China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denies their existence. But extensive reporting by international media and human rights groups indicates that upwards of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs – a Muslim-minority ethnic group – have been detained in sprawling “re-education” centres in the far-western Xinjiang region of China.
The camps are not only massive, with some exceeding 10,000sqm, but have also been likened to prison-like compounds, with “reinforced security doors and windows, surveillance systems, secure access systems, watchtowers, and guard rooms or facilities for armed police”. The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China calls it “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today”.
China has long been wary of its Uyghur population, particularly in the wake of deadly riots, terrorist attacks and the flow of Uyghur militants to Syria and Iraq to fight with the Islamic State in recent years.
But the emergence of the re-education camps in Xinjiang raises a number of new questions: Why has the Communist Party come to rely on mass internment to control the Uyghurs? What are the implications for China’s future political development under President Xi Jinping? And how should the international community respond?
From social controls to ‘re-education’
Xinjiang’s position at the crossroads of East and West, as well as the cultural, religious and ethnic differences between the majority Han and minority Uyghurs, have posed significant challenges to the Communist Party for decades.
To bring more stability to the restive region, Beijing has pursued an aggressive integration strategy defined by tight political, social and cultural controls, the encouragement of mass migration by the dominant Han Chinese population, and state-led economic development.
In turn, the Uyghurs have increasingly chafed against these restrictive policies, resulting in periodic outbursts of violence.
Read more: What China’s censors don’t want you to read about the Uyghurs
In recent years, Beijing has leveraged the global war on terror and the existence of a small number of Uyghur militants abroad to crack down on Uyghur ethnic identity even further.
From the party’s perspective, the recent outbreaks of Uyghur violence are not a reaction to restrictive policies, but the result of the “three evil forces” of “separatism, terrorism and extremism”, which have “hoodwinked” ethnic minorities into “erroneous” thinking.
In Xinjiang, this has enabled the development of a high-tech and data-heavy surveillance apparatus to reassert the party’s control over the region, along with efforts to weed out so-called extremists by identifying supposedly “abnormal” activities such as the wearing of long beards, hijabs, niqabs and burkas.
Now, re-education camps have emerged as a repugnant but depressingly logical extension of this process. The government calls them “transformation through education” centres, which harks back to the institutions of “thought reform” established under Mao Zedong in the 1950s.