All posts filed under: Social Analysis

‘Only when you, your children, and your grandchildren become Chinese’: Life after Xinjiang detainment

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 …

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 …

Uyghur ‘caretaking’ and the isolation of reeducation

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 …

“99 bad things”: A man’s 2-year journey through Xinjiang’s complex detention network

Editor’s preface: Three years after the start of the mass incarcerations in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, there are now dozens of eyewitness accounts testifying to the coercive, violent, and often cruel nature of Xinjiang’s “re-education initiative”. Among these, however, few are as informative, comprehensive, and detailed as Erbaqyt Otarbai’s, a Kazakh truck driver who – following a trip to Xinjiang in May 2017 – found himself caught up in the system for two full years, with the majority of the time spent in detention centers, “re-education” camps, a hospital, an improvised factory, and house arrest. His account – independently corroborated various times over by former cellmates, satellite images, and testimonies for victims that he met along the way – offers a rare and invaluable view of not only the system’s many facets but also of their evolution, from the initial beginnings of the incarcerations, to their intensification, and finally to the authorities’ very visible response to outside pressure, with the facilities being transformed and many inmates being released, yet others being given long …