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Ben Mauk on Xinjiang, Kazakhstan, China & Violence

This interview between Ben Mauk and Matt Dagher-Margosian first appeared on the website Asia Art Tours. It is reprinted here with permission. Asia Art Tours and The Arts of Travel podcast hosts print and audio conversations, centered on creative voices in Asia. For more conversations on Japan, Thailand , Indonesia, Taiwan and elsewhere, come visit their platforms, or get in touch at matt@asiaarttours.com


We were honored to speak with journalist Ben Mauk on his award-winning Believer Magazine article, ‘ Weather Reports: Voices from Xinjiang.’ For more of Ben’s outstanding long-form reporting for The New York Times Magazine and Harpers Magazine and other publications, visit: Ben-Mauk.com

Asia Art Tours: As an Armenian-American, I’ve been profoundly traumatized by the Xinjiang Genocide and globally the open reappearance of ‘camps’ and fascism. For you, how does the personal affect the political lens with which you wrote about Xinjiang? Can you tell us a bit about the man behind these honest, uncompromising pieces of journalism?

Ben Mauk: First off, I should say that I don’t know that I consider my personal background all that relevant. I always try in my work to find stories that aren’t being given enough attention, or stories that a government has suppressed, about places that are largely ignored by Americans and Europeans even though our histories and politics are always bloodily intertwined. In doing so, my interest is in the experiences of non-elite people: workers, farmers, teachers, children, the unemployed, prisoners, migrants. I hope to pass on their stories and priorities without overlaying my own prejudices or reportorial interests—without doing so consciously, at least. Of course, I have a background, and it contributes conscious and unconscious bias, and many blind spots, culturally determined and otherwise, but it’s part of the writer’s job to consider and work to address those. You do the work: a lot of research, talking to people from the area, talking to academics, talking to activists, asking locals how their stories are often misused or misconstrued by outsiders, asking what they would want a publication to focus on, and following their lead. That’s all you can do. If you abandon the project of writing outside your own experience, you have abandoned all journalism, and all but the most solipsistic literature and art—you’ve given up on communication itself.

China and Kazakhstan’s Border in Khorgas, Xinjiang. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

With that objection out of the way, I’m originally from the United States, I’m Jewish, and I’ve lived in Germany for many years. I don’t think my writing requires or benefits from a “Jewish-American German immigrant” lens. On the one hand, yes, I was brought up to have a keen awareness of the tyranny of the majority and the banality of evil, partly as a result of being raised a Reconstructionist Jew, but you could equally say I’m the product of generations of defenders of organized labor or the child of liberal scientists or whatever.

All of these reasons and more—and not just a kind of reflexive “Never Again” attitude—are why the state-sanctioned oppression of minority groups are usually what I find to be most urgently deserving of attention. More selfishly, these subjects are interesting to me. How do states create and maintain “fugitives,” by which I mean communities who are definitionally illegal, and therefore deserving of extralegal treatment? How can these efforts be resisted? What would international solidarity with these communities look like? How are their plights misused by rival states to stoke conflict and war? These are the sorts of questions driving my work.

One thesis of mine—it’s part of the book I’m writing—is that the management of fugitives is how states test new methods of social control and surveillance before debuting them in the general population. This is as true in the United States as it is in China, although to different degrees and under different historical conditions. I think in both places we are seeing extractive capitalism in a fever pitch. Xinjiang is the world’s cotton bowl, it’s mineral rich and is a major regional exporter of oil and gas. Its development lies at the heart of several Belt and Road infrastructure projects. The situation has corollaries to the oil sands of Alberta and the displacement and mistreatment of First Nations people there, and with other extractive colonial projects across the North Atlantic region, in which you and I and everyone we know are implicated. That’s one place my interest comes from, and if you look over my body of work you’ll see that this is one connecting thread, from American uranium mining across the Navajo Nation, to the American and European history of bombing civilians, to the mass internment of minorities in Xinjiang.

Atajurt, co-founded by Serikzhan Bilash (right) was one of the most successful organizations in pressuring China to release Kazakh citizens and PRC-born Kazakhs who had been swept up in China’s Concentration Camps. He has since been coerced by Kazakhstan’s government to stop his organizing. Photo Credit: Youtube/Atajurt

Asia Art Tours: I was captivated by the formatting of ‘Weather Reports: Voices from Xinjiang’, letting Kazakhs speak for themselves rather than placing yourself as the narrator. What led you to write an oral history rather than a news article?

Ben Mauk: I was already becoming frustrated with the limitations and inequalities of the genre I operate in: conventional journalism, magazine writing. As I was reporting from Kazakhstan, it was increasingly clear to me that people from Xinjiang are the ones who should be telling their own stories, with as little interpellation or interpretation by an inexpert foreign journalist as possible. I saw my role as evolving from a journalist or writer—someone who contextualizes stories for a “Western audience,” whatever that is—into that of oral historian. An oral historian is not exactly a stenographer, of course. He produces and manages knowledge in certain ways, he is biased in his approach, but he also works to center firsthand experience in a more extreme way than journalists do.

A second, countervailing impulse was that I was already in Kazakhstan, and could safely do the work, unlike writers from China or Kazakhstan. Writing truthfully about the treatment of minorities in Xinjiang will get you imprisoned as a journalist in Kazakhstan, to say nothing of China, so despite the inequalities and unfairness of sort of parachuting in, outsiders are better-suited to safely and independently reporting on Xinjiang, a fact every journalist I know in Kazakhstan has pressed on me. So I felt I was in a structural position where I could write freely about this subject, but at the same time was in a position where I did not want to speak for people from Xinjiang, and did not want my work to be readily adaptable for any propaganda purposes, as dramatized narratives like this sometimes are (e.g. concerning defectors from North Korea). The idea for an oral history presented itself.

It’s hard to believe now, but when I first started looking into reports on camps and disappearances of relatives, in early 2018, Xinjiang was still one of those places that you heard almost nothing about in American or European news. There were a few reports about re-education camps, including an early CNN report, but it was not anything like a major news story. There was nothing firsthand from inside the camps themselves. Not like today.

Qaraqash No. 3 Training Center (墨玉县第三培训中心) A former vocational & technical education high school (职业技术高级中学), this facility was converted into a “correction through education center” (教育矫治中心) sometime between late 2017 and early 2018. Much of the razor fencing inside the compound appears to have been removed around mid-2019, however, suggesting that the purpose of the facility may have changed yet again. Source: Xinjiang Victims Database

I was in Kazakhstan in the summer of 2018 writing about the intersection of nomadic pastoralism and Chinese infrastructure investments for The New York Times Magazine. While doing interviews near the border with China, it was clear that a major, totalizing change was taking place in Xinjiang, one that affected the families of almost everyone I met, although at the time the details about the nature and scale of the internment drive were quite fuzzy, and people were scared to talk about it. The Chinese government still largely denied the existence of camps at this time. Only later did they claim that these were vocational schools, and there is still a lot of fuzziness in their description of internment, sliding between descriptions of “brain cleaning” and the deprogramming of extremists and terrorists on the one hand, and vocational instruction and poverty alleviation on the other. It’s quite inconsistent.

The more people I spoke with, the more vital it seemed to record and transmit their stories. It seemed to me an absolute emergency—people were leaving Xinjiang, speaking out once or twice, and disappearing or going quiet forever. Or they were desperate to tell their story and had no one to tell. It changed the course of my work for the next two years, up to the present day. What was happening there, the actual reality of it, was in danger of being lost, and this possibility offended every facet of my being: as a journalist, as a writer, as a leftist, as a Jew, as a human being. Luckily many people, including scholars from Xinjiang and those who have worked in the region for decades, people far more expert than I am, were similarly alarmed, and now there is a proliferation of material and evidence. I’ve taken four separate trips to Central Asia to record interviews there, and each time I’m a little better at it and a little more trusted in these communities. As a result, I’ve found avenues to people that are not available to someone who flies in only briefly, which of course is the position I was in on my first trip.

The former President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev  and Xi Jinping. Nzarbayev resigned after months of heavy protests in 2019. Sadly, his replacement Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has continued Nzarbayev’s unpopular policies, including Kazakhstan’s silence on Xinjiang and China’s Concentration Camps. Photo Credit: Inform.KZ

AAT: Considering media in a world of fascism, I think ‘objectivity’ without empathy are dangerous traits for a storyteller to possess. In an increasingly fascist world, how does objectivity, taking ‘both sides’ or platforming the authority figures behind these policies, as the AUTHORITY become dangerous or fail to help those facing genocide in Xinjiang or in other global crises?

BM: I reject the usefulness of the term ‘fascism’ in this question. I’m not sure what it actually means to call a 21st-century state fascist. Nor would I necessarily agree that the world is increasingly fascist. Certainly the average person is more aware of acts of authoritarianism and formalized brutality than they used to be. I don’t know that it then corresponds that there are more of these acts.

Instead, I would say that state power has expanded radically throughout most of the world, and the ability to exist outside of the state’s matrix of categorization and control has correspondingly decreased. Over the past fifty years we have seen zones of weak or no state sovereignty shrink to nothing, and the final enclosure by extractive state-affiliated industries of many hard-to-reach or marginal spaces that were once managed largely according to local or indigenous political traditions.

In Xinjiang, we have a special confluence of unchecked, quasi-totalitarian state authority, a huge investment of capital and manpower, and the experimental spread of technologies of biopower to surveil and assimilate a population: retina and face scans, DNA tests, fingerprinting, ubiquitous CCTV, constant surveillance of online activities and communications and in-person surveillance by more than a million party cadres. This particular manifestation of state power is unique in the world, and I do think it’s especially chilling, but I nevertheless view it as existing on a continuum with many others.

Protest in Washington D.C against Xinjiang’s Concentration Camps. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On the subject of objectivity, I’m going to be unhelpful again. I think publications that brand themselves as journalistic owe it to their readers to allow subjects, even oppressive state authorities, to respond to allegations of crimes and atrocities. When I published my oral history in The Believer, we wrote to various official Chinese government departments to give them the opportunity to respond. Had they responded, we would have included it. We did the same with my story for The New York Times Magazine. So I don’t believe in abandoning this kind of even treatment, even at the expense of a tidy narrative.

More generally, you owe it to your readers to present as complete a picture of a situation as possible, and that means not simply parroting disinformation or state propaganda, and it also means looking high and low for quality information and evidence. I did that. I didn’t talk to a single person from Xinjiang who refuted the essence of what others said about the oppression taking place there. (Of course details do often differ, as you can see in my work—I don’t gloss over it.) I cast as wide a net as possible looking for interviewees, and have given as broad a portrait of life in Xinjiang as I was able, not just about the state but about poverty, illness, marriage, childrearing. I consider this my attempt to present a many-sided reality. Isn’t that an approximation of objectivity? Not one side or two sides, but as many sides as you can bring into focus.

Darren Byler Lecturing on Xinjiang’s Concentration Camps. Photo Credit: The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia

AAT:Do you see a companion piece to Weather Reports as important? A piece of writing that tries to identify, center and discuss the ‘ordinary’ men and women who tore down the mosques and built up these camps, guarded them or programmed the biometric systems or those who even in their silence helped implement this genocide that was dreamed up by China’s capital and state?

And how did the interview subjects of ‘Weather Reports’  speak about these minor figures culpability for Xinjiang’s Genocide, in comparison to major figures of a Xi Jinping or Zhang Chuxian? How did they speak about those who did not torture or jail them, but simply stayed silent when they were hauled away?

BM: There’s a good article by Darren Byler about some of the live-in cadres who are assigned to join Uyghur and other minority families in Xinjiang. That piece offers their own defense about the work they have been sent to Xinjiang to do. I found it very illuminating.

The people I interviewed, even those who were themselves detained, were surprisingly understanding about the life of guards and police officers. In some cases they knew these people from childhood, had grown up with them. This understanding even extended to live-in cadres, the “brothers” and “sisters” who lived in minority homes to correct their behavior, most of whom were Han. In my interviews, people understood that, for the most part, they had no choice. They were following orders like everyone else. There was surprisingly little resentment about their personal cadres, although they didn’t like or trust them, and they had heard scary stories of “bad” ones, too. It’s a system practically designed for abuse.

Of course, the main restriction on a story about the low-level grunt workers who have constructed the securitized police state in Xinjiang is that they are not free to talk to me. As with ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang, even approaching one for an interview puts their safety and their families at risk of reprisal from the state. They could go to jail. Unlike some reporters who use hidden cameras and things like that, I do not view myself as a proper judge of the value of information. I can’t ask “is this story worth the risk” when the risk is the safety or freedom of another person. I view my own work on Xinjiang as a collaboration with my subjects, and we discuss the risks, and their position as the story’s subject, at length. This isn’t possible to do right now in China, and even if it were, I don’t consider myself the person to do it.

Tacheng City Rural Home for the Aged (塔城市农村敬老院) This retirement home, also listed as the Tacheng City Community Welfare Institution (塔城市社会福利院), was converted into a camp sometime in 2017. . . A number of Kazakhstan citizens have been detained here, making this one of the better documented camps from an eyewitness perspective. Source: Xinjiang Victims Database

AAT: Another organization that along with Atajurt has shown incredible courage is the Xinjiang Victims Database, which like Atajurt (and correct me if I’m wrong) is an all-volunteer effort run by ordinary people with no powerful connections. spoke to their founder Gene Bunin who said to me in our interview:

“In general, I wouldn’t really advise anyone to rely on governments to solve these issues on their own. There needs to be a ton of grassroots and similar pressure.”

Something in the context of Xinjiang that stumps me (but this applies to global protests) is this idea of ‘protesting against governments we all know are illegitimate. Can you tell me why, in the face of authoritarianism, Atajurt (or XVD) had success to begin with?

BM: Gene has been an important figure in collecting information and testimony from Xinjiang. I don’t think it’s all-volunteer, actually, I think he is able to pay his team of translators, and I know he himself lives very monastically in order to focus his resources on the database. He manages to do it completely independently through small donations, which is all the more impressive. He is also very patient with journalists like me, so I really appreciate him and his work. I think we also agree on the futility of seeking a solution through geopolitics, through the interaction of states and empires. In my opinion, grassroots pressure and creative thinking, especially among an anti-war, anti-imperialist left, while listening to and working alongside Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other oppressed peoples of Xinjiang, as well as critical voices from elsewhere within China, will be the solution to this crisis.

I wrote about Atajurt’s early success for the London Review of Books, so my answer would be similar to what I wrote there. They were a very small volunteer operation, surprised by their own success, suddenly in the public eye and very quickly affected by suppressive efforts, attacks by the secret police, arrests, fines, etc. They are now effectively defunct, and those trying to revive the work are facing new fines and legal challenges from the government of Kazakhstan.

Gene Bunin’s Xinjiang Victims Database, is one of the most comprehensive datasets of the victims of China’s campaign of mass imprisonment. Read our interview w. Gene Bunin here.

AAT: I have not cited heavily from Weather Reports as I think everyone should read the essay in full, but one testimony in particular had me gasping and crying out loud:

“The local police liked to say that they were watching us through their satellite system. We know what you’re up to in your kitchens, they said. We know everything. We had a friend at the time. A police officer told him that special equipment was installed that allowed them to see right through walls into a house, and that nothing could be concealed. Who knows what’s true anymore? So we were burning everything at night—Korans, prayer rugs, traditional clothing. We burned them at night because we were afraid the satellites could see us during the day.” — Shakhidyam Memanova, 31

Scenes like this connect to me with the work of Ralphael Lemkin and Peter Balakian describing the horrific cultural aspects of the Armenian Genocide, how one of the main goals was to completely erase the culture of the Armenians. From talking to victims in Xinjiang, what aspects of cultural genocide are being put into place along with physical genocide?

BM: I think this testimony, like the whole collection, speaks for itself better than I could, and like I said my goal with these oral histories is to center the firsthand testimonies of people from Xinjiang, and not to center my own interpretations of their stories. These are Shakhidyam’s words, about which I deliberately say as little as possible. And I chose it as the final testimony for a reason. It’s the story I most hope the reader takes away with them.

Another point: I don’t use the term “genocide” here or elsewhere in my work on Xinjiang. Whether or not it applies to what is happening in Xinjiang, it’s a legal term, one that may be useful in the world of international law, but it is useless in work like mine, just as “first-degree murder” is not helpful if your goal is to tell the story of the victim of a stabbing. (If you’re telling the story of the killer’s trial, that’s another story.) The urge to find superlatives and to use terms like “genocide” are part of a desire for categorization and judgment that I understand as a person but reject as a writer: it allows the reader to close her eyes to the particulars of these stories, to view the tragedy en masse, as a collective of suffering. This is something that Westerners are too often keen to do rather than attend to the specific nature of sorrows and troubles of other people, the individual distinctions of atrocities across the non-Western world in which we may find ourselves implicated. You should read Shakhidyam’s story because it is tragic and sensitively rendered; because it is believable and in all likelihood true; and because it is hers alone; not because it is evidence of any kind of genocide, including cultural genocide, whatever that is.

AAT: For those you interviewed, something that haunted me was the question of their stories after you left them. From what they told you and your own follow up work, Can they go back to the ‘normal world’ after having personally experienced genocide? Does anyone (Armenians, Jews, Palestinians, West Papuans, Indigenous Americans) ever go back to ‘normal’? How can one go back to a ‘normal’ when genocide emerged from that very normal to begin with?

BM:There have been some happy cases—families reunited, usually following a loud and persistent public outcry about an individual’s detention over several months. But often it is a state of perpetual unease. Most of the subjects of my oral history described mental and physical trauma that tormented them, and their desire to get medical care—not just physical treatment but therapy. As with many other historical traumas, it is undoubtedly producing trauma that will echo across generations. Most of the people I speak with are living in Kazakstan and see no future for themselves or their families in Xinjiang. If they have relatives in Xinjiang, as most do, they believe they will never see them again. I don’t think there’s any hope of emerging unscathed from this kind of trauma.

Video of the forced patriotism of Uyghur detainees that was widely circulated among Uyghur diaspora in February 2018. Source: The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia

AAT: To conclude, Long T. BuiAchille Mebembe and Jodi Melamed are some of the most helpful thinkers on the centers of knowledge (Universities/Corporations)  that train the administrators and technicians of necropolitical systems. Through your interviews, and thinking through modern statecraft, did you have a sense of what global contributions or carceral techniques came together to form the ‘Xinjiang System’? And if Xinjiang was built with global knowledge, can we shut off (in our own countries) the knowledge-training and perfecting of surveillance that made Xinjiang’s systems of incarceration possible?

BM: As many other scholars have observed, the rhetoric and tactical approaches of the US War on Terror have been foundational to the security state in Xinjiang, from the vocabulary of anti-terrorism to the explicit strategies of detainment, interrogation, and brainwashing of a recalcitrant population. David Brophy and Darren Byler have written about Xinjiang’s transformation, in the eyes of the state, into a counterinsurgency war zone, along the lines of what happened during the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. All these cases birthed zones of exception where militants must be ferreted out from among a suspect civilian population. These zones always exist outside a state’s normal rule of law, such that civilians there may be treated prima facie as fugitives; at the same time, the state reserves the right to conjure such zones into existence whenever and wherever it likes. When a state’s power goes unchecked, anyone may become a fugitive at any time, for any reason. We have seen just that happen in Xinjiang, where my informants were detained because they had a common app on their phone or prayed at a mosque, or performed religious ceremonies.

Byler in particular has written about the importance of the book Policing Terrorism by David Lowe to the development of securitization policy in Xinjiang. Its descriptions of radicalization processes and the importance of surveillance lit a fire under some of the architects of the crackdown in Xinjiang, who saw its applicability to the “pre-emptive strike” mode employed in Xinjiang, where various forms of wrongthink are cause for indefinite detention or disappearance under the assumption that they will lead to the “three evils” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism. One interesting departure, which he notes, and which is an important feature of the stories I’ve gathered from people from Xinjiang, is the importance of local police stations, where judgment calls are made about the freedom or detention of an individual, and the in-person surveillance of the Becoming Family program, which represent a total eradication of private life. Turkic and Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have no right to a private sphere or a life outside the view of the state, and even those employed in the surveillance are themselves under scrutiny.

The China – Kazakhstan Border. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Another component in the Xinjiang System has been what David Tobin describes as the attempted construction of a shared multi-ethnic identity. This effort was redoubled after the Ürümchi riots in 2009, when it became a “zero-sum political struggle of life or death” according to government officials. I think this process of identity formation, the creation of a national identity out of disparate ethnic groups and historical conditions is common to modern statecraft, and the apocalyptic tone it often takes—nation or barbarism—allows for the criminalization of nearly anything viewed as standing in its way.

In Xinjiang, however, there has been a marriage of preventative policing and the transformation (or eradication) of a culture by the state, which is why authorities view as so important Chinese language instruction and the suppression of Uyghur and Kazakh language use, as well as the criminalization of fasting and prayer, religious study, and other “dangerous“ cultural practices that mark a population as separate. In their place, anodyne cultural markers like dress and dance are overemphasized to create the impression of tolerance and diversity. But in reality, the anti-terrorism techniques of Policing Terrorism and its ilk have been wedded to a policy seeking  “deep fusion” between Turkic minority culture and the ethnic Han majority. This effort, to correct the “personality problem” at the heart of Xinjiang’s unrest, is the “most distinctive aspect of the Xinjiang Mode,” according to a paper by two theorists that came out of a Xinjiang police academy, which has been analyzed by Byler. As a result, you see the conflation of vernacular resistance with organized, armed separatism, and the emergent fugitivity or fugitivization of identifiable minorities, artists, and intellectuals, which has become the focus of my reporting and writing.

Qaraqash No. 2 Training Center (墨玉县第二培训中心): A former warehouse logistics yard turned into a camp and possible labor site, Qaraqash’s No. 2 training center is located just northeast of the county’s main train station (墨玉站). (The photo above, sourced from http://archive.is/yst4x, is not of the camp facility but of young locals being sent to other parts of Xinjiang for work – the old logistics yard, not visible here, is 200-300 meters behind them, following the camera angle.) Source: Xinjiang Victims Database

The Elephant in the XUAR: II. Brand new prisons, expanding old prisons, & hundreds of thousands of new inmates

Disciplinary Commission Secretary Yan Bocheng (second from left) during a June 2017 inspection visit to Tumshuq Prison in southern Xinjiang. The prison would start a major facility expansion that year, with an estimated increased inmate capacity in the thousands.

This is the second in a series of five 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 I.)

As the news and stories of long prison sentences have started to come out more frequently over the past two years, it has been natural to perceive this phenomenon as a “recent” development and a “next phase” of the (significantly reduced) camp system. While it is true that some detainees have indeed been sentenced after spending time in camp, the empirical data now available suggest that these are, at best, only a fraction of the current prison inmates. It is probably more accurate to say that the two systems – one extralegal and one (nominally) legal – have been running in parallel since the beginning of the mass incarceration campaign as it started in 2017, with the numbers detained for both in the hundreds of thousands.

The most fundamental official documentation for the scale of the prison internment comes from two independent statistical analyses, done in mid-to-late 2019 by the New York Times and National Public Radio. The New York Times, citing a collation of close to ten official statistical sources, reported approximately 230000 individuals being sentenced in Xinjiang in 2017 and 2018 alone, a ten- to twenty-fold increase from previous years. One of the sources, an official work report from the Autonomous Region High People’s Court, specifies that in 2018 alone 133198 individuals were sentenced as part of “all out” efforts to protect and ensure “long-term stability”. Meanwhile, National Public Radio, also looking at around five official sources, constructed a graph that showed the number of criminal prosecutions in Xinjiang for 2017 and 2018 totaling to around 350000, also on an order of magnitude greater than in previous years and acutely disproportionate to the rest of the country. With China’s extremely high conviction rate, it is very likely that most of those tried were sentenced.

Given the large number of sources being glued together, the innate fallibility of China’s statistics, and the likelihood of human error – National Public Radio made a major mistake in its initial publication and had to issue an erratum, for example – one should naturally treat these numbers as rough ballpark figures. Working conservatively, we may take the lower (New York Times) figure and cut it by around 10%, to account for the “normal” amount sentenced as would be done prior to 2017, which then yields a conservative lower estimate of approximately 200000 above-average sentencings for 2017 and 2018 alone. As the mass incarceration campaign since 2017 has predominantly targeted the region’s ethnic minorities, with only a small fraction of those targeted being Han Chinese (traditionally, these have been political dissidents, Falun Gong practitioners, and Christians), it is very likely that almost all of these 200000 above-average sentencings are for those of non-Han ethnicity.

The numbers of documented ethnic-minority victims who were detained in late 2016 or after and who were given prison sentences, by year of sentencing. (Source: shahit.biz; for quality purposes, victims with entries of low/undetermined quality were not included.)

There is very strong reason to believe that the trend did not just end with 2018, either. Using data from the Xinjiang Victims Database, one may take all of the (178) high- and medium-quality victim entries with known sentencing years and look at how they compare. While this sample size is likely too small to allow any strong conclusions about the exact proportions, one does see that the number reported as sentenced in 2019 is comparable to those of 2017 and 2018. If representative, this would then suggest that an extrapolated figure of 300000 may be a more accurate lower estimate. (That very few victims are reported as sentenced in 2020 suggests that either the mass sentencings have ended or that the news has not reached yet.)

To help gauge the societal impact of such a figure, it is useful to consider two additional statistics: the empirical observation that over 80% of the sentenced are men and the official number of adult ethnic-minority men in Xinjiang totaling around 5-6 million. Combining the two with the 300000 lower estimate, it follows that at least 4-5% of the region’s ethnic-minority men are now likely serving prison sentences.

As a visualization, try walking down a busy street and imagine every twentieth man you see sent behind bars for a decade or so. This is, again, based on conservative estimates – the reality may be closer to every tenth.

Another important indicator of the scale of the prison incarcerations can be found in the ratio of those sent to prison to those sent to camp. To this end, one may consider the data from the large cache of local government files obtained by scholar Adrian Zenz, some of which give entire villages of individuals – generally detained in 2017 or 2018 – and explicitly mention each villager’s detention status, usually reported as either camp (送培, 培训中心, 教育转化), prison (判刑), or custody (收押). While the cache itself is still not publicly available, close to 4000 victims from these files have been imported into the Xinjiang Victims Database, thereby making some analysis possible. Of the 1812 victims reported as either being sent to camp or sentenced, 631 (34.82%) belong to the latter, yielding a prison-to-camp ratio of around 1:2. As another 227 are reported as being in police custody, it is likely that the actual ratio is slightly higher, since custody appears to more often be a prelude to prison than to camp (author’s observation).

To see this phenomenon on the microscale, it is helpful to consider a subset of villages from Yarkand County’s Azatbagh Municipality, an area that the available files cover particularly well. With only slight exceptions, the numbers sent to prisons, while generally lower than those sent to camps, are nevertheless comparable and in some places even approach a 50-50 split. Again, as an on-the-ground visualization: imagine that for every three people being detained in these villages in 2017 and 2018, one was given a prison sentence while two were sent to camp.

Numbers of individuals given prison sentences versus those sent to camp for six villages in Azatbagh Municipality, Yarkand County, Kashgar Prefecture. (Source: government spreadsheets obtained by Adrian Zenz and presented in curated form on shahit.biz.)

Village Name Sentenced Camp Prison-to-Camp Ratio Population (2018)
Azatbagh Village 61 117 1 : 1.92 1043
Chidirtoghraq Village 37 45 1 : 1.22 886
Dong’osteng Village 20 98 1 : 4.90 1494
Lengger Village 57 62 1 : 1.09 1415
Qalpaqdong Village 102 133 1 : 1.30 2555
Qumbolume Village 39 56 1 : 1.44 1032

Virtually all of the victims imported from the cache are from Kashgar and Hotan, and it is fair to ask if such high ratios persist in other – often less politically sensitive – portions of Xinjiang. According to victim records derived from less official sources (i.e., testimonies), it seems that they do, with an analysis of reported victims for the other prefectures across Xinjiang showing that the percentages of detainees sentenced are high there also, including in many of the northern Kazakh areas. While these samples are probably too small to make any precise conclusions at this time, they do seem indicative of the high sentencing rates being a Xinjiang-wide phenomenon.

Numbers of documented victims who have been reported as sentenced in relation to the total numbers of documented victims reported as detained for some period of time since January 2017, by prefecture. (Source: shahit.biz; for quality purposes, victims with entries of low/undetermined quality were not included. Victims were allocated to prefectures by their reported or estimated county of origin.)

Prefecture Sentenced Detained Sentenced %
Aksu 24 59 40.68
Altay 12 27 44.44
Bayingolin 8 26 30.77
Bortala 13 21 61.90
Changji 5 16 31.25
Hami 8 18 44.44
Ili 122 185 65.95
Karamay 3 12 25.00
Kizilsu 18 34 52.94
Tacheng 32 72 44.44
Turpan 5 39 12.82
Urumqi 8 53 15.09

Finally, an arguably weaker source, but one that still helps corroborate the above, is a letter received by Radio Free Asia in September 2018, allegedly written by an Uyghur cadre based in Kashgar (translation available). Though anonymous and difficult to verify, the letter talks about the general situation in the Kashgar prefecture in a manner that is very consistent with the more official documents that came to light later, not only using the same jargon but also referring to a concrete event – a “cautionary film” about the judgment of Uyghur intellectuals – that has since been confirmed. With regard to the scale of the detentions, the author mentions an official document from February 2018 stating that 120000 people had been sentenced in 2017 alone (only slightly higher than the New York Times estimate), while writing that “about 1.5 million people seem to be in the ‘training’ right now, with another 500-600 thousand either sentenced or in detention centers awaiting sentencing”. Again, this is not far from the 1:2 prison-to-camp ratio observed above.

Other reported phenomena, while more qualitative and less direct, contribute to suggesting that the current scale of the prison sentences is such as to overload the traditional prison system.

Among these is the reported transfer of inmates from Xinjiang to inner China, which Radio Free Asia has been able to confirm on at least two occasions through phone calls to the region, in late 2018 with a police officer in Kashgar and again in early 2020 with a police officer in Bayingolin. In an eyewitness account, Memettursun Omer, a cook from Hotan who claims to have been detained in four different detention centers at various times in 2017, recalls how a number of his fellow inmates – particularly, those with heavier sentences – were moved to Henan and other inner China provinces.

Another reported phenomenon is that of deferred sentences. In August 2020, Radio Free Asia was once more able to learn, via phone calls to Korla City’s administrative offices, that 25 people in one of the city’s districts had been given 3-year jail terms to be served in five years, and were currently at home with restrictions. Something similar was also reported by Germany-based scholar Tahir Mutellip with regard to his elderly father, the former Kashgar University professor Mutellip Sidiq Qahiri. After around half a year in detention from 2018 to 2019, the retired professor was released and made to call his son in Germany, threatening to disown him if he didn’t “clean up the shit he made” (by going public about his father’s detention). In February 2020, he was allegedly sentenced to 30 months, with the judgment to be carried out in four years.

In a number of individual documented cases, a person has been sentenced but has continued to remain in the pre-trial detention center for a considerable length of time – in some cases, for years:

  • Asqar Azatbek, a Kazakhstan citizen, was de facto kidnapped by Chinese police while visiting the Korgas International Center of Boundary Cooperation – a visa-free zone on the border between China and Kazakhstan – in late 2017. His court verdict, smuggled out of China, makes no mention of this event but does say that he was sentenced to 20 years in prison in December 2018. In February 2020, sources familiar with the situation reported that he was still being held at the pre-trial detention center in Korgas County.
  • Mahire Nurmuhemmed, a former government administrator from Atush, was allegedly arrested in November 2018 and sentenced to 16 years and 6 months in prison in January 2019, reportedly for sending her son to study Islam in Egypt (and very likely for sending him money while he was there). As of December 2020, her relatives abroad say that she is still being held at a pre-trial detention center in Atush.
  • Oken Mahmet, a Kazakh imam from Altay, was first detained in April 2017, to initially be sentenced 2 months later in June (as testified for by relatives and partially corroborated by a listing on the official Altay court website). In January 2020, his relatives abroad, citing official government notices, reported that he had only been transferred to a prison in Shihezi in November 2019.
  • The “Karakash List”, a government administration document local to Hotan’s Karakash County that was leaked abroad in mid-2019, outlines the fates of hundreds of the county’s detainees. Among the 90 individuals reported as sentenced – generally in 2017 and 2018 – six are reported as being held at a local pre-trial detention center, while an additional two are reported as being held at one of the local camps.

As evidenced by accounts from both inside and outside Xinjiang, pre-trial detention centers in China are generally not good places to be, both because of their poor living conditions and because of their design – unlike camps and prisons, pre-trial detention centers are typically intended for investigation, which in many places has become synonymous with torture and forced confessions (presumably unavoidable when the detainee hasn’t actually committed a crime).

Judging by popular legal opinion (see, for example: here, here, and here), the transfer of a sentenced prisoner from the pre-trial detention center to a formal prison should usually take place no longer than a few weeks or maybe months after the final sentence. As such, the aforementioned cases suggest a sizeable lag in the Xinjiang judicial and incarceration system. One possible explanation is that the appeal process – a right that some do use – has become very slow as the result of a huge influx of cases, and some documented victim cases do suggest this. Bagdat Akin, a Kazakh student in Egypt, was arrested in May 2017 upon his return to China, was sentenced in November 2018, appealed once, had the appeal rejected, and only issued another appeal in July 2019 (having by then spent over two years in detention). Of course, the other explanation for why there exist such large gaps between the sentence date and the actual transfer is the more obvious one – perhaps the prisons just don’t have the space.

That more space is needed has been readily evidenced by the prison facilities’ expansion, enormous in recent years. While still woefully understudied, the expansion of Xinjiang’s prisons, as based on the information currently available, appears to naturally fall into three categories:

  • The construction of brand new prison facilities.
  • The conversion of other (detention) facilities into prisons.
  • The expansion of already existing and established prisons.

Of the 11 formal prison facilities documented by the Xinjiang Victims Database so far – a fairly random, even if small, sample – all but one have expanded as outlined above. 3 of the 11 are brand new – the Kunes Maximum-Security Prison in Ili’s Kunes County (presumably finished in late 2017), the new Fangcaohu Prison compound(s) in the Bingtuan city of Wujiaqu (2016-2017), and the relocated Bingtuan Urumqi Prison on the southwestern outskirts of Urumqi (2016).

The Bingtuan Urumqi Prison, during construction (in 2016) and after.

Of facilities that have undergone conversion to become prisons, only one has been provably identified so far – the new Qarabura Prison in Ghulja City. Originally a drug-rehabilitation center, the now prison has seen a 4- to 5-fold expansion to its premises. A worrisome aspect is the total absence of documentation – it is not possible to identify the facility as a prison from space, and no publicly available documents seem to report it. In fact, the world only knows that this place is now a prison because of an incarceration notice for one of its inmates, Baisultan Yusiphan (sentenced to 15 years), being leaked abroad.

The new Qarabura Prison in northern Ghulja City, formerly a drug-rehabilitation center. Green lines indicate the perimeter of the original center (as of 2015), with the orange showing the current prison compound, the majority of which was expanded in 2017-2019. (May 2020, Google Earth)

This naturally begs the question of how many other such undocumented facilities there are, and additional reports, while less conclusive, suggest that such conversions might not be so rare. While visiting Kashgar in January 2020, Wall Street Journal journalist Eva Dou was told that one facility previously identified as a camp was, in fact, a prison. Meanwhile, in northern Korgas County, an established pre-trial detention center in Twin Channel Village appears to be preparing for an expansion that would double its area, an observation that comes on top of claims that at least five of the victims reported to be held there have all been given prison sentences already. In the absence of additional documentation, one should, at the very least, be on alert for the possibility of this facility too now being converted into a formal prison.

The apparent planned expansion of the pre-trial detention center in Twin Channel Village (Mandarin: 双渠村, Uyghur: Qosh’eriq Kenti) in Korgas County. As seen by comparing the images from May 2018 (left) and March 2020 (right), an area that is approximately equal to that of the original detention center has been cleared and walled off to the south.

Finally, the recent construction of new buildings and/or area expansions of existing prison compounds are easily documented with the help of satellite imagery.

One of the compounds of Shayar Prison, distributed along the Tarim farmlands south of Aksu Prefecture’s Shayar Municipality. The yellow region shows a new second compound, added sometime between 2015 and 2019. (April 2020, Google Earth)

The Xinjiang Women’s Prison in Urumqi. Yellow regions show buildings added since 2016. (July 2020, Google Earth)

Wusu Prison in Wusu City, in northern Xinjiang. Yellow regions show buildings constructed since 2015. Compared to prior years, the farm fields of the southeast compound are no longer green but have been cleared, in what may be preparations for further construction. (June 2020, Google Earth)

The Kashgar Women’s Prison, not far from Kashgar City, was only finished in late 2014, but underwent a major expansion in 2017-2019, as shown by the yellow region. The road that used to run adjacent to the prison’s eastern edge now runs into it. (June 2020, Google Earth)

The Xinjiang No. 3 Prison in Urumqi. Yellow regions show buildings added since 2016. (September 2020, Google Earth)

In some cases, such expansion has been quite dramatic, with a particularly illustrative case being that of the Third Division Prison in the Bingtuan city of Tumshuq. As evidenced by a winning bid notice posted by the China Railway Fourth Engineering Group – a part of the state-owned China Railway Engineering Corporation – the prison underwent a 200-million RMB, 442-day expansion in 2017-2018, adding over 95000 square meters of building space while tripling the size of the compound. About half of that space (over 45000 square meters) was reserved for four identical three-story buildings for prisoner housing and “labor-skills rooms”. Even with conservative estimates – for example, that only a third of the area is used for housing, with the white-paper prescribed 5 square meters per prisoner (and not, say, 2-3, as reported by some ex-camp detainees) – the expansion still implies an increase of at least 3000 in the prison’s inmate capacity.

Translation of the winning bid notice posted by the Seventh Branch of the China Railway Fourth Engineering Group, outlining the details of the Third Division Tumshuq Prison’s expansion (source and original: http://archive.is/dKVX2).

Visual expansion of the Third Division Tumshuq Prison since 2017, with the four buildings in red being the new prisoner housing and labor-skills buildings, and the orange line showing the perimeter expansion. Buildings in yellow are new additions that could not be identified with certainty. (Google Earth, April 2019)

Among the 3000+ are several with relatives abroad diligently campaigning for them, with their cases covered in a variety of media outlets and other publications. These include the aforementioned father of Nursiman and Nur’iman Abdureshid – Abdureshid Tohti – sentenced to 16 years and 11 months for “disturbing social order” and “preparing to commit terrorist activities”. Mariye Muhemmed, an owner of an Uyghur restaurant in Boston, USA, has also reported several of her relatives as being held here, including her husband, Sadir Eli – a businessman who has allegedly been given 20 years.

The psychological impact on a person when multiple relatives suddenly go from normal citizens to criminals sentenced to long prison terms is not hard to imagine, and – as discussed in the previous piece – the scenario is not uncommon. However, the phenomenon becomes absolutely devastating when the sentenced is the financial provider for their family. Among the new Tumshuq inmates is also Hesenjan Qari, a textile trader from Atush. Based in Central Asia, where he got married in the 1990s and went on to become a father of six, Hesenjan returned to Xinjiang in 2017 and soon found himself taken to “education” and, another two years later, to Tumshuq to serve a 14-year, 6-month sentence. The charges – “joining a terrorist organization” and “using extremism to undermine the rule of law” – are something his wife, Gulshen, calls a “shameless lie”. Now a single mother of six – five of whom are still underage – she has appealed to both the Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan foreign ministries for help, but only to be told that they can do nothing. Her husband, they wrote, is a Chinese citizen. Or, in other words, China’s “internal affairs”.

Uyghur ‘caretaking’ and the isolation of reeducation

Illustration by Alex Santafé

In 2015, a young baker named Yusup taught me the Uyghur concept of “caretaking” (Uy: qarimaq). I had been hanging out with him and his closest friend, Nurzat, a fellow migrant from Yusup’s home village near Kashgar, walking the bazaars and talking about life. They taught me how to eat piping hot baked dumplings called samsa without burning your mouth. The trick was to bite off one corner to release the steam, then hold the opened end up so you wouldn’t get seared by the lamb and onion broth as you nibbled. In a rush to pay the bill, they held back each other’s outstretched arm in an awkward dance, competing to pay the 20 yuan ($3) for the half-dozen dumplings.

They referred to each other as “life and liver” friends (Uy: jan-jiger dost) — a type of heterosexual male friendship defined by, metaphorically, the same liver, an organ thought to carry the essence of a person’s life. Like soul mates and blood brothers, they ate many of their meals together, shared the same values, and protected each other. They had dropped out of school during middle school, since their families couldn’t afford to feed and educate them. As a result, they had very limited knowledge of Chinese, but a deep understanding of Ürümchi alleyways. They had been sent to work as bakery apprentices in the city by their families — a hard but stable life path that taught them a trade and how to hustle. Both of them left their respective bakeries after kneading dough and baking naan and samsa for 12 hours per day for several years. They said their bosses treated them like slaves. They wanted real jobs where they could work when they needed money and quit if it got too hard. They wanted to be in charge of their own lives. They bounced from job to job, selling belts in the market, standing around in security guard uniforms, and working as waiters in Uyghur restaurants.

One day Yusup told me he had lost his job after getting in a fight with a coworker about her handwriting. “When she would write the table number on the receipt, I often couldn’t read it clearly, so I would ask her which number it was — for example, if it was a 6 or a 9. This made her really upset because she felt like she was writing the numbers really clearly and that I was just ignorant. Our manager always chose favorites. So I was the one who was asked to leave.”

The incident really bothered Yusup, both because he felt he had been treated unfairly due to his education status and because he no longer had an income. “After it happened, I spent two whole days just walking and thinking to myself about what happened,” he said with a sigh. “Now I don’t have any money. My rent is due in three days. It is 350 yuan ($50). I could ask my cousin’s family for help. I haven’t told them that I lost my job, and I definitely haven’t told my family back in [my village]. I can only tell my friends. My life is so difficult.”

At the same time, he seemed a bit relieved because it meant that he finally had some time off. After working six or seven days a week for nearly six months, he was ready for a break. His plan at the moment: “Rest well for one week and then find another job. I don’t care what it is. I will just borrow money from friends until I find a job.”

Nurzat lent him the little money he had and Yusup worked out a deal to pay the rest of the rent to his landlord later in the month.

Over the months that I spent with Yusup, he had half a dozen different jobs. He tried them out. Then quit. And then turned to his friends for support. The flow of money between friends was constant.

Over time, I became one of those friends, too. Over meals of al dente Ghulja-style pulled noodles, Yusup sometimes asked me to loan him 200 yuan ($30) to help him pay his rent or buy a suit for an upcoming wedding and his regular single set of clothes would not do. I learned from observing Nurzat that when these requests were made, the response should be to immediately give as much money as one could as a gift without asking any questions.

I came to understand that monetary exchange was a way of building the intimacy of a relationship. By making oneself vulnerable and asking for money, the borrower showed how much they trusted their friend or relative. The lender likewise showed their care by giving money as a gift, while also reaffirming their trust in the borrower since they knew the favor could be returned. Lending money was a way of caring for friends and loved ones. Exchanging money was more than capital exchange, it was part of a practice that social theorist AbdouMaliq Simone refers to as “taking care.” The act of taking gifts gave them a feeling of protection in an otherwise uncertain life.

In May 2015, the police in Nurzat’s home village demanded that he return home and apply for a new Xinjiang-specific “convenient for the people” passcard, without which he could not freely migrate. But try as he might, Nurzat was never granted this card. Yusup tried to make it on his own in the city for a few more months, but then he too gave up and returned to the village. In late 2016, my communications with him went dark. Because of their age, employment, internet habits, and education status, it is likely that both he and Nurzat were sent to their local reeducation camp. I don’t know where either of them are now.


Yusup and Nurzat were forced to depend on each other, rather than their parents or siblings, for financial support partly due to the deep poverty of their families. This poverty, and its intensification in the 1990s and 2000s, also had something to do with the way Uyghurs were often systematically denied credit and access to good jobs. This had the effect of increasing indebtedness and dependency among Uyghurs who were systematically blocked from low interest lines of credit by national banks. Uyghur migrants told me and other researchers that Han landlords, bankers, and neighborhood officials increasingly found ways of evicting Uyghur business owners or homeowners and replacing them with Han settler tenants. Many Uyghur migrants I interviewed told me they encountered prejudice when seeking loans or authorizations of sales and purchases. Banks and landlords were often quite eager, on the other hand, to provide Han settlers with loans for purchases of real estate or discounts on business investments.

Over time, more and more aspects of interpersonal care were criminalized, as Uyghurs were blocked from financial services and loaning money to each other.

As the “People’s War on Terror” was set in motion in 2014, new restrictions on money transfers and bank withdrawals forced Uyghurs to rely on informal loans to a greater and greater extent. Migrants to the city depended on each other and, if their parents could afford it, sent food to them through a Uyghur-specific parcel-delivery network. These gifts of bread, meat, and fruit sustained migrants both materially and spiritually. The recipients of these packages said things like:

Of course I could buy those raisins and naan in the bazaar here in Ürümchi, but it’s not the same thing as receiving something from your own mother. It is a way for our parents to show us that they care. For many of us, our parents are simple people who don’t have much on their mind except for a few things: the health of their children and saving enough money for the holidays. It is so nice to receive those boxes. Even though I have lived in the city for such a long time now, my mom still asks me all the time if I need anything from my village in Kashgar prefecture.

A Uyghur businessman named Mahmoud told me in 2015 that Uyghur entrepreneurs were often forced into marginal industries and locations because they did not have the right connections. For example, Mahmoud said he really only knew one Uyghur real estate developer in Ürümchi. He said that because of the large number of Uyghurs who attempted to buy properties from him, he was forced to bribe local officials and police. He said, “Because properties are bought in advance by Uyghurs, there won’t be the ‘right’ proportion of Han residents in Uyghur-developed properties, so they are forcing him to pay for hundreds of police officers and build large police facilities.” Yet despite these kinds of restrictions, Mahmoud, like other Uyghur entrepreneurs, still believed there were ways for Uyghurs to survive in the Chinese economy. “We have to win them over by showing them what we can do. But it is hard to do this when we are always the target of blame for our feelings and our resentments for all that is wrong with Xinjiang.”

The most difficult aspect of trying to do business was getting the proper certificates and even moving one’s own money around. “If a Uyghur wants to withdraw more than 100,000 yuan ($14,600), he must first get permission from the Public Security Bureau,” Mahmoud said. “They are concerned that the money will be used to fund religious activism.” In 2018, Mahmoud also disappeared into a camp because he used a VPN to open a Facebook account, among other “pre-crimes.”

As I wrote previously in this column, money transfers across international boundaries were also deemed a sign of extremism or terrorism in 2014. Although it took several years for these rules to be fully enforced, over time more and more aspects of interpersonal care were criminalized, as Uyghurs were blocked from financial services and loaning money to each other.


Gulruy Asqar remembers November 4, 2016, as a bright and sunny day. She took a day off from work and went to the Regions Bank in her neighborhood in Tennessee. The bank tellers were friendly, they offered her a coffee while they helped her process a complicated transfer of $9,630.00 to the Xinjiang Branch of the Bank of China — the one next to the big mosque where middle-aged Uyghur men used to stand outside, changing dollars for yuan out of fanny packs. Back in Tennessee, all of that seemed far away. “I never thought for one moment that we were on the brink of such a great tragedy.” Gulruy remembered, “I was in such a good mood. When I came home I went on a walk in my neighborhood. It was such a nice day.”


Several years before, Gulruy and her husband had borrowed nearly $10,000 from her sister in order to help with the down payment on a house in the U.S. Now her sister needed the money back so she could lend it to their brother.

Gulruy addressed the money to her nephew Ekram Yarmuhemmed (艾克热木·亚尔买买提 Àikèrèmù · Yàěrmǎimǎití), since he spoke perfect Chinese and was one of the best people in the family at dealing with Chinese banking bureaucracy. The next day, like usual, Gulruy called her family back in Xinjiang. She told Ekram that the money was on the way. She joked that her sister had actually made money, because the yuan was now worth more than it was in 2015 when they first loaned the money.

It took nearly two weeks for the money to show up in Ekram’s bank account — nearly twice as long as the bank order said it should. “I woke up late,” Gulruy recalled. “Saturdays are the best. I was off work and I always talked to my family on Saturday morning.” But this time she could sense that something was not right. She called, not knowing that just a little before, the police had stormed into Ekram’s apartment with a search warrant. They turned the place upside down. They found an MP3 recording of the Quran. They confiscated the recording and took Ekram away.

After an investigation, Ekram was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Gulruy fears that the money transfer from a foreign source was one of the key forms of evidence used in the case. Since 2017, she, like most other Uyghurs I know, has stopped sending money to family members living in other countries. Caretaking by sharing money within a family has effectively been criminalized.

Remembering that moment, Gulruy said, “My whole family heard me (crying on the phone) and came down. On the line I heard them say, ‘Don’t blame yourself, don’t blame yourself. We know that you have a good heart.’”

image1
Gulruy and Ekram from when Gulruy was Ekram’s primary caregiver.

But it was impossible for Gulruy not to blame herself. “I was Ekram’s second mom,” she said. “When he was little, I took care of him because my sister was a nurse. Family is everything to us. We were so close. Now he is gone because we cared too much for each other. Right now, at this very moment, I still blame myself. Of course, he could have been targeted no matter what, so I know I should not. But I am human.”

This experience made Gulruy remember a story her father had told her about the Cultural Revolution. “He told me that sometime in the late 1960s he received a letter from his relatives in Kazakhstan.” As a classic Uyghur literature professor he was already regarded as a member of the “stinking number 9” intellectual class and as an “ethno-nationalist” (Uy: milletchi). The letter, a way for relatives to stay in touch across international boundaries, was an additional mark against him. Gulruy’s father remembered that when the Red Guards searched his home and found the letter, they deemed it a sign of a foreign “criminal element” (犯罪分子 fànzuì fēnzǐ). He told Gulruy, “They paraded me through the streets, forcing me to wear the tall paper dunce hat while they taunted me.” Then he was sent to prison for two years and then to a work camp.

Now, nearly 50 years later, families caring for each other were criminalized once again. Gulruy said, “When my sister gave us the money, they insisted that it was just a gift, just a way of helping us start our new life in America. This was just a way of showing that you care for each other. We never make a big deal out of giving money. We Uyghurs have a saying for this, we say that we give it ‘inside the sleeves’ so no one can see it. We always helped each other. For as long as I can remember, I loaned money to my brothers and sisters. If we needed anything, they were the first ones I turned to, not a bank or a stranger. We didn’t expect others to give money like this, especially if it was a bigger amount. It was a way of showing that we believed in each other. My sister trusted me that I would return it, so that she could give it to someone else. This is just how we think about money.”

As the anthropologist Rune Steenberg has shown, there is a long historical Uyghur tradition of “keeping wealth in the family.” In the past, this was often accomplished by marriages that were arranged between relatives, keeping wealth within particular communities. Uyghurs also have an indigenous tradition of microloans within a gendered friendship group or chay circle — a tradition that continued up until at least 2015. Women and men met once per month in a different host’s home, or sometimes a restaurant, bringing a set amount of money that was given to the host. Each time, a different member of the group acted as a host. In this way, friends would help each other to build capital to start small businesses or buy new clothes and wedding gifts. Given the tight restrictions on gatherings and monetary exchange, it is likely that many of these forms of interdependency and intimacy are being lost. Now, Uyghur economic activity centers around government “poverty alleviation” programs, forms of unfree labor which often separate parents from each other and their children.

In his reflections on his time in Auschwitz, the Austrian writer Jean Améry notes that the isolation he felt as the member of a group that had been abandoned by humanity was one of the most dehumanizing aspects of living through “a borderline situation.” This lack of agency and support can make life feel unbearable and unrepresentable. By cutting off Uyghur care networks, the reeducation campaign in Northwest China is producing a similar psychological atmosphere. The isolation of reeducation builds on the structures of poverty and widespread political violence that characterizes the Uyghur 20th century.

For a long period after Ekram was taken away, Gulruy was unable to communicate with her family. In the months that followed, Ekram’s brother was taken too, perhaps because of the MP3 recording of the Quran. Then Gulruy’s brother was also taken, perhaps because he edited a Uyghur-Chinese dictionary of Uyghur place names. More recently, her brother and one of her nephews have been placed under community detention, but they are still watched very closely. By taking away so many of their traditional ways of caring for each other, Ekram, Mahmoud, Yusup, Nurzat, and their families have been isolated. They have become numbers in an indifferent reeducation machine.


The names of Mahmoud, Yusup, and Nurzat have been changed to protect their identities. This essay first appeared in SupChina on September 2, 2020.

The Elephant in the XUAR: I. Entire families sentenced

Nursiman Abdureshid with photos of her parents and two brothers, all of whom have been given long prison sentences in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region.

This is the first in a series of five 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, of the camp detainees have been let out as a result of international action; by contrast, those currently in prisons have long sentences and have not seen concessions. The world remains passive on the issue.

For Nursiman Abdureshid, June 15, 2020 is now remembered as the worst day of her life. As the day when, after three years of little to no news, she was finally given official confirmation regarding the fate of her disappeared family in Kashgar. The confirmation was delivered via a phone call from a representative of the Chinese embassy in Ankara to Nursiman in Istanbul, where she now works as a marketing manager at an automotive spare parts company.

“You mean to say it’s like I heard?” Nursiman asked. “That there’s no one left at home now?”

“That’s about right,” said the representative. “It’s like that, according to what we have found out.”

“How is that possible? Take my mother, at least. What crime could she have committed? A woman in her fifties…”

“It’s… written clearly in the file that we received. I mean, to be frank… Ours is a country of law, so they must have a reason. It’s written that she was sentenced to a 13-year prison term on December 13, 2017 for the crime of preparing to commit terrorist activities.”

“…December 13, 2017. Okay. And my father?”

“He… was sentenced to 16 years and 11 months for the crimes of disturbing public order and preparing to commit terrorist activities. He is in prison now.”

At this point, Nursiman started to break down and, excusing her emotional state, asked the representative to repeat what he said. He did.

“And then, my younger brother?” Nursiman went on, asking about her 30-year-old brother, Memet’eli.

“His was on August 20, 2017. He was sentenced to 15 years and 11 months for a criminal offense and for the crime of preparing to commit terrorist activities.”

The news would come as an emotional coup de grâce following an extremely long period of uncertainty– more precisely,Nursiman and her sister, Nur’iman (also outside of China), were now receiving the news no faster than three years after the initial arrests. Not mentioned was their other brother, Emetjan, who had already been given a 7-year sentence in 2016, roughly a year before the rest of the family, formerly recognized as “model citizens” by the very state that now sentenced them, was taken.

At one point, himself likely aware of the raw brutality of what he was delivering, the embassy representative made an attempt at sympathy.

“I understand very clearly how it must feel,” he said, but then added, “However, there are some things that we simply have to face.”

In the case of Abdurehim Gheni, a lab employee and now Dutch citizen, such “sympathy” was overtly lacking. A year after losing all touch with his family in May 2017, he took to carrying out solo protests regularly in Amsterdam’s Dam Square, publicly asking for news about his relatives and telling passersby about the situation in his homeland. Simultaneously, he wrote letters to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to have them contact the Chinese authorities and inquire about his family. In August 2020, having still received no reply, he went to the Chinese embassy and demanded answers in person, but was rudely forced out by the hired security guard and fined 1000 euros after a brief stay in police custody. Around a month later, the answers finally came. In a curt letter, the Chinese side bluntly stated that Abdurehim’s two brothers, niece, and two brothers-in-law had all been given long prison terms, before reminding him that his mother had died of illness 6 years earlier (Abdurehim had inquired about his stepmother). Then, without the slightest hint of irony, the letter terminated with the remark that the remaining relatives were “living normal lives”.

Notice from the Chinese government, delivered to Abdurehim Gheni via the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (original and author’s translation).

For Mehbube Abla, an Uyghur woman living in exile in Austria, the same long prison terms were given to her parents, her brother, and two of her cousins. For Gulaisha Oralbai, a Kazakh woman now living in Turkey, the long prison terms were given to her brother and two sisters – a family of writers and intellectuals from northern Xinjiang. For Erkin Emet, a lecturer at Ankara University whom Chinese authorities have deemed a “terrorist organization member”, it was three of his brothers, his sister, and his sister’s husband. For Omerjan Hemdul, a bookstore owner in Istanbul, it was his two brothers, both successful real-estate moguls with assets in the millions. For Qalida Aqythan, an elderly woman and now Kazakhstan citizen, it was her three sons – a tragedy that reportedly put their father on his deathbed. For Dilber Eset, an Uyghur woman in Turkey, it was her brother, her parents, her uncle, and her uncle’s wife.

The examples persist, as barbaric as they are surreal.

If one is to believe the Chinese propaganda department, cases of entire families being detained are supposed to be rare. When asked by BBC reporter John Sudworth during a state-organized visit about the detention of entire families, Xu Guixiang – a senior official from the Xinjiang propaganda department – laughed and said:

“If all family members have been sent to education training centers, that family must have a severe problem. I’ve never seen such a case.”

While Mr. Xu’s reply can be interpreted as true in a certain narrow context (for example, by focusing only on the “training centers” and defining “all family members” very broadly), it is a reply that is either dishonest or ignorant in any pragmatic sense. In addition to the better publicized cases mentioned above, the detention – and, sometimes, sentencing – of multiple family members is not rare at all, and can be observed statistically.

Of the now 3944 documented ethnic-minority individuals reported as detained in the Xinjiang Victims Database (not including victims with low/undetermined-quality entries), 980 (24.85%) have at least one documented detained relative as well. Furthermore, 982 among the 3944 (24.90%) are explicitly reported as being sentenced. For these victims, 230 (23.42%) have at least one relative who is explicitly reported as being sentenced also. In more brute terms, this sample of approximately four thousand – if representative – suggests that:

Around a quarter of the ethnic minorities detained in Xinjiang have been given prison sentences. For all who have been, around a quarter were not the only ones from their families sentenced.

This “quarter-quarter” statistical rule is also inevitably conservative, as those not reported as being explicitly sentenced are reported as being either in camp, in police custody, or in one of the three aforementioned detention types but without it clearly determined which one. Given the reports of some camp detainees being sentenced, the fact that police custody is often a prelude to a prison sentence, and that undetermined forms of hard detention include these two forms and prison also, it is then fact that some portion of the remaining ~75% has been sentenced too. The news just hasn’t reached yet.

There where it has, the relatives abroad – such as Nursiman, Abdurehim, Mehbube, Gulaisha, and Omerjan – have been speaking up relentlessly, and the issue is blatantly apparent when one listens to the testimonies, which have, since mid-2019, been predominantly focused on long and unjustified prison terms.

Ershat Abdul’ehed, a student in Turkey, has been using drawings and caricatures to bring attention to his family’s plight and the crisis in Xinjiang at large. His father and brother were allegedly sentenced to 18 and 10 years, respectively.

Uyghur Pulse, a project that collects video testimonies and uploads them to a dedicated channel on a monthly basis, has, since the August of 2019, amassed over 700 videos of Uyghurs outside of China testifying for their friends and relatives. Of these, approximately 50% mention victims who have been given prison terms, with those that don’t typically focusing on people who have simply vanished, in many cases missing for years. In the most recent monthly batch, which includes testimonies from 24 people with relatives in the region, an astounding 17 talk about relatives who have been sentenced. (In general, few of the testimonies on Uyghur Pulse talk explicitly about people in camps, with almost no such testimonies since late 2019.)

The same trend is echoed in the Kazakh diaspora, where the human rights organization Atajurt has done an unprecedented and colossal job of documenting the crisis in Xinjiang, uploading over 3000 video testimonies to their public YouTube channel. Of the 235 detained Kazakh victims testified for at some point in the past 12 months – the vast majority of these testimonies going through Atajurt – 202 (85.96%) are explicitly reported as being sentenced. Of the remainder, 2 are reported as being in custody, 9 in camp, and 22 in an undetermined form of hard detention.

The prison-term lengths for 312 documented ethnic-minority victims reported as detained and sentenced in late 2016 or after. The mean, excluding the six life sentences, is at around 12.5 years. (Source: shahit.biz; for quality purposes, victims with low/undetermined-quality entries have not been included.) 

The issue is devastating and gargantuan. And still, despite the evident scale and brutality, the victims’ voices continue to fall on deaf years, as almost nothing is being done or said explicitly about the sentencing of so many – a phenomenon not only as massive as the infamous camp system but also significantly more destructive, yet to which the world’s response has been tantamount, essentially, to that of a shrug and sigh.