The Disappeared An Inside Look at China's Reeducation Camps
A million Muslims are being held in reeducation camps in northwestern China, where they are forced to learn Mandarin and sing communist songs. Ex-prisoners who have escaped across the border to Kazakhstan talk about their imprisonment.
"The schooling has only one goal: To banish thoughts of religious extremism and violent terrorism from people's minds and to heal ideological sicknesses."
Quote from a member of the Communist Youth League at a seminar in Hotan, Xinjiang in March 2017.
On a day in October, with a strong wind chasing the clouds over the mountains of Almaty and carrying the first whiff of damp firewood through the streets, the first Kazakh rises up against China in the back room at a hotel in the city. Kairat Samarkan is his name, a stout man with soft features and big hands who loves horse milk and the stillness of the mountains. He holds onto the lectern in front of him, his eyes scanning the cameras pointed at him, and tries to smile.
But the camp immediately returns to the forefront of his mind.
It has been about a year since Samarkan disappeared into a reeducation camp in China where he was forced to learn Mandarin and to sing communist songs. He likely only regained his freedom because three months later he smashed his head against a wall so hard that he almost died. Now he is one of the few Muslims able to talk about China's indoctrination camps.
Fifty Kazakh men and women are seated in front of him on this morning, anxiously waiting for him to begin telling his story. Each of them has relatives who apparently disappeared in China's camps.
Samarkan's body presses against the wooden lectern, and he slowly raises the microphone. "They tortured us when we made mistakes," he says. "Every morning they forced us to praise Xi Jinping, the Chinese president. We wished for him to live 10,000 years. We sang: China is greater and more developed than all other countries. In the afternoons, we had ideological lessons. The teachers talked about the 19th party congress and China's successes. Then they locked us back up."
Samarkan is a Chinese-born shoe salesman who used to commute between the two countries. "As you know, we Muslims in Xinjiang province have been persecuted for years," he says. "But I didn't think they would start arresting everyone who visits Kazakhstan. On my last trip, Chinese police officers stopped me at a checkpoint. They accused me of having dual citizenship and of betraying my country."
They interrogated him for three days, his limbs stretched out in an iron chair. Samarkan hits the lectern with his hands. "They want to make us Chinese. Millions of Muslims in China are no longer allowed to be people."
A 'Harmonious Society'
The audience is quiet when Samarkan finishes. A woman cries silently.
Many Kazakhs in attendance left their hamlets at dawn to attend this meeting, set up by the aid organization Atajurt. They have photos with them of their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters who have been arrested in Xinjiang. They, too, bravely tell their stories into the microphones belonging to Kazakh broadcast journalists.
Most ethnic Kazakhs who are missing relatives were born in China and later emigrated to Kazakhstan, the land of their ancestors. The place they left behind, the northwestern Chinese administrative district officially known as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, is primarily populated by Turkic peoples and is rich in natural resources. But it is the Han Chinese who profit from the economic upswing.
Sign up for our newsletter -- and get the very best of SPIEGEL in English sent to your email inbox twice weekly.
As a result, the Uighurs, who make up a majority of the Muslims in Xinjiang, felt discriminated against and launched protests against the Chinese government's injustice. Because isolated attacks were also carried out, the leadership soon came to view Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, such as the Kazakhs, as enemies of the state who were preventing the establishment of a "harmonious society." In Beijing's view, they are disrupting China's national unity -- and doing so in a strategically important region through which the new Silk Road passes.
About 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities are currently in detention according to research conducted by the United Nations. Beijing's "fight against terror" has led to the construction of likely hundreds of reeducation camps.
DER SPIEGEL spoke with three former prisoners and a dozen families whose relatives are allegedly in indoctrination camps in Xinjian. All of them speak of brainwashing meant to bring the Muslims into line.
For months, Beijing denied that these camps even existed. But because international pressure continued to increase, the government recently changed its strategy. Instead of refuting the camps' existence, it proudly declared them to be an opportunity for "voluntary professional education" with integrated language training.
The governor of the Xinjiang region told the Chinese state news agency that Muslims were being taught how to become "law-abiding citizens." He claimed they not only learn Chinese in the camps but could also take courses in e-commerce or cosmetics. At A UN meeting last week, American and Western European diplomats called on China to end the internment of Muslims in the Xinjiang region. China's deputy foreign minister rejected the accusations as politically motivated.
An Ideological Experiment
Because reporting it is almost impossible in Xinjiang, it is necessary to travel to Kazakhstan to learn more. Almaty lies about 300 kilometers (190 miles) from the Chinese border and is the largest city in this oil-rich country of 1.8 million inhabitants. It is surrounded by mountains, its hip bars nestled in among Soviet-era structures. Long-time President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power here for the past 27 years and there is no outward indication that the most radical reorganization of Chinese society since Mao Zedong is taking place just across the border. And that the tentacles of this ideological experiment reach deep into Kazakh society.
In a high-rise on the edge of the city, a slender woman welcomes a visitor to her two-room apartment. Thirty-seven-year-old Guly Omarkan fled to Almaty because life in China had become unbearable for her. A student is sleeping on a mattress behind the sofa -- a roommate to help her pay the rent. Otherwise, though, the rooms are bare. "I haven't had any time to get settled since my father was arrested in China," she says, quietly.
Omarkan grew up in a community in Xinjiang primarily composed of ethnic Kazakhs, but as a child she also played with Chinese friends. Uighur was the language of instruction at her school and she learned Chinese as a second language. "In China, 56 ethnic groups need to come together," is a sentence she heard frequently.
She first realized that things were changing in late 2016. Omarkan's Uighur school was closed down and was replaced by a Chinese one. Then, a "learning center" opened around the corner. Han Chinese went through the streets and invited all the inhabitants to attend "open education camps."
"We were supposed to watch communist films," says Omarkan. "Songs were sung about China winning every war."
At first, the overseers claimed the courses were voluntary. But they kept lists on which they divided people into categories: "trustworthy, middle, untrustworthy."
Before long, those who had stayed away from the education centers began disappearing. Entire Muslim villages emptied out and the children of parents who were arrested ended up in state-run orphanages. If one of them went missing, overseers said they had been sent "to school."
'Travelling Too Much'
Beijing intensified its "anti-terror campaign" in 2014 following deadly unrest in Xinjiang. In 2009, during a Uighur uprising in Ürümqi, some 200 people lost their lives, most of them Han Chinese. Omarkan had become used to surveillance and repression, but now, Beijing set about establishing a police state in the country's remote northwest.
In 2016, hardline party secretary Chen Quanguo was reassigned from Tibet and took over oversight of the province and soon, checkpoints and police stations began sprouting up across the barren region. That is when Omarkan moved to Almaty, a place where everyone spoke her language and where she felt at home. But her family was still in China, so she commuted back and forth. "You are travelling too much," an acquaintance warned her. Kazakhstan now belonged to the 26 "most dangerous countries" -- one of those places where it was best not to have any contacts if you wanted to avoid problems in China.
Beijing has established a list of 75 characteristics which are supposedly signs of "religious extremism." Calls for a "holy war" are considered suspicious, but so too is the accumulation of "large stores of food" or if someone "hoards weights, boxing gloves, maps, compasses, telescopes, ropes and tents without any apparent reason."
One day, Omarkan was looking for her Koran in her parents' living room in China. "We moved it into the storage room," her father said. "But we aren't religious," Omarkan countered. Her boys were circumcized because that's what the tradition called for, and they greeted each other with "salaam alaykum" instead of "nihao," but otherwise, she couldn't see any differences to the Han Chinese. "We grew up with them," Omarkan says today.
The overseers became increasingly strict. In early 2017, the government began its "Becoming Family" campaign, in which over a million inspectors moved into the homes of Muslim families. Their mandate was supposedly to "win hearts" but also to collect information about their host families. They were to inform their "little brothers and sisters" that their entire digital communication was being monitored.
"My daughter," is what Omarkan's father called the young woman who was sitting with the family one evening in 2017 when Omarkan came for a visit. "I came to help your family," the spy said. Omarkan's father instructed his daughter to be nice to this woman, who had been sent "from above." And Omarkan made an effort, calling the young woman "sister."
"It turns out that we constantly had to help her, because she even brought her child with her," says Omarkan on her sofa in Almaty. The young woman moved into Omarkan's room. When Omarkan claimed one night to be sick to avoid the screening of a propaganda film in the center of town, the woman informed on her.
Hundreds of Stories
Omarkan applied for Kazakh citizenship. During her next visit to China, the secret service interrogated her, and three months later, her mother was on the phone. "They have arrested your father," she said. Her mother told Omarkan that her father would only be released if she told the authorities everything about his daughter. Omarkan cries as she tells the story.
There are hundreds of stories like hers in Almaty, all of them recorded in the offices of the NGO Atajurt, housed in a Soviet building with an undersized elevator into which dozens of people squeeze every day to report the missing. Atajurt has documented over a thousand cases of Kazakhs who have disappeared in Xinjiang.
"We wanted to help the Kazakh government with their repatriation program," Kydyrali Orasuly, who runs the organization, says. "But China orders our returnees back into their country, supposedly to resolve passport issues."
Most never return from these trips. These days, many Kazakhs can hardly speak with their relatives back in China anymore: It has simply become too dangerous for the people of Xinjiang to accept phone calls from Kazakhstan. As a result, families have taken to paying taxi drivers to ask around in their villages in China. Others communicate in metaphors on the phone. The sentence "the weather is getting worse" refers to impending danger. "The computer has crashed. The program is broken," means that someone has been arrested.
Most of the former prisoners who have been able to flee to Almaty are afraid of Chinese agents, given that the border isn't far away. The either remain silent or prefer to remain anonymous. But Orynbek Koksebek, a stocky 38-year-old with a scar on his nose from a childhood fight, has come to a restaurant to talk -- both because he is furious and because he wants to share his experiences. He says he was imprisoned in northern Xinjiang.
"One-hundred-twenty-five days in a cell. I've never harmed anyone. The only daylight I saw was on the way to the classroom." He says messages on the walls proclaimed China's greatness and that 100 prisoners sat in front of a woman who taught them Chinese characters. "I didn't understand what I was supposed to do," says Koksebek. "I had barely ever held a pen before."
'Never Problems with the Chinese'
Because he can hardly read and write in his own language, his fellow students helped him with his Mandarin. They wrote down the propaganda song "Without the Communist Party There Would Be No New China" for him, and when the contents of the 19th party congress were being reviewed, they whispered him the answers. Soon, he was able to recite all by himself the story of communist hero Lei Feng, who fought gloriously for China.
Koksebek grew up in the city of Tacheng in northern Xinjiang, went to school for three years and spent the rest of his childhood on the back of a horse. In the family, they spoke Kazakh. "There were never problems with the Chinese." Nevertheless, Koksebek moved to Almaty to find work.
He took on Kazakh citizenship and left China behind. But he was arrested on Nov. 22, 2017, as he was travelling back to Xinjiang for his uncle's funeral. Officials told him he hadn't properly cancelled his Chinese citizenship -- and drove him to a hospital with a mask over his head.
All former prisoners report having blood drawn before they were imprisoned. It's likely that China is entering the detainees into a database which is ultimately to include information about all Xinjiang inhabitants between the ages of 12 and 65.
Then Koksebek was thrown into a cell.
"Why do you live in Kazakhstan? What do you do? Who do you know there?" That is how the interrogations began. When Koksebek says he didn't understand what they wanted from him, they forced him into a box and poured ice-cold water over him until he lost consciousness.
After a few days, or perhaps weeks -- Kosksebek doesn't know exactly -- they transferred him to the reeducation camp. It was divided into three sections: "one for religion, one for border crossings and one for criminals." Most of the detainees belonged to category two.
The daily routine was strict: Out of bed at 6 a.m.; propaganda radio from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.; lessons from 10 a.m. to noon. Then lunch. After mealtime came songs from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and then writing down the lessons 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Another stint of propaganda radio came from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. They were regularly summoned for group sessions where their views were examined closely. "You will be thankful to us because our education is good for your future," the overseers would say.
A Propaganda Trip to the Border
On April 12, 2018, Koksebek was released. Whether it was his entreaties that led to his release, his poor grasp of Mandarin or something else: He doesn't know.
A few days after our meeting, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry invited ambassadors, diplomats and journalists on a propaganda trip to the Chinese border. A specially chartered, turquoise train stands at the ready at 4 a.m. in Almaty. The vodka starts flowing just an hour into the trip as the Kazakh steppe streams past the windows outside -- until we arrive in the city of Horgos. It is one of the most isolated places on Earth, but it is also a key junction on the New Silk Road.
The Kazakh foreign minister praises his country's friendship with China as he holds a speech flanked by containers. During the meal, dancers entertain the guests before the foreign minister takes the group on a tour of the free-trade zone, careful to steer clear of the Chinese shops that ban veiled Muslim women from entering.
He doesn't say a word about the camps located just a few kilometers away on the other side of the border. Kazakhstan is a young country trapped between the major powers of Russia on one side and China on the other. It is wary of endangering its economic ties by protesting the camps.
One day later in Almaty, a woman whose life is in danger comes to a hotel for an interview. We will call her Sophia for the purposes of this story. Since she fled China, she has been hiding in Almaty. She has no valid identity papers and arrived one year ago and began looking for work. Life in her Chinese hometown had become unbearable.
"I could no longer stand the constant inspections," Sophia says. When she visited her sister in China one year ago, she says, a Uighur man invited her to a party. He was later arrested and when the police were going through his contacts in his phone, they identified Sophia as a Muslim born in China who was living out of the country. She ended up in a cell with 30 detainees.
Beaten with a Stick
"The indoctrination wasn't the worst part," she says, "but they kept us under surveillance the entire time. There were cameras hanging in our cells." She says they even kept an eye on them in the showers. "The guards did to us whatever they wanted. In places where there were no cameras, they would hit us. They even photographed us naked." The young women, she says, were defenseless, and the older ones who had forgotten how to write Chinese characters were beaten with a stick.
The Kazakh man who accompanied Sophia to the hotel wants her to testify before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He believes her story could move the international community to take action. And that hundreds of thousands of people would be released. But it is unlikely that will happen. Most countries have proven reluctant to take a stance. China is a powerful adversary. Even the Kazakh government has indicated to former prisoners who have left China to refrain from speaking openly about the camps. The ex-detainees aren't even safe in Kazakhstan.
Sophia, the young woman who continues to live in fear, writes to us from where she is hiding in Almaty: "This prison will remain burned into my memory forever. My hands, my eyes, my voice will belong to the police forever."
She still doesn't know where she can go next. But it should be as far from Xinjiang as possible.