Opinion | What Really Happens in China’s ‘Re-education’ Camps

Given the risks, firsthand accounts from former detainees remain rare — although a few are starting to emerge.

In February, a Uighur man studying in the United States gave Foreign Policy one of the most detailed descriptions of detention conditions published to date. He was arrested upon returning to China for a visit last year, and then held for 17 days on no known charge. He described long days of marching in a crowded cell, chanting slogans and watching propaganda videos about purportedly illegal religious activities. As he was being released, a guard warned him, “Whatever you say or do in North America, your family is still here and so are we.”

Last month, an ethnic Kazakh man described to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty his four-month stint in a camp in northern Xinjiang. He met inmates serving terms as long as seven years. He said he had been made to study how “to keep safe the domestic secrets” of China and “not to be a Muslim.” In these cases, as in many others, detainees were held incommunicado, their families left to wonder what had happened to them.

And now these rare eyewitness accounts are being corroborated, if unwittingly, by the Chinese state itself, as it makes public calls for contracts to build even more detention camps.

Many details of this carceral system are hidden, and remain unknown — in fact, even the camps’ ultimate purpose is not entirely clear.

They serve as grounds for compulsory indoctrination. Some officials use them for prevention as well, to lock down people they presumptively suspect of opposing Chinese rule: In two localities, the authorities have targeted people under 40, claiming that this age group is a “violent generation.”

The camps are also tools of punishment, and of course, a threat. Few detainees are formally charged, much less sentenced. Some are told how long a term they will serve; others are simply held indefinitely. This uncertainty — the arbitrary logic of detention — instills fear in the entire population.

Surveillance was markedly heightened during my last trip to Xinjiang in December — so much so that I avoided talking to Uighurs then for fear that just being in contact with a foreigner would get them sent away for re-education. Meanwhile, my Uighur contacts outside China were pointing to the quota-based purges of the Communists’ Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957-59 and ever-shifting rules during the Cultural Revolution to explain that even if Uighurs in Xinjiang today wanted to submit wholly to the security regime, they no longer knew how to. Joining the security services used to be a rare way to ensure one’s personal safety. Not anymore.