in China.

“There was a young Kazakh guy in detention with me,” Aman says. “His wife was in detention too. They couldn’t see each other. Their two kids were left in the care of the guy’s father, who himself was over 70. The guy’s mother was ill. During the day, we would sit on stools and read books. Every hour we’d stand up and exercise for around 10 minutes. It was during those moments that we were able to chat with him. We were all being monitored through surveillance cameras.”

Earlier, Azattyq had written about yet another Kazakhstan citizen, Qayrat Samarkan, who spent several months incarcerated in a “political re-education center” in China’s Burultoqai (Fuhai) County. In his interview to Azattyq, he told of having “tried to commit suicide”. During the meeting on May 22 in Almaty, he said:

“I suffered unjustly. This is why I plan to demand, with the help of international rights organizations, a compensation of one million U.S. dollars from the Chinese government and the release of all innocent Kazakhs being detained in the so-called ‘political education centers’.”

News of repressions against Kazakhs in China have been coming in since the April of 2017. The issue was also raised last year at the World Congress of Kazakhs in Astana. An ethnic Kazakh from Germany, Omirkhan Altyn, brought up the issue and pointed it out to Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

At that time, Nazarbayev instructed the MFA to sort out the problems faced by Kazakhstan citizens. The ministry has, from time to time, commented on the repressions directed at Kazakhstan citizens and local ethnic Kazakhs in China. The MFA has also said to have issued a diplomatic note to Beijing and to have held talks with the Xinjiang authorities regarding the Kazakhstan citizens detained there. Written inquiries on the issue sent by Azattyq to the MFA and the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan over the past few months have gone unanswered.

Ethnic Kazakhs in China generally live in villages and in different regions of Xinjiang’s Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, in the Tarbagatai, Altai, and other regions of China, as well as in the city of Urumqi. According to the 2000 census, the number of ethnic Kazakhs in China totals 1.25 million.

Nurtai Lahanuly was born in 1973. He graduated from the Department of Philology of the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in 1998. He has worked for the Kazakhstan Zaman paper as well as for Kazakh radio. He has been working at Azattyq since 2010.

Filed under: History


Dr. Darren Byler is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University where he teaches and writes about social theory, urban ethnography and the technopolitics of life in Chinese Central Asia. He also writes a regular column on state violence and Uyghur decolonization for SupChina.

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