China’s Re-Education Camps
An estimated one million people are held against their will in China’s internment prisons. Most are Muslim Uighurs who are imprisoned and subjected to indoctrination simply for privately expressing their religious faith or cultural affiliation.
Amnesty International lists some of the transgressions against the country’s dictatorship that will get people arrested and held captive: “Growing an ‘abnormal’ beard, wearing a veil or headscarf, regular prayer, fasting or avoidance of alcohol, or possessing books or articles about Islam or Uighur culture can be considered ‘extremist’ under the regulation.”
The Laogai System
Controlling the minds and thoughts of the Chinese people goes back to the start of communism in the late 1940s. The leader of China’s communist revolution, Mao Zedong, set up a huge network of prisons, called laogai, to isolate those deemed to be troublemakers.
The Laogai Research Foundation points out that the system “In concept … is rooted in communist revolutionary ideology blended with traditional Chinese views on punishment, namely that anti-social behavior (whether criminal or political in nature) can be ‘reformed’ and eliminated through forced labor and re-education.”
In addition, there was a parallel arrangement called laojiao that was used to reform people convicted of minor crimes.
Between 40 and 50 million people endured the harsh conditions of the laogai network. Some inmates were common criminals and others were political prisoners who were incarcerated without specific charges or a trial.
International condemnation of the laogai was persistent so the Chinese government announced in 1994 it was folding the system. But, it was an entirely cosmetic change similar to when DrivUrSelf changed its name to Hertz Rent-A-Car; same company, same product, just a different name.
Similarly, the laojiao underwent a superficial make-over in 2013.
Community Correction Centres
The laogai are now called Community Correction Centres or Vocational Training Centres, where the inmates are referred to as “Students.” There are at least a thousand of these camps that are surrounded by barbed wire and have watchtowers.
John Sudworth of the BBC was one of a group of reporters given a tour of a camp in Xinjiang, China’s western-most province. He wrote in June 2019 that it was clear the place had been recently spruced up and its security apparatus removed so that it no longer looked like a prison. In addition, carefully selected inmates had been coached in what to say.
The place housed a large number of Muslim Uighurs who “said they’d been ‘infected by extremism’ and that they’d volunteered to have their ‘thoughts transformed.’ ” No doubt in the same way that habitual criminals in the United States clamour to get into Sing Sing so they can learn how to be model citizens.
Sudworth wrote about the narrative the tour was pushing: “These people, we were urged to recognise, were reborn. Once dangerously radicalised and full of hatred for the Chinese government, they were now safely back on the road to reform thanks to the timely, benevolent intervention of that same government.”
The Reality of China’s Re-Education Camps
Until October 2018, the official Chinese government line was that re-education prisons did not exist. However, satellite images put the lie to that claim.
So, the totalitarian government of President Xi Jinping said it wished to be transparent about its internment camps, but Western reporters only get access to them in carefully staged tours. If members of the news media approach the facilities without approval they are quickly hustled away by police. Is it possible the authorities are hiding something? Of course it is.
Mihrigul Tursun, 29, was arrested in 2017 on a charge of “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination.” The Uighur woman was tortured while being interrogated. She got out of China and told journalists at the U.S. National Press Club, “I thought that I would rather die than go through this torture and begged them to kill me.”
Others speak of a near-starvation diet and overcrowded dormitories where people have to sleep in shifts. Then, there’s the forced labour.
My feeling toward you is an incredibly warm one.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Chinese dictator Xi Jinping
China’s Consumer Goods
Anybody buying goods made in China might want to consider that they are likely, at least in part, to have a connection to a system of prisons that grossly abuse human rights.
Some of the products made by re-education camp inmates that turn up in Western stores are tee shirts, sweaters, Christmas lights, and toys.
In the fall of 2011, Julie Keith in the town of Damascus, Oregon was getting ready for Halloween. As she unwrapped a new decoration a letter fell out of the package. It read “If you occasionally (sic) buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here ... will thank and remember you forever.”
The writer went on to detail how he and fellow inmates in the Masanjia Labour Camp were being mistreated. There were descriptions of verbal and physical abuse as well as torture.
CNN managed to track down the letter writer after he had been released. His “crime” was to be a follower of the spiritual movement called Falun Gong, which the Chinese government outlawed in 1999.
World Reaction to Chinese Human Rights Abuses
China is a signatory to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights; a pledge to respect the dignity of people that, in the case of China, is utterly meaningless.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) ranks China 186th on a list of 210 government entities in its observation of human rights. Out of a possible 100 points for respecting rights China receives 14.
In its 2019 world report, HRW notes that “China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. The ruling Chinese Communist Party is tightening its control over the media, online speech, religious groups, and civil society associations while undermining already modest rule-of-law reforms.”
International actors repeatedly call for China to honour its commitments to human rights; calls that Beijing routinely ignores.
Meanwhile, Canada, South Korea, Japan, and other countries, under the urging of corporations, are seeking free trade agreements with China.
Doing the right thing morally might cut into profits and that must never happen.
After 19 years of imprisonment, Harry Wu knows first-hand the atrocious conditions of the laogai. He was released in 1979 and travelled to the United States. He started the Laogai Research Foundation and lobbies for changes in China’s respect for human rights.
Responding to a request from the United States, Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou when she arrived in Vancouver in December 2018. The U.S. alleges her company broke American sanctions by trading with Iran. In retaliation, the Chinese government has jailed two Canadians who were living and working in China. As of this writing, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor have been held for seven months under difficult conditions. They are charged with “gathering state secrets.”
In the spring of 1989, activists gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and called for greater human rights. On June 4, the Chinese Army opened fire on the protesters and crushed some under the treads of their tanks. The death toll was somewhere between hundreds and thousands. As many as 10,000 people were arrested and many executed.
- “Up to One Million Detained in China’s Mass ‘Re-Education’ Drive.” Amnesty International, September 2018.
- “History & Purpose.” Laogai Research Network, undated.
- “Searching for Truth in China’s Uighur ‘Re-Education’ Camps.” John Sudworth, BBC News, June 21, 2019.
- “Muslim Woman Describes Torture and Beatings in China Detention Camp.” Harry Cockburn, The Independent, November 28, 2018.
- “China: Events of 2018.” Human Rights Watch, 2019.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor