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‘It is about Xi as the leader of the world’: Former detainees recount abuse in Chinese re-education centres

Police patrol on a scooter as an ethnic Uyghur boy stands in his doorway on June 27, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China. Kashgar has long been considered the cultural heart of Xinjiang for the province's nearly 10 million Muslim Uyghurs.

Kevin Frayer

Authorities in China’s far western Xinjiang province have made loyalty to President Xi Jinping a central part of an extensive political re-education campaign that requires detainees to swear allegiance to the Communist Party while forswearing a Muslim faith that they are told to repeat is “stupid.”

Large numbers – researchers estimate the total in the hundreds of thousands – of people have been placed in Chinese facilities known as re-education centres, where they are forcibly indoctrinated. Many of those detained are Muslim Uyghurs and Kazakhs accused of “incorrect thinking” in the midst of a campaign that has treated what authorities consider “radical tendencies” as a public-health crisis that must be expunged.

Now, interviews with people who have been in those centres show that China’s current leader, who has orchestrated a personalization of power not seen in China since the days of Mao Zedong, occupies a place of singular importance in China’s efforts to rectify what it deems errant thinking.

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“Xi Jinping is great! The Communist Party is great! I deserve punishment for not understanding that only President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party can help me,” was one of the refrains that a Uyghur woman who was in a centre last fall, was forced to regularly repeat.

The woman, whose name is not being used by The Globe and Mail for her protection, was put through regular self-criticism sessions. Part of the content was cultural. “My soul is infected with serious diseases,” she would repeat. “There is no God. I don’t believe in God. I believe in the Communist Party.”

Other content was more explicitly political. Day after day she would say out loud that she was a traitor, a separatist and a terrorist.

“I am so blind not to see the greatness of our strong country’s laws. I am so stupid that I was not thankful for our President Xi Jinping,” she would be told to recite.

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Her recollections add to the growing number of accounts from people who have been inside the re-education centres that have proliferated in Xinjiang since 2017. Chinese officials have denied their existence, and refused to accept diplomatic entreaties from foreign countries, including Canada, expressing concern over human-rights violations. But a growing body of evidence shows that such centres are widespread and being used for practices that critics call abusive violations of human rights.

The Globe and Mail interviewed several people who have been in the centres. They described intense attempts to indoctrinate large numbers of people in settings that resembled military prisons, with armed guards and tight security. Cameras followed every move, even into toilets. Some detainees received unknown medicines; others attempted suicide.

The long days were filled with instruction “about Xi Jinping, no one else,” said Kayrat Samarkan, 30, who was in a re-education camp last year before being allowed to go back to Kazakhstan, after diplomatic pressure for the release of detained Kazakhs. “It is about Xi as the leader of the world. The new China is best. All other countries, especially the U.S., are evil. Capitalism is evil, wrong and failed. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is the best.”

The inculcation extended to mealtimes.

“Before breakfast we had to say repeatedly: ‘Long live Xi Jinping! May he live for 10,000 years!’” Mr. Samarkan said.

“After eating, we had to say the same thing.”

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Every day began at 6 a.m., with time allotted to cleaning up sleeping quarters – little more than blankets on cement floors – before breakfast. From 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. detainees memorized red songs and slogans, some of them dating to the era of the Communist Revolution. From 10 a.m. to noon, they wrote down the texts they had just memorized.

Afternoons were devoted to studying Communist Party propaganda and policies, as well as lessons about the dangers of being “infected” by going abroad. They wrote self-criticism late into the night, noting “anything we did wrong, or any negative thoughts about China or the Chinese people,” Mr. Samarkan said.

The personalization of political indoctrination in re-education centres comes amid a broader effort that, according to former detainees, includes attempts to weed out religious observance.

Xi Jinping is great! The Communist Party is great! I deserve punishment for not understanding that only President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party can help me.

— One of the refrains that a Uyghur woman who was in a centre last fall, was forced to regularly repeat.

Occasionally, authorities would appear to test those being held, Mr. Samarkan said. In the middle of one night, the centre was filled with the sound of the morning call to prayer. People who woke up were taken away, Mr. Samarkan said. Authorities appeared to think that being roused by the call was evidence of persistent religious tendencies.

At one point, Mr. Samarkan smashed his head against the wall in an attempt to kill himself. Instead, he fainted. He was taken to hospital and threatened with eight years in prison if he tried again.

“I didn’t do anything,” he told the people at the hospital. “Just kill me. I don’t want to be alive.”

In the re-education centre, he saw another person rip up pieces of towel and eat them, another attempt at suicide. That person was discovered by authorities and punished. “If they find out, they won’t let you commit suicide,” Mr. Samarkan said. The Globe spoke with him from Kazakhstan, where he is living after being released.

Detainees were divided into three groups, he said: religious people; those who have either travelled overseas or had overseas contacts; and those who broke rules, which could include failing to respect Beijing time (Xinjiang is far west, and Uyghurs commonly set clocks back two hours), missing compulsory flag-raising ceremonies or failing to speak Chinese.

Some people were given pharmaceutical injections and pills, Mr. Samarkan said, describing the marks on the arms of those who had been given unknown medicines. “They forgot things, couldn’t focus, looked numb.”

His account was confirmed by two other former detainees in re-education centres.

Human-rights researchers say authorities in detention centres elsewhere in China will sometimes distribute medicine for diseases such as tuberculosis, although forcing its consumption can create misunderstandings.

Reports on the use of medicine for psychological purposes in Chinese detention are less common, although enough exist “to indicate a systematic abusive practice by the police,” said Michael Caster, who works with Safeguard Defenders, an international human-rights group.

In recent years, at least five human rights defenders, including detained lawyers, said they were forced to take medicine.

In Xinjiang, re-education activities are being conducted in a variety of settings and centres, some less formal – operating as schools, with students in class either during the day or at night – while others are sprawling complexes with high walls that resemble prisons.

Authorities call them centres for “vocational training” or “transformation through education.” Scholars have called it “co-ercive isolated detoxification.” A report earlier this year from Xinjiang scholar Adrian Zenz estimated that, at a minimum, several hundred thousand people have been placed in re-education.

A security guard stands watch in a Uyghur neighbourhood in Aksu, in China's western Xinjiang region, in April, 2015.

GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

The Uyghur woman who was held in the centre last fall had a foreign passport. She was brought to a smaller re-education camp after landing at the airport in Xinjiang. She says she was taken away at gunpoint with other relatives and placed first in a local re-education centre, then transferred to another such place in the Xinjiang town where she grew up. The Globe is not disclosing its location, or other details relevant to her case, because her other relatives have not yet been released. The woman, who was allowed to leave less than two weeks after her husband persuaded foreign authorities to intervene, does not know where those relatives are today.

She was placed in re-education with her baby, not yet a year old. They were watched by surveillance cameras and workers took her baby when it cried. Other mothers also had young babies, she said.

In re-education, she was not allowed to wear underwear or a bra and her hair was completely shaved off, as was that of other women. She was not told why, although it may have been to prevent lice, since the women were sleeping in crowded conditions.

Elsewhere, detainees have said authorities appear to have cut the hair of women in re-education as a reprimand to the traditional long hair they maintained, a message that “now you are going to have a modern hair style,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In some ways, the forced praise for Mr. Xi inside re-education centres is being done in a similar vein – taught as the modern political fashion in China.

“Many aspects of Xinjiang today bear a resemblance to the Cultural Revolution,” Ms. Wang said. “So some kind of worshipping of President Xi would be the expected conduct of a loyal subject of the Chinese Communist Party, which is what these political education facilities are supposed to cultivate.”

Re-education is being used “to create loyal subjects by force,” said Rian Thum, a historian at Loyola University in New Orleans who has frequently visited Xinjiang since 1999, most recently last year.

“The minorities of Xinjiang are just a group of people that the authorities think are in need of a stronger dose of indoctrination in an outlook that the party is deploying more gradually elsewhere,” Mr. Thum said.

Indeed, the push to inculcate Xi Jinping thought is taking place across China. High-school textbooks have been edited to include lengthy explanations of a philosophy credited to Mr. Xi, and dozens of universities across China have opened centres devoted to its study.

When Uyghur children are taught to treat his image as the image of the grandfather, they are being trained to attribute benevolence and respect to Chinese national sovereignty.

— Darren Byler, anthropologist at the University of Washington

In Xinjiang, meanwhile, authorities have inaugurated a Xi Jinping thought lecture campaign in early June, under the banner of “10 million teachers and students having the same class to study new thoughts.” Instruction will take place at colleges and universities across the region. The lectures will also be aired on television and streamed online.

“Especially in Xinjiang, people need to learn the new thoughts and Party’s strategy on governing Xinjiang,“ Xiong Kunxin, a professor at Tibet University, told the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid published by the Communist Party.

Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, has collected videos that have been circulating online showing demonstrations of fealty to Mr. Xi outside of re-education camps. In one, a woman speaks in Uyghur to a toddler: “My child, go and kiss your grandfather Xi Jinping.” The toddler runs and kisses an image of Mr. Xi on a large framed poster.

In another, a man changes the lyrics of a popular Uyghur folk song to say “Xi Jinping is my father, the Party is my mother. We are so safe under the shadow of the party. We are against evil forces. We burn religious people in fire.” The man is surrounded by others who appear to be drinking beer and baijiu, a Chinese-made hard liquor. It is an image at odds with Muslim dietary practices, “everyone is now drinking and smoking as a way of proving they do not need re-education,” said Mr. Byler, who has done extensive study of the re-education system.

Mr. Xi, meanwhile, “has become an open symbol of Chinese national sovereignty,” Mr. Byler said.

“When Uyghur children are taught to treat his image as the image of the grandfather, they are being trained to attribute benevolence and respect to Chinese national sovereignty,” he said. That political ideology is reshaping everyday speech. Instead of “inshallah,” or “God willing” as a reference to future plans, Mr. Byler said, many Uyghurs “now say ‘Party willing.’”

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