Darren Byler is an assistant professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University and serves on the advisory board of the Xinjiang Documentation Project. He is the author of the new book In the Camps: China’s High-tech Penal Colony, from which this essay is adapted.
In February, 2017, as hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslims were detained in a re-education camp system in northwest China, schoolteachers from across the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were pressed into service as camp instructors. One of these instructors was a Muslim woman named Qelbinur Sedik, who taught Chinese to fifth graders in a primary school in the regional capital Urumchi. Because she held a senior position at the school, she was surprised when she received a new assignment after the 2017 break for the Spring Festival. “On February 26, 2017, we started a new semester,” she recalled. “The principal called me to his office and told me that I needed to go to a meeting.”
In the meeting, the secretary of the district Communist Party office didn’t offer much detail. Qelbinur and the other teachers in the meeting were just told that the authorities had gathered a group of “uneducated people.” They were to teach them Chinese. The teachers were directed to sign a document that stated they were willing “to take all responsibility and the requisite punishment” if they said anything about what they observed. “We could not refuse or ask to leave,” she recalled. “Otherwise, we would be punished.” Already in late 2016 the local authorities had begun collecting the passports of the lucky few who had obtained them, including her own, so fleeing the country was not a possibility.
Like nearly all of the 15 million Muslims in the region – a group roughly the size of Ontario’s population living in a space nearly equal to the size of Ontario and Manitoba – Qelbinur had in fact already heard about the several thousand Uyghur community leaders who had been sent to re-education camps as early as 2014. In May of that year, the Chinese state declared the People’s War on Terror in response to several violent suicide attacks targeting non-Muslim civilians carried out by small numbers of Uyghur criminals. In my ethnographic fieldwork in the region over that period, I heard over and over again about the arbitrary detention of community leaders who were accused of teaching others how to read the Quran or sharing information about the Arab Spring and similar “extremism” crimes. Like most people I interviewed, Qelbinur thought the unjustified detention sounded terrible – they had nothing to do with the violent crimes carried out by a handful of Uyghur youth. But she also thought that this had little to do with her, an urban Chinese-speaking Muslim woman.
As she prepared for the new assignment, Qelbinur remembered what a co-worker from rural southern Xinjiang had told her through her tears in August, 2015: “People who prayed regularly, who wore long dresses, or who were imams, were being detained.” The woman’s three older brothers had been taken away after a mass show trial that had traumatized the whole community. “They gathered all of them in a big hall,” she told Qelbinur. “The police were carrying weapons. People’s names were called, their crimes were declared, and a sentence was given. Police then took that person away with a black plastic bag over their head,” Qelbinur recalled. “When she said this, we all cried with her.”
Yet she also remembered that life soon seemed to go back to normal. Now the story her colleague had told came flooding back. “I thought it must be something similar because they kept saying over and over that it was a political assignment and that we were not allowed to tell anyone about it,” she remembered. “But I tried to push this thought out of my mind.” She could not imagine how her life would be turned upside down by what she would be asked to do as part of a swarm of low-level camp functionaries – a term Primo Levi uses for the common workers who are pressed into service in camp systems.
The next day, with a sick feeling in her stomach, Qelbinur was taken to “a concentrated closed education training centre” – a fortified four-storey structure where, according to the government, people who had committed “terrorism and extremism crimes that were not serious” were detained. “When I arrived at the building, I felt I had entered a prison. The yard was guarded by Han police officers and soldiers with assault rifles,” Qelbinur recalled. She tried not to register fear and surprise on her face.
It was a lot to absorb. Time seemed both to speed up and slow down, but images from that day are seared in her mind. “After I finished registering, I remember looking around and noticing a slogan on the wall that said Fight against religious extremism thoughts, and prevent the entrance of religious ideas.”
It took her some time to fully understand the layout of the compound, but when she recreates it in her mind now, she can picture each room vividly. “When I entered the building, on the right, there were four police officers and a stair to the second floor,” she told me. “On the left, there were seven or eight offices. Among them was a police command centre, a dorm room for police, a nurse’s medical office, and an office for staff from the neighbourhood watch units.”
This detail was significant because it made clear to her that the Civil Affairs Ministry, a branch of the Chinese government that implements social services and supports the police, was actually in charge of monitoring the progress of the detainees. “Ten young women from the neighbourhood watch units came to assist in the camp work in shifts,” Qelbinur told me. “After five of them finished a shift, another five would take over their responsibilities. Their responsibilities included dispensing steamed buns to the detainees and documenting their behaviour for the detainees’ digital files.” As thousands of internal police documents recovered by non-profit news organization The Intercept demonstrate, the Civil Affairs Ministry was also in charge of monitoring the families of the detainees. More than 1.1 million such civil servants were assigned to serve as “relatives” of Muslim families across the region, spending weeklong visits in their homes to conduct in-depth evaluations of their trustworthiness.
As Qelbinur took in the atmosphere of the re-education camp, her own role as a camp worker began. Other Muslim workers in the camp began to show her how to perform to the standards of the system. One of them warned Qelbinur that everything she did was being watched and listened to through a surveillance system. Then she asked, “Are you ready to start the class?” Feeling she didn’t have a choice, Qelbinur said, “Yes.”
Armed with the knowledge that her behaviour was on camera, Qelbinur crossed a threshold that would change her life. “The iron door was opened and the detainees started coming out wearing handcuffs. They had to duck under a chain that held the door partially closed.” As they filed out in this way, scurrying along one after another doing the same dipping motion, their heads held down trying not to draw the attention of the guards, Qelbinur was struck by how dehumanized they appeared.
“When I saw their faces, I felt crushed,” Qelbinur told me. “I prayed to Allah to keep me from crying in front of them. I came to the table in the front without knowing what to do and what to say. Among the people sitting in front of me were elderly men with beards. They looked respectable, just like the kind of elderly people you might see in the mosque.” As a Turkic Muslim who had been taught her whole life to respect her elders, Qelbinur was confronted with a choice: put on the mask of the Chinese-speaking re-education system, which showed “absolutely no mercy,” or reveal her truer self as someone who was taught to treat others with dignity and respect and risk being labelled “two-faced” – the threat that hung over all Muslims since their loyalty to the state was always in question.
“Without thinking, I said, ‘Assalamu alaykum,’” a common Arabic-origin greeting meaning: “Peace be upon you.” When she said this, the students froze. “They looked terrified. I realized I had said something wrong.” Qelbinur blurted out her name and then turned to the blackboard. “I just stared at the blackboard and didn’t turn back to look at their faces. I couldn’t turn around because some detainees were sobbing. Some of the old men’s beards were wet from crying. I tried to compose myself. I didn’t look back at all during the class. I just kept writing and erasing the characters on the blackboard. I finished four different classes, but I felt like it took four years.”
Qelbinur was unable to face the detainees. Yet, because of her initial identification with them – through the enunciation of a banned Arabic phrase, and her lack of composure, even with her back turned to the detainees – it was clear to the detainees that she recognized them as human, as deserving of empathy, and that something was deeply unjust about their detention.
When Qelbinur went to the office during the break, her new co-worker told her that she should be more careful. “She said I should say only ‘Hello students’ in Chinese.” Out in the grounds of the camp compound the director of the camp, an Uyghur man named Kadir, caught up with her. Qelbinur remembered him telling her, “You need to be careful about what you say. You shouldn’t say assalamu alaykum. You might be detained for saying that. Luckily, today it is me and two other police on duty.”
Qelbinur made it through this first day of work in the camp in a daze. At the end of the day, when she found her way home, her husband asked her about her day at the school. “He asked, ‘Who were the students?’ I cried so hard and explained everything to him.”
It became increasingly clear to her that a process of dehumanization was unfolding in the camp. Within a week, the detainees had their heads shaved. Several weeks later, the classrooms became cells to accommodate hundreds of new detainees. There were so many detainees that they had to take turns sleeping on the concrete floor. Many of the cells did not have toilets, so the detainees used a bucket that they were permitted to empty once a week. A stench seeped out of the locked cells filling the hallways. Many of the non-Muslim guards began to wear medical masks against the smell. Many of the former detainees I have interviewed told me that they got used to the smell, just as they got used to performing the most private of tasks in front of high-definition cameras and other detainees. They took on a haunted expression that came with the physical and psychological violence that permeated the camp. The detainees became deeply fearful. Their voices trembled when they answered questions in class.
At this point in the interview, Qelbinur was sobbing, wiping at her face with her hand. “They were all so scared. When I asked something during class, they would not look at my face. At first, there was life on their faces. But after one week, the beards and hair of the men were shaved. At first, the female detainees had long hair, but after one week, it was shaved. There was no energy in their eyes. I did not want to look at them. Because every time I looked at them, I could not help but be sad. At night, I couldn’t sleep. The sound of the iron chains was still ringing in my ears when I tried.”
As is often the case in re-education schools or camps where disfavoured minority populations are held against their will, forbidden to speak their language and practise their faith, basic protections of human dignity were taken from them. Even the most basic of human freedoms – freedom of thought, freedom to feel – were stripped away.
At the height of the campaign in 2017 and 2018, Muslims outside of the camp were stopped, identified, detained and interrogated by state authorities on a nearly daily basis. Most often these encounters at the more than 9,000 stations in the policing grid were brief, with very few words exchanged. Instead, the digital history contained in their smartphone and in biometric tracking spoke for them. If this “speech” was flagged by scans of their phones and IDs, it may result, to this day, in more formal interrogation and, potentially, internment. They also know that anyone can be an informant; no one is a guaranteed ally. In Qelbinur’s experience, while Muslims were always potentially untrustworthy, their Han colleagues did not appear to feel a level of danger to the same degree.
For Qelbinur, this was made clear one day when she saw a young female detainee rushed away in a stretcher, her face ghostly pale. When Qelbinur took the bus home that night, a Han camp worker who taught law at the camp accompanied her for part of the journey. In the relative safety of the back of the bus, the teacher turned to her and asked in a low voice if she had seen the young woman, too. “He told me, ‘That woman had a massive hemorrhage and passed away on the way to the hospital.’” Like all the women in the camp, she had been forced to take a pill to stop her menstrual cycle – a banal form of gendered violence that accompanied the less common, but at times, systematic sexual abuse of detained women.
Across the entire region, the Civil Affairs Ministry had embarked on a “Zero Illegal Births” campaign. Qelbinur herself, at the age of 47, was forced to have regular inspections of a new IUD that state workers had forced her to implant. State documents show that women of childbearing age who did not submit to surgical sterilization or IUD implantation and regular inspections would not be added to the list of “trustworthy” citizens. Illegal pregnancies were to be “disposed of early” – a reference to forced abortions. The Civil Affairs Ministry began to give rewards of up to almost $1,000 to anyone who reported violations of family-planning regulations. Other state documents show that a significant portion of people sent to the camps, perhaps as many as 10 per cent of all detainees, were sent because of violations of family-planning regulations. Since the camp system began, in some areas of Southern Xinjiang, birth rates among Uyghurs have plummeted by between 50 per cent and 80 per cent owing in part to these restrictions on Muslim reproductive rights.
But, during the bus ride, Qelbinur did not know if she could trust her Han co-worker so she just nodded to say she understood. “I kept silent, but I was suffering on the inside. He just kept complaining.” He told her, “What kind of a ‘school’ is this? Isn’t this the 21st century? How can this be happening now?’ He was so angry.” Qelbinur just remained silent, surprised that he was alluding so openly to past world historical events when camps had been used as part of eugenics campaigns. Over the rest of her time working in the camp, they never spoke about their shared horror again. They just continued to do what they were told.
In fact, many Han people who were involved in the re-education system appeared to develop a sense of empowerment and investment in the campaign. Qelbinur recalled another Han co-worker, forgetting who Qelbinur was, telling her, “Right now, Uyghurs are like flies. We can just swat them if we like.”
Since the People’s War on Terror began in 2014, Han citizens often generally supported the system. In a 2020 interview, a Han migrant to the region named Kong Yuanfeng – who had worked in detention facility construction – told me, “Because they were detaining so many people, a lot of Han migrants who didn’t really know anything about Uyghurs thought that the terrorists must be everywhere.” These migrants who were drawn to the region by state settlement programs that placed Han citizens in positions of institutional power saw themselves as pioneers, building the Chinese nation despite the perceived threat of the native Muslims. Ultimately, the camp system was built to protect them and their possession of Uyghur and Kazakh lands.
Despite this general support, some Han settlers complained because the security systems disrupted commerce and development projects. In a 2019 interview, another Han woman from Xinjiang told me that, at first, when the campaign began in 2017, her relatives complained about the checkpoints. They told her that they thought it was intolerable when everyone who was riding a public bus to the city had to wait while the Uyghurs were checked. After several months, “It got better,” because the buses just started leaving the Uyghurs behind at the checkpoints while Han continued on to the city.
“What was most striking to me was the way they had become so expressively racist,” she told me. “Around 75 per cent of the time, the topic of their conversation was denigrating Uyghurs.” The woman said this was particularly alarming because, “When I visited in 2016, these types of comments only came up two or three times per day. Now, it was something people brought up 20 or 30 times per day.” Whenever there was a lull in conversation, her relatives and their neighbours would exclaim, “Uyghurs are so bad!” And then begin to talk about how backward, ungrateful and violent they were. Over the course of the weeks she was there, she felt as though “they were trying to justify what was happening.” She heard them say that the government had no choice but to intervene in the situation. They told her Uyghurs were much “worse” than the African Americans they saw on TV during the Black Lives Matter protests, so this is why the camps and “re-education” work were necessary.
Qelbinur said that she felt like the “evil” of the system had seeped into the Han population as a whole and had even begun to infect her. At times she felt numb to the pain she saw on a daily basis; it was the new normal. But she also knew she was not safe. In the context of the Xinjiang re-education system, Turkic Muslim police contractors and camp instructors are often treated as though they are simultaneously essential and disposable, trustworthy and untrustworthy. The threat of being labelled “two-faced” always hung over her, producing an unbearable strain. Because of her depression, lack of sleep and appetite, Qelbinur’s blood pressure dropped to dangerously low levels, resulting eventually in a stay in the hospital. She contemplated suicide. Like other Muslim camp workers and low-level police, she kept pills beside her pillow to swallow quickly if the armed police came in the middle of the night.
Eventually, because of her ill health, Qelbinur was allowed to retire. But she also knew that even if she wanted to return to her old job she would not have been allowed. In 2017, the state hired nearly 90,000 politically loyal teachers from across China to work in newly residential boarding schools that had been established for as many as 500,000 children across the region. In the previous existing schools, they pushed the remaining Muslim teachers to the side. Muslim educators became assistants and cleaners, a remnant of a previous world when Uyghurs and Kazakhs had greater autonomy.
Reconciling with the truth
In my interviews with low-level functionaries in the camps and former detainees whom they controlled, I have found that both groups want to bear witness to the crimes against their shared humanity. This desire to reconcile with the truth is what prompted people on both sides to share their stories with me. In the absence of accountability by the architects of this system – the political leaders, the police commanders, the software engineers – they want the world to make its own moral judgment. This ethos of decolonial truth and reconciliation is what has driven researchers and students from across China and North America to build the Xinjiang Documentation Project at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. This effort is aimed less at producing legal judgments and state actions, and more at preserving the recent histories of Xinjiang’s first peoples, scholarly documentation of what has been done to them, and creating space for their futures by providing teaching tools and public forums.
Eventually, because of a bureaucratic oversight, Qelbinur’s passport was returned to her despite having worked inside the camps. And then, by an even greater miracle she was given permission to visit her daughter in the Netherlands. Yet despite now living in a protected space many of the moments from her time in the camps continue to play over and over in her mind. It was the moments when she recognized herself as a perpetrator or as having been untrue to her own sense of dignity that stand out the most to her. Since that day crying at the blackboard with her back to the detainees, Qelbinur has been forever changed. “Now when I see snow, I can’t help but cry. Because I think about them. I think about them freezing in their cold cells.”
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