The August 9, 2021 issue of the literary journal Mekong Review featured a lead review of two new books on Xinjiang, one which I authored called In the Camps (Columbia Global Reports), scheduled to come out in October (pre-order it now!), and a recent publication titled The Perfect Police State(Public Affairs), by investigative journalist Geoffrey Cain. “In what is the largest mass detention of people from a religious or ethnic group since the Second World War,” writes Robert Templer. “The persecution of the Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and the Chinese Muslims known as Hui brings together four strands of contemporary life: the surveillance society and its facilitation by smartphones; the use of big data; global supply chains; and the idea that governments can take any actions against what they define as extremism. US policies after the attacks of 9/11, including secret prisons, disappearances and renditions without legal process, opened the door for governments like that in Beijing to apply the same policies without restraint.”
Templer’s review joins other early reviews of In the Camps. Scholar of contemporary China Andrew Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and a frequent commentator in Foreign Affairs, notes, “Built around true personal stories, the book is a riveting—and terrifying—account of one of the worst human rights abuses being perpetrated in the world today.” He notes that the system extends beyond extralegal punishment for normative Islamic practice, to webs of surveillance that begin to overwhelm daily life of ethno-racialized minorities. Nick Holdstock, the author of two literary non-fiction accounts of the region, notes that the figures whose stories narrate the book “overlap and cohere into a raw portrait of systematic brutality and dehumanising routines.” New Yorker staff writer and editor of Columbia Global Reports, Nicholas Lemann notes that what the system takes away from Uyghurs and others is “their freedom of thought—the most intimate of human rights.”
Other intellectual heroes of mine, such as leading scholar of decolonial critique Shu-mei Shih, labor and technology scholar Meridith Whittaker, and ethicist Evan Selinger, also took on the book. Selinger noted that the “soul-crushing brutality” of the technology-enabled systems of control that have become so banal in Northwest China should not be forgotten. Instead they should be understood as part of what Whittaker refers to as “familiar settler colonial logics.” This, and the “automated racialization” of the systems, are why Shih argues the book should be “required reading for anyone interested in racial justice across the world.” Former Google research scientist and ethicist Jack Poulson added that what makes the book particularly prescient as an account of contemporary global capitalism is the way it “underlines the foundational role Silicon Valley companies” in the system.
As part of the Mekong Review‘s assessment of the book, I spoke with editor Abby Seiff about the uniqueness of the campaign in Northwest China, the process of chosing who to focus on in the book, and what the system signals regarding the future of surveillance.
You note throughout the book that abuse of ethnic minorities, an overzealous war on terror, the role played by powerful economic interests, and even the use of predictive policing is hardly unique to China. Are the horrors we see in Xinjiang, then, simply a matter of scale? Or is there a fundamental difference in China’s approach?
What is happening in Xinjiang borrows basic technologies and counter-terrorism strategy from other places. Deeply problematic ‘countering violent extremism’ or CVE programs in North America and Europe ostensibly are focused on preventing people, particularly Muslims, from being radicalised by placing them on watchlists and in some cases detaining them. And the use of face recognition and dataveillance is something that civil rights advocates decry in many places.
What is different in China is the scale and more specific tactics that are used. These aspects are interrelated. The Chinese government has spent around $100 billion dollars to build the systems of the Muslim re-education campaign, which is remarkable, but as part of this system they have also hired around 90,000 low level government contractors to maintain the system. These workers are paid only around $300-400 a month. They have also mobilised 1.1 million mostly Han ‘volunteers’ to monitor the families of detainees and others on watchlists. This mass mobilisation of a ‘people’s war’ against terrorism is unique to China’s authoritarian context and it’s history of mass campaigns. The legal and carceral systems likewise build on older camp and re-education systems for ‘untrustworthy’ populations that were instituted during the Maoist period.
Many of the survivors you feature in your book are urban, secular, educated, and Chinese-speaking. And some, such as a police contractor and a teacher, are both victims and perpetrators. Was that a deliberate choice on your part?
I chose the figures I did in the book in part because they were in safe places and able to speak to me. In order to escape the region, it is very beneficial to have economic mobility and knowledge of Chinese. However, among the Kazakh former detainees I interviewed, significant numbers of them were also rural herders with very limited knowledge of Chinese. Adilbek, one of the former detainees who speaks from that position in the book, evoked such powerful images of social death and dehumanisation—of preparing a sheep for slaughter and the way shepherds strike their sheep—that it was hard not to shed a few tears with him. In order to convey a sense of the inarticulable yet looming presence of the system, it was important to choose figures who could narrate it from different class, gender, ethnic, political and geographic positions. Rather than pointing to the easier targets of central leaders, I also wanted to show how a ‘swarm of functionaries,’ as Primo Levi might refer to them, were pulled into the system as low-level perpetrators.
Given the increasing popularity of this type of biometric surveillance across the globe, do you see the situation in Xinjiang as a harbinger for other nations?
The possibility of this is certainly something that should trouble anyone with an interest in racial justice and decolonisation. I’m particularly concerned about the development of such systems in places like Hong Kong, Kashmir and Palestine. However, it is also important to be clear that implementing a system like the one in Xinjiang takes a great deal of money, an army of low-level technicians and an authoritarian government with the political will to colonise an entire population of people without regard for international law. Without those elements in place, it will be difficult for other nations to target minorities in quite the same way.
An excerpt from the appeal letter of Kazakh student Bagdat Akin, written after over two years in custody. (Drawing by @YetteSu.)
Gene A. Bunin
This is the third in a series of three articles highlighting the massive expansion of the prison system in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that has taken place in recent years. The prisons have been running in parallel with the much-covered concentration camps (“vocational training centers”) and possess many of the same traits, interning hundreds of thousands without real due process and engaging in labor exploitation. However, while international action has led to many, if not most, detainees being let out from the camps, those in prisons have been given sentences that often range from 10 to 20 years, and have yet to see any real concessions. The world remains passive on the issue. (Click here to read Part II.)
Download the PDF version of this essay here (3.19MB)
In using the legal system to sentence hundreds of thousands, the Xinjiang authorities have effectively performed the notorious act of mass incarceration “in accordance with the law” (依法) – two characters that appear an incredible number of times in the documents produced by the courts, procuratorates, and public security organs. Though more of a red stamp than words that carry actual meaning, the phrase does nevertheless underline an important point: the actual mechanisms at work behind the nominally legal incarceration and sentencing are different from those of incarceration in the extralegal camps.
From a legal perspective, incarceration in the camps is somewhat of a circus, where the formal court system essentially has no role and where many, if not most, decisions appear to rest with the neighborhood and village administration committees – the base government units in the People’s Republic of China. Taking as an example the Karakash List – a 137-page government document that outlines the fates of hundreds of Uyghurs taken to camps in Hoten’s Karakash County – one finds approximately 40 instances of the phrase “sent to training by the … neighborhood administration” (被/由 … 社区送培) and another 20 of the phrase “sent to training by the … village” (被/由 … 村送培). Likewise, the phrase “as determined by the neighborhood administration” (经社区研判) precedes around 100 recommendations about whether a certain person should remain in camp or not. Over a dozen eyewitness accounts act as testament to the complete absence of lawyers and anything that even resembles due process, with formal written documentation either scarce, absurd, or non-existent. Both firsthand accounts and actual police records show close cooperation between the local neighborhood/village committees and nearby police stations, with the latter playing the role of a physical coercion instrument and, in some cases, interrogating or investigating the detainee before they are sent to camp. The actual arrest procedure – from being (nominally) free to being in camp – usually takes between a few hours and a few days, though notable exceptions do exist.
Needless to say that none of this is “in accordance with the law”, not even by Xinjiang standards.
As such, the standard procedure as experienced by most who get sentenced through the legal system may seem laudable by comparison. Here, the local neighborhood and village administrations appear to have minimal, if any, involvement, and it is the police, the procuratorates, and the courts who run the show. In the typical case, the individual is first detained by the police and a detention notice is issued to relatives. The police then have up to 37 days to have the procuratorate approve the formal arrest (releasing the individual if the proper warrant cannot be secured). This, too, is followed by a formal arrest notice being issued to relatives, and sometimes publicly. Following a period of investigation, the police send the relevant materials to the procuratorate, which then files a written indictment against the individual, sending it to the court, while notifying – again, in writing – the individual of their right to legal assistance. The court hearings that follow are documented in written verdicts, with the defendant allowed to appeal, also in writing. After the individual is found guilty and transferred to prison, the prison as well issues a written incarceration notice to the individual’s family to say that they have received the new prisoner. Overall, the procedure is well defined, appears to be consistent across all of China, and leaves an enormous paper trail.
The paper trail of China’s judicial system, from the initial arrest of a given individual to their arrival in prison to serve their sentence. The schematic is based on empirical observation and obtained documents, and may not be comprehensive.
Challenging such a polished and authoritative system is, understandably, an unattractive task, and it is far easier to attack the extralegal camps, screaming “never again!” and making analogies to the Nazis. However, challenge this system one must, and not only because of the hundreds of thousands that it now holds and plans to hold for decades. The legal system, as applied in Xinjiang today, must be challenged mercilessly because it is completely illegitimate and egregiously illegal in its behavior.
To start, there is the total lack of transparency. The court verdicts, which serve as the core documentation of a given individual’s trial and sentence, are nowhere to be found despite the fact that they should exist and, as suggested by the limited empirical evidence so far, probably do. One effective comparative tool that allows to quantify this absence of transparency is the criminal “verdict-to-case ratio” – specifically, the number of criminal verdicts publicly listed on China Judgments Online (China’s main court-document repository) versus the number of criminal cases reported. For Xinjiang, which reported a total of 74348 criminal cases being concluded in 2018, only 7714 criminal verdicts are available in the repository for that year, yielding a ratio of 1 : 9.64. This is incredibly low in comparison to the rest of the country, with even Tibet – a region that is even more closed – displaying a better rate of documentation. As such, not only is Xinjiang disproportionately ahead of the rest of the country in arrests, prosecutions, and sentences, it is also an entire order of magnitude ahead when it comes to not disclosing the information.
Criminal verdicts (刑事判决书) available on China Judgments Online versus criminal cases concluded (审结刑事案件) in 2018, for various provincial-level regions across China. Case counts are sourced from official work reports. Sometimes, only the first-instance case (一审案件) counts were reported, and the verdict count was consequently limited to first-instance only as well in order to allow comparison – these are marked with an asterisk (*). For a few regions, 2018 reports were not available and either 2017 or 2019 reports were used. Some case counts may also be approximate as a result of rounding. The count for Hainan includes non-concluded cases as well, though the difference is expected to be negligible. It is not clear why the verdict number is greater than the case count for Yunnan, but this may be due to a system error or some verdicts being uploaded multiple times (something previously observed on China Judgments Online).
A survey of the 7700+ criminal verdicts that are listed reveals additional problems. Mainly, the vast majority deal with concrete and universally understood offenses that are usually either physical (robbery, murder, disorderly conduct) or financial (graft, illegal trafficking, forgery) in nature. The contestable “crimes” typically applied to Xinjiang’s ethnic-minority population (e.g., “terrorism”, “extremism”, “inciting ethnic hatred”, “disturbing social order”) make up less than 1% of the 7700+ criminal verdicts. Specifically, there are 3 criminal verdicts for “propagating terrorism and extremism, and inciting terrorist activities” (宣扬恐怖主义、极端主义、煽动实施恐怖活动罪), 1 criminal verdict for “illegal possession of items propagating terrorism and extremism” (非法持有宣扬恐怖主义、极端主义物品罪), 19 criminal verdicts for “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” (煽动民族仇恨、民族歧视罪), and 18 criminal verdicts for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” (聚众扰乱社会秩序罪). Virtually all of the defendants in these cases are Uyghur. To make matters worse, not even these 41 verdicts are open to public scrutiny, as all 41 have had their content removed, often citing “other reasons for the court not finding it appropriate to publish publicly online” (法院认为不宜在互联网公布的其他情形).
In a large number of instances, verdicts that have been previously listed – even those without content – have been removed. At the end of 2019, fearing that the Chinese authorities may start to scrub documents and listings from China Judgments Online, staff and volunteers at the Xinjiang Victims Database went through and archived as many as was relevant and possible. While almost all of the “sensitive” cases archived had had their content removed already, archiving them has nevertheless made it possible to compare the numbers: of what was available then to what is currently available now. Taking the year 2019 as an example, we can see that the vast majority of the court documents and listings pertaining to the cases with questionable charges have been scrubbed over the past year. Not surprisingly, those still online have their content removed.
The numbers of court documents listed on China Judgments Online for 2019 criminal cases corresponding to contestable “crimes” often applied to Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities. A comparison of what was accessible in late 2019 and what is accessible today shows that the vast majority of these document listings have been removed.
2019 Cases Listed in Late 2019
2019 Cases Listed in Early 2021
“assisting in terrorist activities”
“preparing to carry out terrorist activities”
“propagating terrorism and extremism, and inciting terrorist activities”
“using extremism to undermine law enforcement”
“illegal possession of items propagating terrorism and extremism”
“inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination”
“gathering a crowd to disturb social order”
Among the (at least) 380 removed court documents for individuals accused of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order”, one is that of Alim Ehet’s. Because the content has been removed, it is not clear if this is theAlim Ehet – the Xinjiang University mathematics professor, software engineer, and founder of Uyghursoft who disappeared in mid-2018 and has been completely missing since. However, there is reason to think that it may be, as the city (Urumqi), the document timestamp (2019), and the official name spelling (there are at least 9 different ways to spell “Alim Ehet” in Mandarin) all match.
What is suspected to be a criminal verdict of Alim Ehet, a prominent Uyghur scholar and software engineer now missing for years, charged here with “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” (source: https://archive.vn/NWatH). The content has not been made public, with “other reasons for the People’s Court not finding it appropriate to publish publicly online” provided as the explanation. The record, despite already having been stripped of content, was removed completely in the spring of 2020, and searching China Judgments Online for 阿力木·艾海提 (Alim Ehet) now yields no relevant results. Prior to removal, it was indicated in the search results that the case was handled by the Intermediate People’s Court in Urumqi, where the scholar Alim Ehet was based.
To date, the Xinjiang Victims Database has also documented a total of 39 individuals whose official Chinese names are known and who have been provably sentenced in Xinjiang in recent (2016-) years. Of these, only Serikzhan Adilhan has his case listed on China Judgments Online –the alleged crime financial in nature and the sentence relatively light. All of the others are conspicuously missing.
Individuals who were sentenced in 2016 or later and whose sentencing has been rigorously corroborated (in the vast majority of cases, by official sources). With the exception of one case, none have their verdicts listed on China Judgments Online. Information reported anecdotally and not readily checked is followed by an asterisk (*).
One could argue that the Chinese state has no obligation to make all of its court verdicts public in the first place. However, even if one were to accept such an argument – ignoring the accusations of genocide, the obvious lack of transparency for Xinjiang in particular, and the aforementioned removal of court documents – there still remains the blatant disregard for minimal human decency, as not even the relatives of those sentenced have been able to obtain the verdicts in the vast majority of cases (often, as in the case of Nursiman Abdureshid’s family, it has taken years for relatives abroad just to learn that their loved ones had been sentenced).
Jewlan Shirmemet campaigning for his mother’s freedom outside the Chinese embassy in Ankara, Turkey.
Which is not to say that people haven’t tried. In early-to-mid 2020, Jewlan Shirmemet, a student and tour guide in Istanbul, had a number of conversations with the Chinese consulate and embassy in Turkey, who confirmed to him that his mother, retired civil servant Suriye Tursun, had been sentenced for “assisting in terrorist activities”. At numerous instances, Jewlan demanded that the Chinese mission staff help him obtain the verdict so that he could hire a lawyer and appeal. These exchanges, which serve as an illustrative example of institutional stonewalling, went as follows:
Jewlan: Can you give me the court verdict? I want to find a lawyer. I want to find an international lawyer. Can you provide me with the verdict?
Staff: Look, there’s no need to get so agitated. The mainland has also already told us that your case may not be that severe. Or maybe it was a case where other people’s influences played a role, like being in contact with some wrong people – what I mean is, maybe you could write down whom you’ve been in contact with, starting from the last time that you left the country up until now, including when you were in Egypt before and in your current situation now.
Jewlan: There’s another thing that I want to ask: what’s my mother’s crime? I really want to understand. Can you send me my mother’s written verdict? Can you provide it to me? What is the crime?
Staff: This… We don’t really have this on our side. It’s not something we handle.
Jewlan: I want to contact my family members, and right now I also want to have my mother’s written verdict. Her written verdict. Written verdict. Can you give that to me? You said, in the e-mail…
Staff: We don’t have that either. This…
Jewlan: I’m asking you to request it from the Chinese government, from the court. This written verdict. Because I want to go look for a lawyer. I can look for one in Beijing, or look for one outside the country. I want to find a lawyer.
Staff: I feel like the more urgent thing right now… I feel like the more urgent thing right now is to first explain your own problem to the mainland, and then to talk about other things.
Jewlan: You need to provide me with the written verdict. Because each day my mom spends over there, being tormented… I know what the situation over there is like, and right now the COVID-19 situation is also extremely severe. My mom, she…
Staff: This thing… Right now, it’s definitely not a problem. That we can confirm for you. But I feel like the more pressing thing now is to first resolve your own problem. Only then can you talk about other things.
Jewlan: My request is that you provide me with my mom’s written verdict. I really must see its contents. What my mom’s criminal charge was – I really want to understand that. This is my… I feel that, for a Chinese citizen, this is an extremely normal request, right? The consulate should be able to provide me with this, right? Because the consulate is there to protect the rights of citizens who are overseas in the countries the consulates are in, right? This is my right, right?
Staff: That’s why right now the issue is your mom, who is currently in the mainland. I feel like what’s most important right now is to change the mainland’s opinion of you.
Jewlan: It is my mom who is currently in jail, who was sentenced. I really want… Because I… Don’t China’s laws also have this? The right to appeal, right? We can go to the Supreme People’s Court to appeal, right? In any case, going to the Supreme People’s Court to appeal is an extremely normal thing, a normal legal process. That’s why I want the consulate, if it really wants to help me, to ask the court for the written verdict.
Staff: To be honest, this… Right now, it’s not… Right now, it’s not us helping you. Right now, it is you needing to help yourself. First, explain your own situation clearly. Tell us about your situation first, and only then will it be possible to talk about other things.
Jewlan: I will provide you with all the information, but you also need to help me ask for the written verdict. Because I want to go find – I have already found – a lawyer. I have already found a lawyer. I have found a lawyer in Beijing and I have found a lawyer internationally: one in England. I want to appeal, so I need to see this written verdict. I think that this is an extremely normal process in Chinese law. To appeal, to refute, to go to the Supreme People’s Court and appeal, to find a lawyer – this is how the legal process works. I don’t think that this violates the law in any way. Right now, my request is also very simple.
Staff: This… You might have the right to do this, but right now we over here don’t have a way to help you appeal either…
Jewlan: No, no, no. I haven’t asked you to help me appeal. I just want the written verdict.
Staff: What we can help you with now is… You should supply us with a description of your activities and your basic situation.
Jewlan: I’m just requesting what I’m entitled to as a citizen. I don’t have any other requests.
Staff: So… I know what you mean, but there are a lot of things I need to check. First, we are a country of law, and it’s not like the family members of anyone who says their family members have been arrested… have been arrested illegally…
Jewlan: Before, I requested the written court verdict. You didn’t give it.
Jewlan: I requested a lawyer…
Staff: There are a lot of things that can be requested. We could also request a lot of things, but speaking within the legal framework…
Receiving no assistance from the Chinese mission in Turkey, Jewlan joined dozens of others in holding prolonged protests outside the Chinese consulate and embassy, as they demanded to be informed about the whereabouts and wellbeing of their relatives. Far from forthcoming, the Chinese embassy replied by publicly accusing them of being part of an organized operation to lie and spread false information.
For Muherrem Muhemmed’eli Baqi, a resident of Japan who was able to leave China in 2018, the person sentenced was his father, a farmer and Friday imam Muhemmed’eli Tursun. After being disappeared at a meeting in March 2017, Muhemmed’eli would only resurface in August, and with a 6-year term for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. As part of his efforts to have his father freed, Muherrem tried to hire a lawyer in inner China to handle the case. The latter, however, would message Muherrem to tell him that he could not obtain the court documents, as the Xinjiang lawyer(s) had made it very clear to him that the documents could not be “sent outside”.
Screenshot of an online message from an inner-China lawyer to Muherrem Muhemmed’eli Baqi, reading: “The lawyer(s) there (in Xinjiang) made it very clear to me that the case documents could not be sent outside, and not even I’m able to look at them.” (source: Muherrem Muhemmed’eli Baqi)
From China’s perspective, it is undoubtedly better that things remain this way, as the verdicts and other judicial documentation that have come to light – often through leaks, imprudence, or various surreptitious channels – reveal more lawlessness than law. It is very likely that the majority of the documents, were they made publicly available, would fail to withstand even the slightest criticism from anyone with a fundamental knowledge of China’s criminal code. The available records also confirm that obscure charges for what are misdemeanors at best are typically viewed through a draconian lens, yielding the absurdly long sentences reported by so many in the diaspora.
One behavior that now appears to have been criminalized is the appeal to intra-ethnic solidarity among non-Han groups and the resistance to Han influence, interpreted by the Xinjiang courts as “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” and often punished with the maximum (10-year) term. In one such case, obtained and published as part of the “China Cables”, Nebi Ghoja’ehmet, a Party member from Karakash County with no criminal record, was sentenced for telling his Uyghur coworkers not to curse, watch pornography, or eat food prepared by women who don’t pray, in addition to telling them that not praying would result in them “going to hell” and that “the only ones who don’t pray are the infidel Chinese”. This informal and controversial lecture – the only evidence cited – was enough to earn him the “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” crime and 10 years in prison. On the other side of Xinjiang, Ismayil Sidiq, a 53-year-old farmer who was already serving his 10-year sentence in Kuytun Prison, had 11 additional years tacked on for praying, refusing to write “thought reports”, and telling off his co-inmates with “Do Uyghurs like to snitch on other Uyghurs like this?” after having his religious behavior reported – with this one phrase being interpreted as “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination”, described as “especially serious” with regard to its criminal nature, and deemed worthy of the maximum 10 years.
The same charge and 10-year prison term were also given to Baimurat Nauryzbek, an ethnic Kazakh policeman from Ghulja, for literally something that he wrote on a social-network platform 6 years earlier, in 2012.
Another apparent criminalization is the criminalization of teaching and promoting religion. In one court verdict posted on a law-related WeChat account, a Hui man named Huang Shike was given two years of prison simply for explaining the Quran and teaching others to pray in WeChat groups of over 100 people. There is no explicit mention in the document of what he actually said, let alone did, that could be interpreted as illegal, harmful, or dangerous, but nevertheless the verdict concludes that he “engaged in teaching scripture and expounding scripture in a non-religious venue, thereby disturbing the normal order of religious administration, which is of serious harm to society”. Another verdict shows how Jin Dehuai, another Hui man, was sentenced for his activities as a prominent member of the Tablighi Jamaat – an international Muslim missionary movement. The decision, a 30-page document that overrode the 7-year sentence that Jin was already serving, largely consists of the dozens of testimonies from other Jamaat members, which corroborate Jin’s alleged Jamaat activities between 2006 and 2014 – organizing conferences, organizing missionary trips inside China and abroad, and generally working to promote Islam in many places in Xinjiang. Despite there being no concrete evidence presented of Jin inciting violence, inciting counter-government activity, or displaying any coercive behavior, his cumulative actions were deemed to be “separatism”, and he was sentenced to life (with all assets confiscated).
The documents may also reveal inconsistencies and lies. On December 7, 2017, naturalized Kazakhstan citizen Asqar Azatbek went to the visa-free Korgas International Center for Boundary Cooperation on the China-Kazakhstan border and was essentially kidnapped by Chinese public security, as witnessed by his friend Oraz and as confirmed officially by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For years, there’d be no news, until his relatives – through undisclosed channels – obtained Asqar’s 2018 court verdict. The document, which finds Asqar guilty of “spying for Kazakhstan” and of “fraud”, sentences him to 20 years in prison, but makes no mention of the kidnapping whatsoever and says that he was detained by the police on suspicion of fraud in March 2018 instead (an entire three months after the actual detention). Kazakhstan’s MFA has denied the spying allegation and claimed that they have no knowledge of the sentence, saying that their diplomats in Beijing were only told that Asqar was under investigation for having “illegal dual citizenship” (despite having formally renounced his Chinese citizenship already).
At times, one also sees a failure to competently apply China’s own laws. Such was the case for Nie Shigang, a Hui man who used his business dealings with Egyptian clients to deliver money from Uyghurs in Xinjiang to their relatives in Egypt. The numerous transfers, the majority carried out between 2012 and 2015, would lead to Nie being arrested and sentenced to 15 years by a court in Atush for “assisting in terrorist activities” (the Uyghur individuals in Egypt, branded by the state as terrorists, having already been sentenced in absentia). This charge, however, was dropped following Nie’s appeal of the original verdict, and he was given 5 years for “money laundering” instead. One of the arguments put forth by his lawyers from the Beijing Deheng firm – one of the largest in China – was that the “assisting in terrorist activities” charge, which came into power with the ninth amendment to China’s criminal law on November 1, 2015, could not be applied retroactively to actions before that date (Article 12, Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China).
It is not clear if the court in Atush was just conveniently unaware of Article 12 when it delivered the initial 15-year sentence or if it simply chose to neglect it, but such “negligence” is not an isolated incident. In early 2019, the “assisting in terrorist activities” charge was applied to four siblings of Turkey-based lecturer and Radio Free Asia journalist Erkin Emet. The official indictment, which casually labels Erkin Emet as a “terrorist organization member”, proceeds to outline the “assistance” that his siblings provided: a gold ring, a dutar, daily-use articles, 2000 US dollars, and other cash gifts worth 800, 500, and 800 Chinese renminbi (around 300USD in total). All of these were allegedly delivered between January 2013 and June 2014, when Erkin’s sister and brother-in-law visited him in Turkey – again, before the law went into effect in 2015. It is unclear what lawyers Erkin Emet’s siblings had, if any, and if there was an appeal, but the end result was long prison terms for all, founded on incredible evidence and an illegal application of the law.
An excerpt from the two-page indictment for university lecturer Erkin Emet’s siblings, providing the main evidence for the “assisting in terrorist activities” charge that they would later be sentenced for (author’s translation).
Similar charges (sometimes “funding”, sometimes “assisting”) were also levied against Mahire Yaqup, an insurance saleswoman and part-time teacher, and her aunt and uncle, for monetary transfers that they made to relatives in Australia in 2013 to help them buy a house. Mahire was criminally detained in 2019, not long after her release from over a year in camp, while the aunt and uncle were charged but remained under house arrest. Once again, the time of the transfer predates November 1, 2015.
One can only speculate about the fates of the other victims of such illegal judicial application, the majority of whom not only cannot afford expensive lawyers but are also very likely ignorant of both Article 12 and the ninth amendment, and therefore unaware that the charges against them are in violation of China’s own laws (even if one were to take the great leap and accept the “evidence” presented – dutars, rings, and pocket money – as pertinent and valid).
Eyewitness testimonies, written accounts, and primary documents give reason to believe that general procedural violations are also myriad, as might be expected when the courts sentence five to ten times more people per year than is normal for the region.
An account that is particularly illuminating comes from late 2017 and is written by a Shanghai-based lawyer, summoned to defend a Xinjiang chicken farmer because no local lawyer dares take the case. The farmer is prosecuted for “subversion” for the hundreds of comments that he wrote in various QQ groups, and the lawyer, in taking the case, is told that he can probably have access to “most of the case files” and that, this being a subversion case, he is not allowed to pursue an innocence defense. When the lawyer asks about the legality of all this, he is told that “this is Xinjiang”.
The description of the actual trial serves as the story’s climax and illustrates a crude juxtaposition, of someone who appeals to the law and the great machine that willfully neglects it:
With the hearing started and the examination of the evidence completed, the prosecutor issued the prosecution’s statement, meticulously laying out the first set of arguments from the prosecution. I then replied with my first set of the defense’s arguments:
First, that thoughts do not constitute a crime;
Second, that the number of posts was far from [the stated] 1200, and if one were to remove duplicates and count according to the number of articles, the number was actually 440;
Third, that not all of the posts were inciting subversion of state power and that many were just venting the individual’s frustration towards society, with it necessary for the purposes of the hearing that there be clear demarcation between freedom of speech, freedom of the citizen to issue criticisms and suggestions, and the act of inciting subversion;
Fourth, that some of the posts using contemptuous language towards the country’s leaders or historical figures only constituted the act of insult of character, and did not meet the conditions for inciting subversion;
Fifth, that the commemoration of certain historical events and the sympathy towards certain criminals, as seen in some of the posts, is an expression of one’s feelings, and that this sort of expression of one’s feelings has also not reached the basic threshold for it to be considered a crime;
Sixth, that what the defendant opposed in his posts was our Party’s single-party monopoly on power, when in reality our country only has our Party as the leader, with other democratic parties all taking part in what is a multi-party system, and thus it cannot be a crime if the defendant’s opposition is to only one of them;
Seventh, that with regard to the severity of the prison term, one could consult the term given to the individual surnamed Jiang in the recent incitement of subversion of state power case heard by the Changsha Intermediate Court, where Jiang had written over 30000 posts and had over 30000 followers, and was sentenced to two years by the court, while the defendant in this case has, even if we adopt the count given in the indictment, written only 1200 posts, with all of the people in the different QQ groups combined totaling less than 2000; both the number and reach are less than a tenth of Jiang’s, and the five-years-plus sentence demanded by the prosecutor is clearly abnormally heavy, and devoid of factual and legal foundations.
The prosecutor then put forth the second set of arguments, underscoring the special political circumstances and the backdrop of preserving stability in Xinjiang, thereby finding strict punishment necessary in order to guarantee border-region stability. I then replied that, even with preserving stability as the aim, one still had to preserve stability within the legal framework, and could not abandon the basic term-determination principles and the requirements of equilibrium in the rule of law.
When, following the court’s final statements, the presiding judge said that the court would adjourn for five minutes, I felt a pang of disheartenment – had they already decided things in advance? Five minutes later, the judge resumed court, fixing the relevant evidence and saying that this was an important case that would require the hearing committee to discuss and come to a decision, with the date for the next court session to be announced at a later time.
With the hearing concluded, I went to have a short exchange with the judge.
“If you think that a person like him needs to be sentenced to 5 years or more,” I said, “then you are seriously overestimating him.”
“You don’t understand the situation we have here,” the judge told me. “The task of preserving stability is a very difficult one.”
Another worrying phenomenon that has been reported is the holding of trials in dubious places, where rather than take the defendant to a courthouse, the authorities have brought the “court” to the defendant instead.
One such variation has been to hold the trials inside the pre-trial detention centers. In inner China, this occurrence has only been reported in the past year, in such provinces as Shanxi, Guangdong, Jiangsu, and Inner Mongolia, and has been typically presented as an exotic consequence of the COVID pandemic, and usually for cases with many defendants. In Xinjiang, however, such trials have already been documented in as early as 2017, with a listing of hearings from a court website in Shayar County suggesting that they may – again – be intended for the typical “sensitive” crimes, with the “terrorism” and “inciting ethnic hatred” case trials taking place in the pre-trial detention center while trials for other charges, including rape, were held at the courthouse. In mid-2019, relatives of Serikzhan Adilhan, now sentenced for “illegal business operations”, also reported attending his first hearing at the Ghulja City Pre-Trial Detention Center, with only the second trial (following appeal) held at the courthouse.
More egregious have been the sham “camp trials” reported both in official documentation and by multiple ex-detainees. A phenomenon that seems to have been largely limited to late 2018, these were brief sessions that took place while the individuals were still being detained in the region’s “vocational centers”.
“I had actually been given a 5-year prison term. It was not a formal court hearing, and nobody from my family attended. They just got together and informed me that I was given 5 years. Later, I learned that my family had been told that I was given 15.” – Baqyt’ali Nur, detained from October 2017 to November 2018.
“Later, around October (2018), they started to hold court hearings and to give out prison terms. I was called to a court hearing also. Inside, there were desks arranged in a U shape, with two representatives from the neighborhood administration and police station on the left, two representatives from the Political and Legal Affairs Commission and from State Security in the middle, and with the court representatives on the right. The inmate, handcuffed, would sit on the stool in the middle. And then the process began.
They started by turning on the camera. Then, the neighborhood-administration representative stood up and said: ‘Erbaqyt Otarbai is from the such-and-such neighborhood and, according to the IJOP platform, has been confirmed to have used WhatsApp, and is thus given a 7-year sentence.’ After that, a person sitting in the middle section said that, thanks to the Party, the punishment given was a relatively light one, and then asked me to sign a document. I signed without even looking at what I was signing. They even asked me to have a look, but I just told them it was pointless. Then, the representative from the Political and Legal Affairs Commission stood up and read the verdict out loud, before informing me that one copy of the document would be sent to my family.
While being taken back to my room by two auxiliary police officers, I was suddenly called by one of the cadres, who told me that my family had come to see me. They had called my parents for the court hearing. My mom wasn’t wearing a headscarf – she told me that she wasn’t allowed to. She was crying, and I calmed her down, saying that 7 years would pass as if they were 7 days.” – Erbaqyt Otarbai, detained from August 2017 to December 2018.
“Except for the day I arrived and the day I left, only one day in the camp was different. That was the day of the open trial. They brought in seven women from a nearby prison who had been charged with gathering in a private home to pray together. During Ramadan, in the evening, you celebrate auyzashar [‘mouth opener’], and the seven women had organized a meal and a prayer. That was their crime. At the trial, they read these accusations and sentenced each of the women to seven years in prison. They called it open court. None of the women spoke.” – Rahima Senbai, detained from October 2017 to October 2018.
“After some time, they also started requiring us to write about and confess our wrongdoings. Later, there’d be a court hearing in the camp, and we’d be accused of different ‘crimes’. For example, I was told that I had breached such-and-such a clause of the telecommunications law (Kazakh: telegraf zangy). That was around September (2018). They didn’t give us prison terms after the hearing, however. Instead, they just divided us into groups, and I was put in the ‘regular class’ (普班, the lightest form).” – Tabysqan Magrupqan, detained from March 2018 to December 2018.
“One day, she would be sentenced to 3 years in prison. After being summoned, she found her husband and another man who had worked in Kazakhstan standing in the corridor – the two of them standing facing the wall with their hands raised and pressed against it. They were then all brought into the room where people were being given prison terms. There, they had a long verdict listing their ‘crimes’ read out to them from a thick book, which Zagi describes as a terrifying process, with them asking her at the end if she had any objections. Among the accusations against her was that she had visited Kazakhstan 16 times, had WhatsApp installed, and had been sharing a single SIM card with her husband. They were told that, according to the law, their sentence could have ranged anywhere from 3 to 5 years, but that the Party had been generous and decided to save them from a longer sentence.” – from the account of Zagi Qurmanbai, detained from February 2018 to December 2018.
To date, the most detailed and thorough account of such a “trial” is due to Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a French resident who has published a book about her year and a half in detention, of which a chapter is dedicated to the trial alone. In it, she talks of her and three others being led from the cell to another building in the camp compound, where she finds her sister in attendance, and is hastily sentenced to 7 years:
“None of this resembled a trial. In a trial, you’d have a court room that looked like a court room, rather than an interrogation room at a police station. You’d have a judge who looked like a judge – not dressed in a military uniform, like the pudgy little man across from me was. The benches would be filled with an audience of people, distantly or closely linked to the defendant: relatives, friends, acquaintances. They would be called to the witness stand to testify. Here, the black, plastic benches were empty, and there was no stand intended for allowing some third party to take part. My sister was somewhere to the side, wiping her nose, and apart from her irritating sniffling would make no sound, save for just after my sentence had been pronounced, when she thanked the judge and the Chinese Communist Party for having ‘given me the chance to repent’. Someone had dictated the words to her, of course. Lodged behind a video camera, some guy was filming the room.
In a normal trial, you’d also have a lawyer at your side. Someone to act as an intermediary between the judge and the client, someone to defend you. The shield to protect you against the judicial machinery that was unleashed on you. Next to me, I only had my instructor, her face expressionless and her mouth zipped shut. For the nine minutes that my trial lasted, she did not say a word. Lastly, in a real trial, you’d have a defendant who actually had something to defend – that’s to say, a person who had committed acts capable of being judged and condemned. I, however, was innocent.
No, this trial was not a trial but, as to be expected, everyone acted as if it were: the policeman-slash-judge, his lackeys (seated to his right and left, also in uniform), and the instructors who must have taken pride in playing lawyer, raising an eyebrow whenever the judge started to speak, and replying with a superficial smile to the worried looks from their clients. And finally, the four of us, the accused, ensnared in a judicial system that was Kafkaesque and illegal, where justice did not exist and in which, as was all too obvious to us, it was not a matter of us being judged for our acts but sentenced systematically for who we were: Uyghurs.”
A still of a “twice inform and once announce” trial session, as shown in the original CCTV propaganda video about the camps that was released in October 2018. Included are representatives of the court (法院, bottom left) and procuratorate (检察院, top left), with the “informee” (被告知人) and his relative (家属) seated on the opposite side (bottom right).
Officially, these sessions are known as “twice inform and once announce” (两告知一宣讲), and appear to reflect Xinjiang-wide policy, with accounts now documented in northern (Karamay, Ili, Tacheng, Altay), central (Turpan, Urumqi, Changji), and southern (Hotan) parts of the region. Presented by state media as serving to “inform the student about the nature of involvement in terrorist activities, inform the student about the nature of involvement in extremist activities, and announce the Party and government’s policy of showing lenience in accordance with the law”, the sessions are shown to possess legal character but to ultimately leave the defendant (“informee”) feeling both repentant and grateful.
That “informees” are given sentences is not mentioned in the state-media report, but is readily observed in the local police records from Urumqi (previously featured in The Intercept). Here, one sees slightly rawer descriptions of the “twice inform and once announce” process as applied to dozens of camp detainees, with the standard protocol almost always the same:
the relative(s) of the detainee goes to the camp in the company of someone from the local neighborhood administration,
the “twice inform and once announce” session is held,
the detainee is “provisionally sentenced” (预判) to 2-5 years and signs the relevant form,
the detainee expresses repentance and gratitude,
the relative(s) expresses gratitude,
the relative(s) goes back home,
local authorities make note of any “irregular” emotions displayed by the defendant or their relatives, with local neighborhood administration staff instructed to visit the relatives frequently to check on how they are coping with the news of the sentence (and to report any “irregularities”).
In some, more detailed, entries, one finds close similarities with the descriptions provided by some of the eyewitnesses, hundreds of kilometers away:
“At 10:30 AM on November 11, 2018, the West Xinmin Street Neighborhood Administation cadre Zhang Renjie and neighborhood administration worker Dilnigar Enwer led Abliz Abla and Hezret’eli Abliz, relatives of a ‘three kinds’ person [someone in camp, custody, or prison] under the neighborhood’s jurisdiction, to the vocational education center to receive the ‘twice inform and once announce’.
The ‘twice inform and once announce’ formally started at around 11:30 AM. During the informing, the four comrades from the procuratorate were seated on the rostrum. Another eight people – four workers from the neighborhood administration and the ‘three kinds’ person and his relatives – sat facing each other. The entire process was recorded on film.
The West Xinmin Street Neighborhood ‘three kinds’ person Anayit Abliz was told that he was being given a three-year term for having used Zapya and VPN software in 2017. In replying to the verdict, Anayit Abliz admitted to using Zapya, but said that he had not used a VPN, that no proof of him doing so had been produced, and that he did not accept this judgment and objected to it. Following mediation from his relatives, Anayit Abliz finally signed the notification sheet.
After hearing the contents of the informing session, the relatives of the ‘three kinds’ person, Abliz Abla and Hezret’eli Abliz, remained emotionally stable. Nor did they disclose to Anayit Abliz that his mother, Ayshem Osman, was taken for education. No other irregularities noticed.”
Many of the charges, such as the use of Zapya or a VPN, are obviously not actual crimes. In addition to this, the reasons for why someone was detained and why they were sentenced often do not match, or display significant leaps of interpretation.
Individuals sentenced in the “twice inform and once announce” sessions (trials) held at the camps in Urumqi’s Dabancheng and Shuimogou districts in late 2018. (Source: Urumqi police records, obtained by journalist Yael Grauer and written about in The Intercept.)
Name, age, gender
Initial detention reason (date)
Camp sentence reason (date)
Provisional term (years)
Hamut Abdurehim, 46, M
“being an untrustworthy person” (May 3, 2017)
“illegally expounding scripture” (Oct. 31, 2018)
Ablikim Abdu’eli, 41, M
“endangering state security” (May 3, 2017)
“illegally expounding scripture” (Oct. 31, 2018)
Hekim Alim, 45, M
“gathering a crowd to disturb public order (July 5 incident)” (May 30, 2017)
“illegally expounding scripture” (Nov. 1, 2018)
Turghun Eziz, 41, M
“illegally studying scripture” (May 3, 2017)
“illegally expounding scripture” (Nov. 1, 2018)
Paruq Omer, 30, M
“taking part in the July 5 demonstrations” (May 23, 2017)
“illegally expounding scripture” (Nov. 2, 2018)
Ezizjan Memet’imin, 22, M
not stated (April 22, 2018)
“illegally studying scripture (with his grandfather, when he was young)” (Nov. 3, 2018)
“downloading Zapya and possessing illegal objects” (Nov. 12, 2018)
Abdusalam Pettar, 33, M
“being an untrustworthy person” (Sep. 26, 2017)
“attending illegal underground religious activities” (Nov. 13, 2018)
Muhemmed Ablehet, 36, M
“being considered a focus person by national security and being suspected of involvement in the July 5 incident” (Apr. 16, 2017)
“illegal religious activities and violating the birth policy by having too many children” (Nov. 14, 2018)
Rahman Hushtar, 37, M
“being a suspect in a national security case” (May 3, 2017)
“disrupting public service” (Nov. 14, 2018)
Memet’imin Baqi, 41, M
“being an untrustworthy person” (May 14, 2017)
“disrupting fundamental community order” (Nov. 26, 2018)
Memetsalih Metqasim, 43, M
“gathering a crowd to disturb social order” (Dec. 5, 2017)
“harboring others and violating the birth policy by having too many children” (Nov. 30, 2018)
Abla Tursun, M
“praying at a non-religious venue” (Dec. 7, 2018)
Cases of refusing to sign the verdict seem relatively rare. In one instance, as given above, this appears to lead to pressure from the relatives themselves. In another, also from the Urumqi records, refusal to sign led to the “twice inform and once announce” being rescheduled for another day, with increased surveillance and home visits for the detainee’s relatives. In a case from the Karakash List, the neighborhood administration notes that the detainee did not repent during the session and recommends continued detention:
“The neighborhood administration’s evaluation: during the ‘twice inform and once announce’, this person did not admit to the reason that got him sent to training, and only admitted to it after the head of the neighborhood administration made multiple trips to the training center to educate him. His thinking is stubborn, and the neighborhood administration recommends that he remain in training.”
Sometimes, it also appears that the result of the “twice inform and once announce” was the detainee being “forgiven” altogether, as evidenced in a letter home from Mehmud Muhemmet, a resident of Turpan.
“Let me explain to you all why I’m undergoing education at this training school. For illegally receiving [religious] instruction from my father in 1987, I should have been sentenced to a punishment of 1-3 years based on Paragraph 14 of Article 120 of the country’s penal code. When a judge from the district judicial department and the school’s leaders held a ‘twice inform and once announce’ meeting and announced that they would be pardoning this crime, I was overfilled with happiness and cried tears of joy. After all, didn’t our great and generous Party say that they would, in their loving kindness, open these training centers to quickly wash clean the poison that bad-intentioned people had planted in the victimized common folk, returning us to our families soon after?” – Mehmud Muhemmet, in a letter written to relatives from camp.
Though ostensibly illegal, it is still not clear what the actual formal legal weight and consequences – if any – of these camp sentences has been, especially given how the eyewitnesses who have testified about them were released in late 2018 or early 2019 and ultimately allowed to leave China. For the others, there has yet to be a victim documented or testified for as actually serving out one of the lighter (2- to 9-year) terms given while at camp, though two eyewitnesses have reported camp detainees whose sentences were 10 years or longer being transferred to formal prisons (cf., the case of Zhiger Toqai).
In Kashgar, where some villages have been documented to have over 15% of their populations detained, there have also been anecdotal accounts of court hearings being skipped altogether. In one case, a resident of Yengisar County’s Saghan Municipalityspoke to Radio Free Asia directly and told of how five people had come to his home to verbally inform the family that his brother had been given a 10-year sentence. In the letter allegedly sent to Radio Free Asia in September 2018 by a cadre based in Kashgar, the writer talks of farmers in one village being gathered in a large hall in front of the village government office, in January 2017, and told to “find what their problems were”, prompting a number of written “confessions” that were then fingerprinted by the confessing party and used as evidence against them, with some being arrested and their families being notified of the verdict later. While these reports require additional corroboration, they are not out of accord given the better documented phenomena of the sham trials (discussed above), the aforementioned unavailability of verdicts, and the immense number of people sentenced in recent years. The case of Ismayil Sidiq, who, judging by his court verdict, was arrested on June 19, 2017 and sentenced by a Yengisar court just five days later, partially corroborates that such “expedited” judicial processes are not inconceivable.
Finally, one cannot question the legitimacy of Xinjiang’s judicial system without questioning the legitimacy of the “investigation” that precedes the trial process. For most detainees, this means time spent in a pre-trial detention center (看守所), which as previously noted have the reputation of being the worst form of detention – owing not only to cramped and unsanitary conditions but also to the fact that they bring investigation and detention together, with the police organs in charge of the detention center also in charge of finding proof of the detainee’s guilt. One apparent consequence of this streamlining is the resort to threats, mistreatment, and torture when evidence cannot be found otherwise, or when it simply does not exist. While the problem is not unique to Xinjiang (pre-trial detention centers generally have a terrible reputation all over China), it deserves highlighting in Xinjiang in particular given, again, the scale of the incarcerations. As evidenced by both satellite documentation and construction tenders, many pre-trial detention centers have also seen significant expansion in recent years.
A relatively early and high-profile example of intentional mistreatment in pre-trial detention is that of Ilham Tohti, who was arrested in Beijing in January 2014 and transferred to the Autonomous Region Pre-Trial Detention Center in Urumqi just a day or two later. According to his lawyers, the well-known Minzu University professor was denied food for over a week on two occasions, was shackled, was denied outdoor time outside the cell, and was kept in custody with people charged with drug-related crimes, fraud, rape, robbery, and murder, despite the center also holding a fair number of people detained on the suspicion of financial crimes. Over a year later, the same detention center would become home to Zhang Haitao, a Han resident of Xinjiang detained for writing critically online about the local policies and the Chinese Communist Party, to later be sentenced to 19 years in prison. In his appeal letter, dated January 2017, Zhang explicitly challenges the fact that his own testimony was used against him, which he calls “illegal evidence” obtained “through torture”.
In recounting his experiences from over a year spent in various detention centers in Kashgar and Urumqi in 2013 and 2014, linguistic-rights activist Abduweli Ayup has also mentioned repeated beatings, torture, and threats intended to make him confess to his “crimes” (presumably separatism, for his initiative to open Uyghur-language kindergartens in different parts of Xinjiang). Abduweli refused to do so.
Xinjiang incarceration survivor Omer Bekri, a few days before his detention (March 2017) and not long after the release (late 2017).
As may be expected, the recent years and the coming of Chen Quanguo do not appear to have made the pre-trial detention centers any more humane. Kazakhstan citizen Omer Bekri (Bekali), the first eyewitness to go public about his experiences, was accused of assisting in terrorism and “endangering state security”, and spent around 7 months in the Karamay City Pre-Trial Detention Center, where he claims to have lost 40 kilograms and to have spent the entire time in chains and shackles, with the exception of the few hours during which Kazakhstan diplomats visited him. After being released on bail, he was transferred to a nearby camp for 2-3 weeks, which he suspects was done to let him recover before being allowed to leave for Kazakhstan, as the camp conditions were better.
Similar claims were echoed by another Kazakhstan citizen, Gulbahar Jelilova, a businesswoman who spent over a year in multiple detention centers in Urumqi, which she says were overcrowded and unsanitary, enforced a starvation diet, and led to some people losing their mind. Erbaqyt Otarbai, who spent over three months at the Tacheng City detention center before being transferred to a camp, recalls being beaten multiple times, being shackled, and having his weight fall from 97 to 71 kilograms, with the camp conditions being significantly better. For Tursynbek Qabi, the relatively short week of police custody in an underground detention center led to a burst eardrum after allegedly being hit on the head for drinking the tap water that he was washing up with. In the case of Nurlan Pioner, prolonged pre-trial detention stripped the state-sanctioned imam and United Front representative of both his body mass and mental faculties. In recounting the trial, his sister-in-law, Sholpan, recalled that he had aged dramatically, was gaunt and could no longer walk, and had his pants stained with urine, with no recognition on his face when she called out his name.
More recently, in early 2020, Taobao model Merdan Ghappar wrote, in a series of chat messages, of his time in a detention center in Kucha during the start of the COVID pandemic – where he also recalled overcrowding, violence, horrible sanitation and diet, and screaming from the interrogation room on the first floor.
Perhaps the most insightful direct account of pre-trial detention in current Xinjiang – and of how it colludes with the present judicial system – is due to Bagdat Akin, another Al-Azhar student who, like Yasinjan, Abdusalam, and many others, was forced to return to Xinjiang in 2017 and was promptly arrested. In his five-page handwritten appeal letter – written after over two years in detention, a closed trial and 14-year sentence, and a failed first appeal – Bagdat describes in detail the tactics used by the police during his pre-trial detention and investigation.
Specifically, he focuses on the period from May 20, 2017 to June 9, 2017, when he was taken by the Koktogai County police on the day of his return to China and interrogated for the entire 20 days. In his appeal, Bagdat accuses the police of torturing him, both by hitting him with various objects and depriving him of sleep. He accuses them of threatening to beat his relatives, and of torturing his wife in the close vicinity so that Bagdat could hear her screaming. At one point, he writes, he was told by the police that, as this was the time of the “Strike Hard” campaign, “no one would bother if they beat me to death then and there”. Unable to withstand the torture, he had no choice but to cooperate with the police and to make up a story about how he joined alleged terrorist groups while in Egypt:
“When they asked me to identify certain locations for incidents that they claimed had occurred, the locations I gave them were made up. Even though the responses concerning the locations of the school where I studied and where I lived were true, others, like the East Turkistan Terrorist Organization’s main office – the place I ‘joined’ – were made up. There are absolutely no such places.
There’s no evidence that I ever joined a terrorist organization. I was forced to admit that I studied with fifteen Uyghur guys at the terrorist training center, but in reality, it was just people that I knew while I was studying there. I gave the names of people I knew to avoid confusing myself. Each time I gave the police a name, they would ask me for a description of what they looked like. If I got confused, they would beat me up, and so I made up a lot of people. If these people had been real, then maybe some other person would have been arrested and would have confessed to my being in the same organization. But there’s absolutely no such person. It’s all made up.”
As with the aforementioned case of Asqar Azatbek, there is a period of several months during which Bagdat was in detention without officially being so – after the 20 days of torture, he was brought to the Koktogai County Pre-Trial Detention Center, while the official detention only took place on August 25 (over three months after the actual arrest). Bagdat writes that there was no record of what transpired over the first three months, and it was only then, in August, that he was given a medical examination, with the doctors testifying that there were no signs of torture (his wounds having had almost three months to heal). Also on that day, writes Bagdat, the police took him to a filmed interrogation and once more used his relatives as hostages, saying that they would release his father and sister if he cooperated with them, but would continue to hold his wife as collateral for further cooperation. Consequently, Bagdat was forced to say on camera what the police had instructed him to say.
The conclusion of the appeal letter reads like a final, desperate plea:
“I wish for the High Court to review my appeal once more, make a fair judgment, and distinguish between black and white, finding out the truth and making a just decision for my case. I trust that our country’s legal system is just. I believe that it will not punish innocent people.”
But it has, with relatives abroad reporting that Bagdat is now serving his term at the Xin’an Prison in Shawan County. Though, they say, the term has been halved – an alleged result of their public appeals. Presumably “in accordance with the law”.
Bagdat Akin’s grandmother, appealing for him at the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights office in Almaty, Kazakhstan (August 2019).
On Saturday, February 6, two days before it would be banned across China, the social media app Clubhouse had a defining moment. As numerous news outlets have reported, a room called “Is there a concentration camp in Xinjiang?” attracted a brief flourishing of speech and free discussion among Chinese people in the era of state censorship.
As noted in an episode of the Sinica Podcast with several of the room’s hosts, one of the features of the Mandarin-language conversation was unique: Uyghurs were placed in moderator positions and invited to share their stories of family separation and disappearance.
There was civility and respect in the room, which swelled to as many as 4,000 participants. Crucially, there was largely an absence of what one participant termed “Hansplaining”: Chinese-language discussions of Xinjiang which privilege Han perspectives. The room attempted to center discussions of the Xinjiang camps not on geopolitics or the security concerns of protected citizens, but from the standpoint of those who are most harmed by systems of state violence. The participant said that critiquing Hansplaining is important because it is so difficult for non-Uyghurs to imagine how much emotional labor it takes for Uyghurs to tell their most vulnerable and painful experiences. Often, Uyghurs have had multiple interactions with Chinese speakers who have reacted cruelly to them and not listened in good faith; they have responded to Uyghur pain by telling Uyghurs that they deserve to be treated as subhuman, or that Uyghurs were exaggerating the scale of their pain for some ideological purpose, as if it was just their opinion and could be debated. By placing Uyghurs in moderator positions in the Clubhouse, their lived experience was respected. Indeed, this is the reason why the Chinese state media organization Global Times regarded the discussion as “one-sided.”
Uyghurs and Kazakhs who were in the room felt this. A friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Guldana Salimjan, a gender studies researcher from Xinjiang who is now in Canada, told me that as a Kazakh woman, listening to Han people acknowledge the deep psychological and physical violence that her community has experienced made her emotional a number of times. “It was as if I was attending a Truth and Reconciliation event.” Continuing, she noted that while such events have been critiqued by Critical Indigenous Studies scholars such as Kim TallBear for letting states and settler societies off the hook, they are still important because they recognize and validate the pain of traumatized people. “And this was a grassroots event, organized spontaneously and semi-anonymously, not as a way of valorizing some government leader,” she added. In the past, she and numerous other Uyghurs and Kazakhs have told me that they often lose Han friends who are discomfited by the Xinjiang issue. Now it seems like perhaps there may be a shift in how at least some Han people perceive them.
Over the past few weeks, I have had access to a recording of several hours of the event. This recording is being preserved with the intention of making it publicly accessible for future generations perhaps years, even decades from now. In the future, when the camp system in Xinjiang can safely be discussed as an important moment in history, the recording will be an artifact that proves, as a Uyghur friend put it, that Han people were “still human,” were still willing to grapple with shameful issues that deeply harmed others.
In this column are excerpts from the deeply moving speeches that Han people contributed in response to moving speeches from their Uyghur “countrymen” (同胞 tóngbāo). Unfortunately, the format does not fully convey the pathos in their voices, the way they broke down in tears or faltered, not knowing how to put their feelings into words. All translations are my own (apologies for any mistakes!) and have been lightly edited for clarity and to omit personal identifiers.
In most speeches, the speaker clearly identified their ethnic background and current location. The excerpts are loosely grouped around these identifications and the themes touched on by the speakers. In a final powerful speech, a speaker outlines the three types of courage that Han allies should consider taking up within their communities.
Han Chinese from Xinjiang
“There is no real reason for the current concentration camps. It is just that every police station has a quota for how many need to be in the camps.”
Xinjiang Han 1: I want to say that Xinjiang itself is actually a giant concentration camp, it’s just that there are smaller concentration camps inside a larger concentration camp. In fact, we Han people are also afraid of these camps. The environment is airtight. Almost nothing gets in or out. On top of this, our (Xinjiang) media organizations do not have real reporters and so there is no real news. So it isn’t easy for the news inside the camps to get out, but it is even difficult for us to discuss the truth of what the evidence shows. And when we have evidence, those that have it are afraid to share it.
Xinjiang Han 2: Even if (the authorities) have no real evidence against (detainees), they will sentence them anyway. There weren’t laws or regulations restricting people from doing the things that are now criminalized; that is, it was not completely illegal in the past. They waited until the Xinjiang Uyghurs did these things, then passed the laws. This is the first point about how the system works. So the people who are in charge of course have no real evidence to prove that detainees are guilty. So what conditions do they use to determine who is who? Who should be detained and who should not be detained? They came up with pretexts, such as, Does a person or his wife wear a veil or does she not wear a veil, does he have any criminal record, or has he visited some sensitive countries? They’ve used many, many, many pretexts to decide.
Xinjiang Han 3: The story I want to tell is about a friend of mine in Xinjiang. He came from a small county in Xinjiang. He studied very well and then went to Beijing for university. After graduating, he found a job in Beijing. His parents had never been to Beijing, so he thought, Now that I have finally settled down in Beijing, I can invite my parents to Beijing. So they took the train to Beijing. But they were stopped because of their ethnic identity (on their ID cards). There was no way to get around the system. Apparently there were police on the train and they did not allow them to get off at Beijing Railway Station. They just wanted to see the gate at Tiananmen Square, but in the end they never did.
Xinjiang Han 4: I grew up in Xinjiang. Around the time that the pandemic spread from Wuhan last year, I made some comments on my WeChat Moments [similar to a Facebook News Feed] back in Xinjiang, because I had just read a BBC report about the camps. I was really stunned by what I saw, and I had a lot of feelings. So I said a few words in my Moments. Then that night, the police came knocking on my parents’ door in Xinjiang and told my mother to delete all these things. Then, maybe more than an hour later, it was 3 o’clock in the morning, my dad contacted me. He explained that the chief wanted my mother to go with them and he didn’t know where they were taking her. The next morning, I couldn’t contact my father or mother. He just disappeared for like a week. I just called day after day.
Xinjiang Han 5: During this time there were investigations of people who liked Nokia phones. Why? In Xinjiang, many people especially liked “dumb” phones or old phones. Some people said that it was that they were reliable. But really, it is because unlike Apple or Android phones, they do not access the internet. They can only call and send text messages. They are useless if the police want to investigate you or install software and tell you what to do. And there is another thing. I don’t know if others know this but Xinjiang is the only place that uses a fourth-generation ID card. What is the difference with the third generation? It uses data from our irises and fingerprints.
Xinjiang Han 6: The ID cards we are using now carry all kinds of data. It is all bilingual, in Chinese and Uyghur. Everything in Xinjiang has stopped. There is no economic development and no revenue from tourism.
Everyone hears things about Xinjiang. Xinjiang is equated with insurgents. This misfortune is really real. People in Xinjiang, including Han people from Xinjiang and ethnic minorities, are discriminated against. For example, at first they would set up checkpoints on the highway. They would make you get out of the car, whether it is on a small road or at a toll gate. They would manually check your ID. However, now they have developed an express lane for Han people. If you are an ethnic minority, especially our countrymen from southern Xinjiang, they will definitely stop them for inspection. Every time, they must think, what will happen if I am interrogated? Personally, I feel like all of this makes me very, very, very anxious. It is very emotional for all Xinjiang Han people. I did not expect that this would lead to (concentration camps). But many people’s mentality is that they would rather kill a thousand people by mistake than allow one terrorist to escape.”
Uyghur from Xinjiang: In China, terrorism is a political term. The description and definition of terrorism in China is different from that in the international world, or in the mainstream Western world. For example, some time ago, there was a person in Nanjing who took revenge against society and attacked a kindergarten, killing many children, parents and others, and then held a child hostage. Imagine how this would be reported in the news if this person was Uyghur? Was this Han man in Nanjing described as a terrorist? We have seen countless cases of this kind, including bus bombings and attacks on schools. But when the person who committed these things is not of Uyghur nationality, they are usually described as mentally ill or raging against society or something. In the past, Uyghurs sometimes clashed with the government because of civil disputes, and then sometimes there were violent incidents. Usually in such incidents there were casualties on both sides. But this kind of conflict will always be called terrorism. I am very opposed to saying “not all Uyghurs are terrorists.” The underlying meaning in this description is that Uyghurs tend to be terrorists and the good ones are the exception. It totally ignores the fact that no one from any other ethnic group is ever called a terrorist in China.
Xinjiang Han 7: This system has become a normal state of affairs. Which means people have become numb to this kind of thing. I think it’s all very confusing. It makes me want to use a Soviet saying: “I did not support lesbians and gays when they were taken away because I was not LGBT. When they took away the communists, I didn’t support them because I was not communist. Finally, when I was persecuted, I spoke up because no one else was left to speak for me.” [Editor’s note: He appears to be paraphrasing German pastor Martin Niemöllerirst’s poem “First They Came…”]
People say that every village has quotas. You are compelled to find a certain number of people who will “volunteer” to work in the system. So there is a certain number who will also be sent to work in the camps. Even some people from inner China are also forced to come back to work. There is no real reason for the current concentration camps. It is just that every police station has a quota for how many need to be in the camps. So many people (that have been taken) either made some small mistake or committed a small crime. They just make up the number and type it in. Some people with a religious background are just dragged away until none of them are left. Then the second wave starts with those who have “illegal culture.” Then there is a third wave if the numbers are still not enough and the quota hasn’t been filled. Then the fourth…
Xinjiang Han 8: My friends in Xinjiang all remember a time when the police searched their mobile phone on the street. The police have a tool in their hands that can be inserted into everyone’s mobile phone to see if you have watched sensitive overseas videos or shared sensitive words. This thing is so invasive. I was very depressed during this time. My family and relatives from the Public Security Bureau, including my parents and friends, all warned me about this since I had been abroad for so long. They thought it was possible that even if my thinking is good I might have accidentally done something. They said if they want to check you, you should take out a spare phone for them to check. All this made me really uneasy. A lot of people around me are disgusted because of this. Many Han people were disgusted and said why don’t they just check the ethnic minorities. This made me even more uneasy. I wanted to tell them, “If you can’t stand it as a Han person, how do you think ethnic minorities feel?”
“This has been one of the most moving things I’ve heard in my life…I’ve heard a lot of stories that I didn’t know and am very touched.”
Han Chinese 1: I hope no one will underestimate your identity. If you are a Han person who grew up in the mainland, you are very powerful, and there are a lot of things you can do that others can’t do.
Korean-Chinese: The children of North Koreans, like me, really are refugees. They are treated very badly because after they are caught, they can be sent back to North Korea. And then we will be sent to a concentration camp for reform. So the Xinjiang issue feels very close. In a few years, we may also be treated like people in Xinjiang. I am very worried about this problem. And I wanted to say something because I don’t know if there are other Koreans or other people like me in this group.
Hui Muslim: This has been one of the most moving things I’ve heard in my life. I woke up early to listen for the past two hours to what everyone has shared. I’ve heard a lot of stories that I didn’t know and am very touched.
What I want to say is that I was actually fortunate enough to have gone to southern Xinjiang in 2016. At that time, these sorts of activities (detentions, etc.) had not yet started on such a large scale. As a mainlander, the first thing I saw when I arrived there is that every street in places like Kashgar was strictly controlled. There were checkpoints on every street. I took some pictures of a mosque and old men walking nearby. To my surprise, there were very large armed vehicles that were patrolling the city 24 hours per day. So I took a video of the patrol. Then I was immediately surrounded. I don’t know if it was the police or some security personnel. They came to me and told me that I must delete the images that I just took. I’m just an ordinary person, and even I felt a real sense of fear. Of course, in contrast to what our Uyghur countrymen feel, the things I encountered were actually very trivial. We had a Han tour guide, and when we were coming up to a checkpoint he told them all the people in our car was Han. [Ed’s note: which was a lie, since the speaker is Hui.] And later, after we went through, he joked that it was good we didn’t say we were Uyghur. This made my heart ache.
Coming to terms
“When you don’t trust that the innocent will be protected, it will make you terrified. Now is the time when each of us should fight to make a statement for those who are oppressed by this entire tragic system.”
Han Chinese 2: A Jewish friend of mine compared the camps in Xinjiang to the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp, sharing pictures of both online. I immediately felt like this was a personal attack because China is my homeland, after all. He compared my homeland with the land of the Nazis. I really couldn’t stand it at the time. This was a couple of years ago. I didn’t believe it. Not only did I not believe it, I thought it was an insult. I thought this was just something a foreigner in the United States would say. But like so many people, after listening to many, many, many reports, I gradually believed that I also should start paying attention to this matter.
While I was listening to others here today I was thinking that even with everyone sharing like this, it won’t be easy to change someone’s mind. Because I was just like that. And many people who live in Beijing have this kind of thinking, like, “My thinking will not change on this issue.”
But, just now, I realized that people’s thinking will gradually change. Mine did.
Han Chinese 3: I have no personal connection to Xinjiang, but I’ve found this room to be a very, very good experience; many, many countrymen who are here from the mainland have no space like this to discuss or share. I think the fact that everyone in this room can hear these kinds of stories and understand this kind of inside information is very good. It really is the main thing we can do to spread the word so that even stupid people like me can understand and know what the situation has come to be.
Han Chinese 4: They say here (in China, outside Xinjiang) that the control and reeducation happening in China’s concentration camps are in line with the measures taken by Western countries against terrorism. In fact, it’s on a completely different scale, because here there are totally different standards to determine who should be sent to the camps. So it isn’t true that our country does exactly the same thing as Western countries or that it must be necessary to do it.
So what if they call the concentration camps in Xinjiang “re-education camps”? You should ask yourself. Drawing on your own familiarity with our bureaucratic system, can we imagine what might result if we were targeted by such a process? It would definitely make you feel very anxious and terrified. When you don’t trust that the innocent will be protected, it will make you terrified. Now is the time when each of us should fight to make a statement for those who are oppressed by this entire tragic system.
I am a person who has never been oppressed, so I think I have this obligation. I have an obligation to stand with these people. We can be leaders in our society. We have an obligation to spread the truth.
Han person 5: In this group today, I heard from a witness of a concentration camp and our Uyghur and Kazakh countrymen share their experiences. Some of this I had heard before, but it was still very shocking. And I was a bit choked up a few times. As a Han person, I feel a lot of shame.
Han person 6: I have never been to Xinjiang. One of the reasons I wanted to speak was because I discovered that most people’s understanding of what is happening in Xinjiang comes from Western media. This is actually something that I found to be a bit surprising. Because while I’m not a Xinjiang native, I’ve heard about many of the things happening there before it was reported. I just didn’t have the language to describe it. For instance, I had heard that they started detaining people again. I had heard that Han cadres were forcibly paired with Muslim minorities three or six months before I heard it from Western media. I found out via some first-hand information and then following some Uyghur bloggers. It was from the very obscure language and internal documents on their Weibo that I first learned about this horrible news. So even people in China have some relatively low-risk ways of understanding the current situation in Xinjiang if they are willing to look.
Han person 7: My family works for the Public Security Bureau. I am a younger Han person, but I can remember how (authorities) have dealt with Xinjiang people. Their attitude is to treat them as foreigners.
(Back then,) when a Uyghur came to our city, the entire Public Security Bureau would enter a state of emergency. First, if a Uyghur wanted to find a hotel, the police would go question them as quickly as possible. Basically, most people would not be able to stay. They would be deported back to Xinjiang (around the time when the mass internments began). After they were sent to Xinjiang, all of their personal property would be seized by the Public Security Bureau.
How do I know this? Once, when I was hanging out in the police station, a colleague of a relative gave me lamb kebabs. When I asked why he had them, he said it was because he expelled a Xinjiang man today, so the lamb skewers they seized belonged to us now. He had so little empathy for the Uyghurs. So do most people, except for those of us chatting here.
I myself went abroad for about two years, and then I learned about the concentration camps in Xinjiang. I have been thinking about what I should do about the situation. So I’ve started to do some simple volunteer work. I will not disclose with which organization, but basically, I call the local Xinjiang government and ask if they can confirm this or that. I ask about specific people who are missing. Through this kind of action, you can help verify cases and raise international awareness of the situation in Xinjiang. I think its effect is very small, so I also want to know if any of you here can share with me your approach to helping Uyghurs in a practical way.
What should be done?
“Remember everything we heard today. Remember how we were touched by what we felt today. Feel this anger.”
Han person 8: There are a lot of verified reports about the government’s orders and many portraits of victims, along with the testimonies of former detainees and their relatives. If you share this kind of information among your circle of friends and they still want to say it’s all fake, then ask them to disprove the evidence. I think we really need to ask ourselves what kind of evidence we need to see to be convinced. At a certain point, you realize that no matter what kind of evidence you provide, some people will not be persuaded. This is precisely why discussions like this one are necessary. I think if you are willing to speak on social media or in private, for example, even at the dinner table, to talk to your family and friends in private, this is of course very good. All of us understand that in the current environment of speech, not everyone can speak publicly, but at least we can educate ourselves.
Don’t defend something so abhorrent. We all know how safe and commonplace it feels to defend it. I think this — not defending it — is the simplest thing we, as ordinary people, can do for our ethnic minority friends. There is absolutely no moral reason to try to justify the existence of such an abhorrent phenomenon. I just wanted to say thank you all for sharing, I have been really moved by being in this room.
Han person 9: I have always had a good impression of Xinjiang in my home city on the East Coast. I thought everything in Xinjiang is beautiful and good, and everything is getting better. We thought we were just sending groups of cadres to “aid Xinjiang” or to engage in economic construction there, and so on. We did not associate it with the violence we’ve heard in the news. I just found this out after listening to others speak today! I didn’t know that the factories and other buildings they were building were being used as concentration camps, I thought the construction must be good. It’s difficult to contemplate the political implications. It’s so hard to avoid becoming a tool in the hands of our government. I feel so uncomfortable now. What can I do? I don’t think there’s any way to do anything, and what makes me feel ridiculous is that today I thought of my roommate at the time and the way I smiled when he told us that he had a project to build those buildings. I don’t know what to say.
Han person 10: The United States has sanctioned the leaders from the region, including the People’s Production and Construction Corps. This is something that makes Uyghurs very happy because the Corps is a very sad organization responsible for much of the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. I think every government should sanction the entire Corps and the region’s leaders. This includes officials from the Party Committee of the Autonomous Region and even members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. All trade related to forced labor should be stopped. It should really be impossible to do business with a country that is in the process of creating a genocide. Everyone must boycott the 2022 Olympics. We must make China lose face in front of the world. This will make it clear in their minds and they will discover the seriousness of what they have done in the eyes of the world.
Han person 11: I just listened for four hours. I am a northern Han Chinese who has nothing to do with Xinjiang. I feel as though I could have PTSD just from listening to this. Imagine if it is your own family, your own father, mother and younger brother! What if my sister was arrested by someone and forced to drink bitter medicine and say it’s good for you. If you feel such things are intolerable, then I think Uyghurs have the right to say it is intolerable.
The original intention of the concentration camps was not to physically eliminate people. The current definition of concentration camps is a kind of system that operates outside of normal legal procedures and illegally imprisons large numbers of people. Often they are just dissidents. Sometimes they are citizens of enemy countries and prisoners of war. In some cases, it is also the members of a specific race or a religious group. Extermination is not necessarily a prerequisite for a camp to be considered a concentration camp. What we see today in Xinjiang, the people held for “reeducation,” completely fits the definition of concentration camp.
After our conversation today, I feel very anxious and very helpless. I often ask myself what we can do. What can we do? Here I want to say that we can take on three different kinds of courage. Not everyone can do the first kind, which is the hardest when facing this kind of power. The first kind of courage is to stand up directly. This kind of resistance is fearless, it is the most remarkable bravery. But in addition, there is a second kind of courage that we can try. When you face this kind of injustice, don’t take the initiative to collaborate. Don’t facilitate the abuse, don’t profit from it; distinguish right from wrong so that you have steel in your heart and you leave a little shame, and leave a little guilt there. Let it motivate you.
Remember everything we heard today. Remember how we were touched by what we felt today. Feel this anger. Let’s not forget that doing this is already considered the second kind of courage.
However, in the face of some situations in which we are complicit, we can also choose a third kind of courage. All of us live with fear, that’s what happens when you grow up in a culture of fear, but there is one thing I can do when I am in China: Don’t spread this fear. Don’t bring this fear to your children. Don’t bring it to the next generation of young people. I think no matter what ethnicity you are or religion you practice, young people shouldn’t grow up in fear. People either become cowardly or bullies when they grow up in fear. Neither of these two kinds of people can become pillars. I hope not to let our children bear this fear again. That’s all I want to say.
This article first appeared in the new journal SupChinaon March 3, 2021.
In early 2020, just as COVID-19 was beginning to sweep across China, I traveled to Kazakhstan to interview Kazakhs and Uyghurs who had recently fled across the border. In a cold second-floor office building, I met dozens of China-born Kazakhs who came to talk to researchers about their family members who were lost in detention facilities in Xinjiang. I also spoke to nearly a dozen former detainees about their experience, and how they were struggling to recover their sense of self. I was not the only researcher there. Journalists and filmmakers from around the world gathered in Almaty. A pair of filmmakers I met, Yadikar Ibraimov and Jack Wolf, agreed to share with me a film project they were producing — parts of which are featured in this essay. The film conveys the urgency of the ongoing trauma that is palpable in Uyghur and Kazakh exile communities, particularly in Kazakhstan, where the stories of new arrivals and regular outpourings of collective grief have begun to shape daily life.
An interview Ibraimov and Wolf conducted with Nurlan Kokteubai, a 56-year-old Kazakh teacher from a village in Chapchal County, right at the China-Kazakhstan border, typifies the raw honesty and blankness that I have found state violence engenders in its targets. As the son of a village leader and someone who completed nine grades of education in addition to two years of training in childhood education, it made sense that Nurlan and his wife, who he met at a nearby pedagogical institute, would become leaders in their community. Like most Uyghur and Kazakh villagers, he had no way of knowing that the “Open up the West Campaign” that state authorities initiated to bring Han settlers and infrastructure development to rural Xinjiang society would result in a basic transformation of Kazakh institutions. Their education system, practice of faith, language, grassroots political structure, and even the integrity of their family units would be fractured, taken away, and replaced.
The trouble started in 1997, when Nurlan’s brother got into a dispute with a new Han Party Secretary over a financial debt. Nurlan recalled, “He couldn’t take revenge on my brother, so he decided to take revenge on me, and I was fired from school.” Nurlan spent a long time trying to get reinstated, but the local and regional administrators in the community took the side of the new leader. “They used to say that they would deal with the problem, but they were just stalling.” It was clear to him that as a rural Kazakh man who had been deemed guilty by association, he had no real power to regain the life path he had strove so hard to achieve. Through his petitioning he was also producing a record that could be construed as unsubmissive, of “refusing the management” of local authorities, item 16 on the list of 75 signs of religious extremism.
Since his wife’s parents had moved to Kazakhstan around 2009, drawn in by the incentives of the Kazakhstani government’s ethnic Kazakh repatriation policy, Nurlan began to think about starting a new life across the border. It seemed like a way to start over, in a space where Kazakhs were a population with civil protections. After his wife retired from her work at the school in 2011, they took the plunge. “We had good times then,” Nurlan recalled. “My children got citizenship and my wife and I had residence permits. And at the same time we did not lose touch with our place in Xinjiang.”
Then on May 30, 2017, the good times abruptly ended. Nurlan’s wife took one of her usual trips back to her old village, but this time her passport was confiscated. “Then they told me to come as well. So I went there on the 15th of August in 2017.”
When he arrived, he saw that conditions in the village had radically changed. The People’s War on Terror, which had primarily targeted Uyghurs in Southern Xinjiang, was now aimed at the Kazakh community, a population that the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau had not seen as a threat in the past. Something had changed. The “war” was no longer something that Chapchal County leaders simply pledged to support, it was transforming daily life.
A new “Three Illegals, One Item” (三非一品 sān fēi yī pǐn) campaign had been instituted not only across Southern Xinjiang, where seizures and burning of Qurans, religious books, prayer rugs, and other materials deemed “extremist” began as part of related programs already in 2013. Now, Kazakh-majority areas in the North were also targeted. (“Three Illegals” refers to “illegal religious activities, illegal religious materials, spreading illegal religious networks.”) This new campaign demanded that villagers turn in small plastic pitchers used to wash one’s hands as part of daily hygiene — something possessed by nearly every Uyghur, Kazakh, or Hui household, particularly in rural areas where running water was not always available. Cups and plates with Arabic inscriptions or Uyghur calligraphy were also criminalized. Books that had previously been published with the approval of the Xinjiang People’s Publishing House, such as the children’s book A Letter from Saudi Arabia,were also banned as a manifestation of religious extremism — item 42 on the list of 75 signs of religious extremism. Possession of such objects could result in immediate detention. In September 2017, a survey of 300 Uyghur villagers published by the Ministry of Justice of the People’s Republic indicated that they believed perhaps 15 percent of the illegalized household objects had not yet been turned in or destroyed. Around 50 percent also confessed to thinking that fasting during Ramadan should be considered a personal choice.
A 2017 display of confiscated prayer rugs, criminalized books, seized household items and decorations associated with halal practices in Manas County, directly east of Nurlan’s village.
These quite normative forms of Kazakh and Uyghur cultural and religious life were suddenly deemed “anti-human, anti-society, and anti-civilization,” and together they harmed “social stability.” Nurlan recalled:
When I went to my hometown in August 2017, I witnessed the local government collecting and destroying books and other written materials in Arabic and Kazakh. Since my village is mainly Kazakhs, I’m talking only about Kazakhs here. A group of five people would come to each house and order you to take out all religious books and even those books about Kazakh heroes, as well as Abai Kunanbai’s books. They asked the homeowners to burn them in front of the government workers. They also took away the Turkish carpets, removed gravestones from the tombs, stopped Kazakh-language teaching, and confiscated all the imported products from Kazakhstan, especially candy, from the shops.
Yet despite this charged atmosphere, Nurlan was still hopeful that he might be able to return to Kazakhstan with his wife, leaving this all behind. Then, two weeks later, in early September, as Nurlan was working to get his wife’s passport back, he was called into the village police station. “When I arrived, I was told that I was involved in international terrorist organizations. They told me that they would take me to the educational center.”
What happened next was a blur. The police forced him to submit his biometric data. “Then they drove me in a car and took me inside. There was a signboard which said ‘reeducation center.’ I entered and laid in there.”
Yet, as he says in the video interview below, he was still not afraid. “I was not afraid since I did not commit any crime.” He thought it would all be sorted out, so he was not afraid at all. He had no idea that he would spend the next seven months in the camp. His time there was bewildering: beaten cell mates, patriotic songs, cameras everywhere, sirens in the morning, commands yelled over speakers, five-minute meals, bathroom breaks three times per day, trying to sleep in shifts.
For six months, Nurlan was not interrogated. He was simply treated like all the other “level three” detainees — a category that was the least severe. To his thinking, in many ways it was simply like being in prison. “There was no learning at all,” he said. “All we did was watch TV — broadcasts of only one channel, which circulated videos about Xi Jinping’s visits to numerous countries and how he was helping these poor countries develop. Nothing else. We didn’t learn any skills. We were given plastic stools and would wear plastic slippers. We had to sit absolutely still on the stools while watching the TV programs about Xi.”
The first six months were like torture. During his first month they gave him sleeping pills, since he could not fall asleep. Then he began to have chest pains and was taken briefly to the hospital. In November, he fainted again and spent 10 more days in the hospital. Then on January 8, 2018, he had a heart attack and was hospitalized for most of the month. But still he was not released, nor was he told why he had been detained. As he says in the video below, he felt his life, and the life of his community, slipping away.
You do not know for what crime they brought you there and you just stay there. So, I just stayed there. They used to tell us that we would never get out and that we would be sentenced, sentenced to five to 30 years in prison. They said that they would keep us there until our views changed, and if our views failed to change, they would always keep us there. They said they would keep us there up to 50 years, until the whole nation, Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and other Muslim nationalities, would disappear. They said there was a document sent from above, from the administrative center, and that they were acting based on that document. They said no one can change the document since it was sent from the Central Committee. They said that the current system would not change until all Muslim nationalities would be extinct. “Only when you, your children and your grandchildren become Chinese would the current system change,” they said. I was told not to think about going back to my family in Kazakhstan. They said it was impossible. So when you hear these kind of words, you feel sick and cannot sleep. These kinds of words were the most difficult for me to bear, even if no one beat me. That is why my heart started to hurt.
Finally, his family was given a backdated notice with a forged signature that gave a reason for Nurlan’s detention. It was only in early April 2018 that Nurlan was finally questioned about his alleged “terrorist” associations.
Backdated notice given to Nurlan’s family describing the reason for Nurlan’s detention. (Source: Nurlan Kokteubai; translation by Xinjiang Victims Database).
Immediately after his interrogation, Nurlan was provisionally released. He still remembers the surreal feeling of walking out through the black gate surrounded by high fences, the guards watching him from the other side.
For the next few months, he spent many hours each day studying Chinese. He copied out the 69 pages of the 19th National Party Congress Report twice — an effort that damaged his writing hand. Speaking in early 2020, he said, “Even now my hand does not function well.”
In the meantime, Nurlan’s three children in Kazakhstan had been petitioning the Kazakhstani and Chinese governments for his release. The Chapchal police told him to contact them and make them stop. But still his children persisted. “The police used to come every day, sometimes even at night, they did not let us sleep,” he recalled. “They said, tell your children to take back their petitions. So we used to go again and call them. Four people usually stood behind us while we did this. They wanted to make sure we said the things we were told to say.”
But still his children said they would not stop. In a phone call they told Nurlan — and the four people listening in — “If you committed a crime, let them sentence you and shoot.” The police told Nurlan that this was evidence that his daughter was indeed a terrorist.
Eventually, though, the pressure worked. On January 24, 2019, Nurlan was allowed to reclaim his passport. The village Party Secretary told him to silence his children as soon as he arrived back in Kazakhstan and to tell no one about what he experienced. He said that Nurlan’s wife would be allowed to follow him the next month after her paperwork was in order. On February 28, she arrived.
Over 2019, Nurlan thought a lot about what happened to him. He recalled how, many years before, he had been invited to attend a big meeting where star teachers were asked to give reports about their classes. “I remember how I presented my report there. I remember how the audience clapped and were grateful to me for my presentation. I still cannot forget those days. The Chinese government degraded such a person and brought him to his current condition.”
Nurlan also thought often about how, after his release, he was forced to stand in front of his neighbors and the broader community and confess to crimes he did not commit at the flag raising ceremonies that were held every Monday.
There were more than a thousand people and I had to say with a microphone that I committed a crime and that the government and the Party forgave me. They made me say that I would behave well from now on and fight for the Communist Party. I was forced to say that I would fight against two-faced dissidents. The hardest thing for me was to admit the crime that I had never committed in front of thousands of people. After that, people started to avoid me. After all of that, I think my attitude toward people changed. I became reluctant to talk to people. I started to prefer being alone. I am in this kind of status now.
Nurlan appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress. He noted that he now frequently forgets basic things, like whether or not he paid for a taxi. He feels a kind of lethargy. He has lost a taste for the verve of life. It is hard for him to be interested in anything. He tries to write down his thoughts, but nothing comes. It is as though he is confronted with an unending blankness.
Usually when I cannot fall asleep, I go outside to smoke. I walk outside for a couple of hours and go back to bed. I smoke a lot these days. I have different thoughts. I see how I was detained and my previous life seems to be right in front of me, my previous happy life. I have never been in a fight with anyone in my life. I never swore at anyone. I have never robbed anyone. I have never lied. I have never taken money from anyone. So I ask myself, why would a man leading an honest life end up in this kind of situation?
Nurlan shares in common something that literary scholar Susan Derwin notes was experienced by Primo Levi and Jean Améry, “the intimate, if inarticulable, effects of victimization.” What he experienced feels unsayable. The words are just not there, yet it is all he can think about. He sleeps only an hour or two every night, images flashing through his mind. “I can hardly wait for the morning,” he said. All of this makes him feel detached from his sense of self and disillusioned with the possibilities of life. Even his children, the one thing that kept him going in the camp, no longer motivate him in the same way. “I no longer show any interest in things or miss anyone. You usually miss your children if you do not see them for a long time, but I have lost an ability to feel that. I have lost the feeling of urgency when I have somewhere to be. Now I just think, ‘Let it be.’”
One of the only things that continues to give Nurlan meaning is speaking to researchers and reporters about what is being done to Kazakh and Uyghur society across the border in China.
These people did not commit any crime. They only went to a Friday prayer in a mosque or went to Kazakhstan and then they were all accused of being terrorists. These innocent people are still there (in the camps) without committing any crime. I feel very sorry for them and I think about it often. When I think about each of those innocent people (I met), I cannot sleep. Some of them are dying, some of them are being sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Nurlan is also not hopeful that the system will change. He has seen how state power has created its own reality, the “truth” he was forced to confess in front of thousands.
They have meetings every day where they discuss the progress of the Party. They say that they defeated this and defeated that. They have defeated the United States in the trade war. Everything is a lie, but people take it as the truth. Everything they say is a lie. There is no other mindset there. Now all the Uyghurs in Xinjiang are seen as terrorists. All the Kazakhs are seen as terrorists too. I am telling you about what I have seen and what I know. I am telling you the truth as I have experienced it. I am telling you about how I lost my freedom. I am telling you about how my family was torn apart and about the condition of the whole nationality there. This is all I can say…I’ve actually forgotten most of the things I wanted to say.
This article first appeared in the news journal SupChina on January 6, 2021.