Xinjiang – Re-education under Surveillance and Barbed Wire

Article Written by: Hugo Neves

Homo homini lupus (latin proverb)



Xinjiang, or East Turkestan, is an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) deeply marked by separatist movements and affected by several incidents of terrorism from 2007 to 2017. After two particularly serious incidents in the 2009 riots and 2014 terrorist attacks in the regional capital Ürümqi, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) implemented the campaign “strike hard against violent terrorism”, activating extremely restrictive measures for Uighur citizens and other ethnic minorities — aiming at “eradicating ideological viruses“, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) —, which will be thoroughly analysed in this article. For the PRC, Xinjiang is a key region within the geostrategic scope of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) transition between Eastern China and Europe (see image 1), as well as for the export of cotton (ca. 80% of the national production and 20% of the world), natural gas (ca. 1/3 national), coal (ca. 40% national) and oil (ca. 40% national). It is also the largest region in the PRC, although only about 10% of its area is suitable for living.

As journalists’ access to the region is limited, and information about the CCP’s measures to combat terrorism is filtered by censorship (PRC was ranked amongst the four worse countries on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index), its repercussions are still unclear. However, the UN considers that more than one million Uighurs are arbitrarily detained in special detention camps, while several witnesses, NGOs and governments in numerous countries have accused the CCP of committing a series of serious human rights violations, which are listed below:

  • Persecution of journalists
  • Permanent surveillance of the population
  • Cultural and religious bans
  • Patriotic education and forced labor
  • Separation from family members, including children
  • Forced sterilization
  • Torture and Rape
  • Cultural genocide
Image 1: Map of BRI’s Economic Corridor (CCAWEC) that passes through Xinjiang. Source: Business Insider, February 2019.


About the accusations:

In Xinjiang, international journalists are confronted with various methods of pressure against critical observations of the CCP: recurrent harassment by unidentified individuals; restrictions on access to places of interest or speaking to Uighurs about the charges previously mentioned, as well as the reluctance of some respondents to speak, for fear of reprisals; intimidation and expulsion of journalists by local authorities. Uighurs are subject to a tight surveillance system, which includes checkpoints, facial recognition cameras and an exponential increase in security in public space in recent years. The region seems to be serving as a laboratory for the evolution of the system in the rest of the country, a “state of total surveillance” (or police state) whose control is complemented with the “social credit system” and the digital app “integrated platform of joint operations ”(IJOP), used by the police to store data on individuals who are considered a threat. According to HRW, this system violates the internationally guaranteed rights of privacy, presumption of innocence until proven guilty, freedom of expression and religion, as well as freedom of association and movement.

Another accusation is that of repressing the cultural and religious identity of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. Citizens under the age of 18 are prohibited from attending religious ceremonies in mosques and the Koran must be approved and filtered by the CCP; images of Xi Jinping’s face appear in various mosques, against Uighur religious tradition; the hijab and long beards are forbidden in some cities, as are fasting and teaching according to Uighur and Islamic tradition; some schools cannot teach the Uighur language and a large number of mosques and cemeteries have been destroyed or closed. In addition to the repression of indiosyncracy, since its conquest by Mao Zedong in 1949, successive policies promoting the immigration of the Han ethnic population to Xinjiang by the government resulted in an increase from 6% to 41% in 2020, while the Uighurs, 83 % in 1949, now constitute only 46% of its population.

In Xinjiang, described in an ABC Four Corners investigation as the “largest open prison in the world”, Uighurs are also subject to arbitrary detentions that result in their being transported to “re-education camps” or “vocational training centres”, in which education is based on ideological and patriotic indoctrination. On a closer examination, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the New York Times (NYT) claim to have acquired documents from the CCP (called China Cables and Xinjiang Papers, respectively) that prove the existence of involuntary detentions and inhumane conditions in the aforementioned camps, contradicting the government’s version that these are merely a tool to fight against terrorism and poverty. Chinese officials initially called these news “fake news”, just as they had denied the existence of the camps; however, they later confirmed the documents’ veracity, although they continue to accuse journalists of sensationalizing their content.

Image 2: Map with the location of the re-education camps and prisons in Xinjiang.
Source: East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, November 2019.


The first section of the China Cables describes measures to prevent the escape of their “students” — involving police, locked doors and camera surveillance. The documents also describe how the public relations campaign for Xinjiang should proceed and how PRC’s spokespersons should describe these “vocational training centres”, including a guide to the respective procedures. The documents also uncover an internal evaluation system that includes sanctions, that include a ban on contacting family members. ISIJ journalist Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian explains that the “points system used in the camps” with which “prisoners are assessed according to their behavior”, includes learning Chinese (Mandarin), communist ideology and national law. For HRW’s Sophie Richardson, this system will serve to “re-engeneer people’s thinking” and what they can think or say.

The Xinjiang Papers’ documents, in turn, show that Xi Jinping stated in a speech: “we have to be as tough as they are” and “we must show absolutely no mercy”. A directive expresses concern about a “serious possibility” for students to create “turbulence” after learning what had happened to their relatives, advising camp officials to tell their students that “they have absolutely no need to worry” about their relatives who have disappeared, and may sometimes allow video calls. It establishes, at the same time, that students and their families must “comply with the laws and regulations of the State and not believe or spread rumors”, proceeding: “their thinking was infected by unhealthy thoughts” and “Freedom is only possible when this virus is eradicated from their minds and they are in good health.”

In another June 2017th directive signed by Zhu Hailun, then Xinjiang security officer mentioned terrorist attacks in Britain as “a warning and a lesson for us”, he blamed the “excessive emphasis on human rights” by the British government, above security, as well as inadequate control over the “spread of extremism on the internet and in society.” Another officer, Wang Yongzhi, ordered the release of more than 7,000 camp inmates, because according to him: “(I) acted selectively and made my own adjustments, believing that rounding up so many people would knowingly fan conflict and deepen resentment.” As a result, he was investigated for “seriously disobeying the party’s central leadership strategy to govern Xinjiang”. The internal report, however, reveals that his biggest political sin was refusing “to round up all those who should be arrested”. In addition, these re-education camps have a distinctive feature: they are surrounded by walls with barbed wire and checkpoints, such as watchtowers (see image 3).

Image 3: Re-education camp example, with checkpoints and surrounded by
walls with barbed wire. Source: Australian Strategic Policy Institute, March 2020


As for forced labor, in a to the Center for Global Policy, China’s ethnic policy expert Adrian Zenz wrote: “minorities in full-time wage labor have become a cornerstone of the state’s coercive social re-engineering project”; in response, Beijing argued that the work is voluntary. Another report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) involves at least 82 major international brands in Xinjiang’s cotton supply chain. According to the study, the PRC mobilized a massive transfer of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities from Xinjiang to factories in other regions of the PRC, estimating about 80,000 of them were transferred between 2017 and 2019, largely coming directly from the re-education camps in Xinjiang and after their graduation. Government documents demonstrate that these workers are assigned supervisors and that they have very limited freedom of movement. Outside working hours, they are required to take Mandarin classes, “patriotic education” and ideological training, under constant surveillance and a ban on religious activities.

In factories outside Xinjiang, these workers are called “surplus labor” (富余 劳动力) or “poverty-stricken labor” (贫困 劳动力). A provincial government document describes a central database developed by the Xinjiang Department of Human Resources and Social Affairs that records the medical, ideological and employment details of each worker. Indeed, some Chinese companies and government officials are proud to be able to change the ideological perspective of their Uighur workers and turn them into “modern citizens”, “more physically attractive”, who learn to “bathe daily”; in addition, online ads for the sale of workers that ASPI and Sky News found on the Baidu search engine appear to corroborate these details about forced labor in factories.

Image 4: Pomegranade Seed night school interior in Taekwang factory. On the wall there
is a Xi Jinping portrait. Source: Australian Strategic Policy Institute, March 2020


An ASPI case study describes the opening of an evening school at the Taekwang factory in June 2019 (see image 4), in which a government official from the local United Front Work Department (UFWD) office summoned Uighur workers to strengthen their identification with the State and the nation. The school is called “Pomegranate Seed”, in reference to a speech by Xi Jinping in which he said that each ethnic group must come together as strongly as the seeds of a pomegranate. Furthermore, UFWD not only holds regular meetings with Shandong companies that hire Uighurs to discuss “workers’ ideological trends and “any issues that have arisen”, but also has representatives within factories to daily report on Uighur workers’ thoughts and manage any disputes.

More recently, several international brands using Xinjiang cotton, such as Nike and H&M, have been boycotted in the PRC as retribution against critical comments about forced labor in the region, in a nationalist initiative that began with a statement by the PRC Communist Youth League. The boycott resulted in a decline in their sales in China and in the censorship of its logo by the PCC on the internet and on TV. Beijing in turn responded through its state media, not only reprimanding transnational companies for being involved in its domestic policy, but also by creating documentaries and news that convey a positive image of ethnic cohesion and a harsh response to terrorism.

Image 5: Distribution of cotton production in Xinjiang.
Source: Center for Global Policy, December 2020.


Within the list of 11 forced labor indicators from the International Labor Organization (ILO), ASPI identified in the case of Uighurs in Xinjiang: intimidation and threats, such as the threat of arbitrary detention; monitoring by security personnel and digital surveillance tools; dependency and vulnerability, as well as threats to family members in Xinjiang; restricted freedom of movement, such as factories surrounded by barbed wire and under high-tech surveillance; isolation, like living in segregated dormitories and being transported in exclusive trains; abusive working conditions, through police guard posts in factories, “military style” management and a ban on religious practices; excessive hours, such as Mandarin classes after work and political indoctrination sessions that are part of the work assignments.

In addition, the separation of family members from detainees includes coercion of family members in order to avoid the testimony of Uighurs outside the national territory, measures that encourage the denunciation of anti-CCP activities by family members and electronic espionage by the government. These separations mainly affect children, as CNN describes in a report with several examples. Another report, from Vice News and HBO, displays images of a school surrounded by barbed wire. According to Amnesty International, Uighurs in exile in several countries around the world found that their children were sent to “orphan camps”. However, PRC’s state media advocate the approach as a necessary means, referring to the common practice of the “one child policy” (now expanded to 2 children) and the negative influence of the Western media on the coverage of the CCP’s policies. PRC officials even argue that the well-being and happiness of all ethnic groups has increased.

Finally, satellite images indicate that the construction of these fields began in 2014, that it may still be expanding and that the same control systems have apparently started to be used in the Tibet region. Some testimonies describe the use of torture and rape in the camps, and others report particularly violent measures against women — American doctors have confirmed the forced sterilization of some Uighur women and some witnesses say they have received involuntary treatment for menstrual disruption. On the other hand, the Xinjiang authorities admit that there has been a significant drop in births of Uighurs in the region, but that it is not due to forced sterilization, but to voluntary sterilization. In short, the set of measures listed above has been compared, as Adrian Zenz‘s research indicates, to “cultural genocide”.

Image 6: PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman displays an old picture evoking slavery in the US in response to accusations of current forced labor in the PRC. Source: PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 2021


International reaction:

Western members of the UN Security Council and Germany questioned the PRC about detention camps and related allegations. Similarly, the US Senate passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act in a rare bipartisan decision condemning the status of human rights in Xinjiang. Leaders from countries like the United Kingdom also denounced the situation: their Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of Foreign Affairs criticized Beijing’s position and applied sanctions under the Glogal Magnitsky Act for the violations aforementioned, together with the European Union, US and Canada. 45 countries defended the PRC in response to a list of 39 countries of the opposite position; in their defense, Beijing argues that the terrorist attacks have disappeared because of the measure they adopted in Xinjiang. Another recurring response to the accusations in question is the deflection by moral equivalence to the USA, mentioning social problems of the present and the past (see image 6) of the political rival, while criticizing any meddling in its internal issues. Furthermore, Beijing went on to argue that Westerners’ definition of human rights should not condition international norms. Meanwhile, António Guterres assured that the UN is in negotiations with the PRC to organize an investigation into the allegations.



Despite the security problems plaguing Xinjiang, there is a crucial factor with which the international community must firstly grapple: the PRC unmistakably blends the crime of terrorism with non-violent separatism — declaring war on the “three forces” (separatism, extremism and terrorism) —, thus violating Uighurs’ freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which are fundamental human rights enshrined in art. 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As for the uncertainty that remains amongst many actors of the international system in relation to the accusations aforementioned, it is up to the international media to raise this issue to greater notoriety so that it can be discussed more clearly. A third aspect in Xinjiang’s future is the possibility of investigating the charges by an impartial international agency, despite the increasing economic influence of the PRC via BRI — namely through the strategic route of the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCAWEC). Xinjiang’s issue is expected to play a central role in the future of the international order, which will probably oppose an authoritarian view of regimes like the PRC and a liberal Democratic view, in which censorship is avoided in favor of transparency. Finally, it should be noted that Beijing boycotted the 93rd Academy Awards, making it impossible for its citizens to watch the show due to negative comments about the regime, both by the Chinese director of one of the favorites to win the best film award (Nomadland) and in a nominated documentary (Do Not Split). This “protectionist” measure reveals the creative sterility of the “wolf warriors” and their clear opposition to the individual judgment that Lewis Carrol proposed in Alice in Wonderland, when he wrote: “Everything has a moral, if you can find it”.

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