China’s record on human rights protections has long been appalling. But, in the past few weeks, a series of interviews with Uighur Muslims who have escaped from China revealed a whole new level of gut-wrenching details about the Communist regime’s oppression. These interviews expose the existence of a long-suspected archipelago of concentration camps (called “reeducation camps” by the government). They make it impossible to ignore a reality that China has long tried to hide: the Chinese government is among the world’s most oppressive regimes, utilizing a combination of modern technology and old-fashioned brutality to perpetuate its evil rule.
While there are likely concentration camps spread across China, the camps that have recently come to international attention are on the far western edge of China, in a region called “East Turkestan” by its inhabitants. The Chinese government calls it the “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.” The region shares a border with Kazakhstan to the north and Tibet (another region that has suffered brutally under Chinese rule) to the south. The region is populated by Uighur Muslims—and the Chinese government is not happy about it. The Chinese government claims that it has had to struggle mightily against what it calls “the Three Evils” in East Turkestan: terrorism, separatism, and extremism, all of which, according to the regime, are inflamed by religious beliefs. This is its excuse for imprisoning up to two million people in “reeducation camps.”
China tries to insist that these camps offer vocational training to minorities, but, according to an October 2019 interview with Sayragul Sauytbay, an Uighur Muslim who escaped from China following imprisonment in a reeducation camp, life in the camps is a living nightmare. Sauytbay was forced to serve as a language teacher in the camp, teaching Chinese to her Uighur or Kazakh-speaking fellow prisoners. She reveals in the interview that the “curriculum” of the reeducation camps consists of systematic brainwashing that targets the prisoners’ ethnic identity, religious beliefs, and humanity. Sauytbay’s language lessons consisted of rote memorization and recitation of propaganda such as “I love China,” “I am Chinese,” and “Thank you for the Communist Party.”
Prisoners ranged from young children to elderly people, many of whom spoke no Chinese and came from rural backgrounds. One elderly woman, Sauytbay says, was imprisoned for making an international phone call with a cell phone—but this woman was from a tribe so remote that she did not even know how to use a phone. When she denied making the call, she was taken to a torture room. “I saw her when she returned,” Sauytbay says. “She was covered with blood, she had no fingernails and her skin was flayed.”
Rape of both men and women is routine in the camps. Prisoners live in densely packed cells with a single bucket to relieve themselves; it is emptied only once a day. They survive on watery soup, with only one serving of meat per week. That meat is pork. All of these prisoners are Muslims, and eating pork violates their religious convictions. Camp guards forced them, week in and week out, to eat the pork, breaking down even their privately held beliefs about God.
This assault on religion is not incidental. The concentration camps exist to break down a religious minority. Every part of the camp’s structure undermines the prisoners’ faith. There is the forced consumption of pork. Prisoners are also forced to drink alcohol, which goes against their beliefs. Islam views the human body as sacred and forbids public nudity, so the camp guards routinely strip prisoners and force them to march naked around the camp. The Chinese government has long been hostile to religion and seeks to bring all religious practice under the oversight of the state. Catholics in the country experienced this when the Communist government refused to recognize bishops appointed by Rome, and instead set up their own bishops who were loyal to the state. The regime recognizes that freedom of religion is a bulwark against totalitarianism—and so it sets out to crush the Uighurs’ personhood and faith.
No scrap of human dignity is left to prisoners. Cell walls are made of glass, with cameras suspended from every corner of the ceiling as well as from the middle. Every moment, every square inch of the camp, is documented and reviewed. Anything that might suggest that a prisoner is a thinking, feeling individual—taking too long over the toilet bucket, words spoken in sleep, tears, or laughter—leads to gruesome punishment. Emotions are medically suppressed; every morning, prisoners are forced to take a pill that numbs their emotions, blurs their mind, and temporarily represses their memories.
In her interview, Sauytbay says that the afternoons are spent confessing all manner of “sins” against the Communist regime—and if prisoners do not have enough to confess, they are punished. Some of those sins included showing emotion at the sight of another prisoner’s punishment. She recalls one horrifying incident where prison guards publicly gang-raped a woman, all the while watching to see if any prisoner registered shock, horror, pity, or even tried to look away from the terrible scene. All those who did “were taken away and we never saw them again,” she says.
Sauytbay is not alone in her testimony. Though many of those who enter the camps never return, several other brave escapees have come forward with similar accounts. Last year, an anonymous Chinese official, horrified at the situation, leaked documents to the West that give glimpses into camp life.
Ignorance about the evils of China’s Communist regime is no longer a plausible excuse. It seems that at last the world may be awaking to the terrible reality of the Orwellian nightmare that is the Chinese regime. But how to move forward is not clear. Much of America’s materialistic, throwaway, consumer culture is built on being able to get cheap labor and materials from China. A letter signed by more than 180 human rights groups says that nearly all Western clothing companies benefit from Uighur slave labor. The Guardian reports that China is the world’s biggest supplier of cotton, and nearly 84 percent of Chinese cotton comes from East Turkestan. And members of the U.S. Congress have raised questions about the ways in which companies like Apple and the NBA are profiting from Chinese human rights violations.
It remains to be seen if America and the West have the moral courage to take a stand against this evil government, or if our devotion to consumer goods and entertainment will numb us to the horrors we can no longer say we have not seen.
Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images