China: Massive Numbers of Uyghurs & Other Ethnic Minorities Forced into Re-education Programs

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China: Massive Numbers of Uyghurs & Other Ethnic Minorities Forced into Re-education Programs

Extrajudicial Detention & Arbitrary Deprivation of Liberty in Xinjiang   

Note: On August 10 & 13, 2018, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) will review China’s implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. China signed and ratified the Convention in 1981. The release below is based on a submission to the Committee from CHRD and a partner NGO, Equal Rights Initiative, highlighting major concerns over extrajudicial detention, including Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in re-education camps and China’s failure to implement Article 5 (a)(b)(d) of the Convention.

(Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders & Equal Rights Initiative – August 3, 2018) – The number of Xinjiang residents, especially ethnic Uyghurs, who are either detained in re-education camps or forced to attend day/evening “education sessions” for “de-radicalization” and indoctrination purposes in Xinjiang, may have possibly reached as high as a combined total of two to three million by June 2018, according to interviews conducted and data gathered by two NGOs, CHRD and Equal Rights Initiative.

Our findings show that, in the villages of Southern Xinjiang, about 660,000 rural residents of ethnic Uyghur background may have been taken away from their homes and detained in re-education camps, while another up to 1.3 million may have been forced to attend mandatory day or evening re-education sessions in locations in their villages or town centers, amounting to a total of about 2 million South Xinjiang villagers in these two types of “re-education” programs. The total number for Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or Xinjiang) as a whole, including other ethnic minorities and city residents, is certainly higher.

The number of detainees in the “re-education” camps appears to be higher than previously reported. Additionally, there has been until now little information about estimated number of people forced to attend day or evening “study sessions,” also known as “open political re-education camps,” for indoctrination and thought control in Xinjiang.

Both types of re-education programs are run outside China’s judicial system. Government officials and police in Xinjiang have ordered and carried out detentions and restrictions of liberty without a trial or any judicial review by a judge or court. Both types of camps typically set no clear length of time for the incarceration or mandatory attendance. In operating these “re-education” camps, authorities have extrajudicially detained and deprived the liberty of huge numbers of citizens, especially Uyghurs, in some cases, indefinitely, and committed enforced disappearances, torture, and other human rights abuses.

The Chinese government’s purposes for rounding up a massive number of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, most of whom practice Islam, in the two types of re-education camps are ostentatiously to force them to renounce their religion, pledge “loyalty” to the Chinese government/Chinese Communist Party, and inform on others for any suspected “terrorist, separatist, or extremist” acts or views as defined by the Chinese government.

XUAR authorities bolstered the policy framework for large-scale violations of Uyghurs’ human rights in April 2017, when the government introduced the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region De-Extremism Regulations, the first comprehensive regulations in China focusing specifically on countering the perceived threat of terrorism that authorities link to extremism. Under these regulations, someone can be locked up in a “re-education” camp or forced to attend indoctrination sessions for possessing certain halal products, having a long beard, wearing a full-face headscarf, selecting children’s names with “Islamic connotations,” refusing to consume state television or radio, or refusing to break Islamic dietary restrictions. The regulations lay out policy directives for detaining and disappearing Uyghurs and other minorities in camps for indoctrination, “re-education,” and “reform.”

Interviews & Data Collection

Between July 2017 and June 2018, we interviewed dozens of ethnic Uyghur villagers in several counties in Kashgar Prefecture (喀什地区), of the Southern Xinjiang (南疆) sub-region and others. All the interviewees spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation by Chinese authorities.

Interviewees consistently told us that their villages or townships are eerily empty, a result of widespread efforts to round up ethnic minorities for “re-education”:

“There are almost no young men left in my village.”

“There’s practically no male adults left in the villages now, no able-bodied laborers.  Almost all able-bodied male adults are in ‘education’ or in prison.”

“I think almost every adult is required to attend some kind of education and training.”

“Almost every family has members being forced to attend ‘education’ or being detained.”

A young Uyghur woman said:

“My village has about 2,000 people. I estimate about 200 of them have been sent to county-level education centers, not including those who have to attend trainings at the township and village levels. There are education sessions in the township, which some villagers are forced to attend in the mornings. There are also education sessions in the villages. My mother is required to go there. The education includes simple Chinese language and relevant Chinese laws. My mother has to go every evening, from 7:30 to 9:30… I heard that the policy required that everybody between the age of 15 and 60 must attend these sessions…Outside of those attending the county-level education camp, it’s hard to calculate the number of people who have to attend the education sessions at the township and village levels.”

One Han Chinese businessman, who has lived in Xinjiang for 20 years, told us, on condition of anonymity, that:

“Entire villages in Southern Xinjiang have been emptied of young and middle-aged people—all rounded up into ‘re-education’ classes. Only the elderly and the very docile are left in the villages.”

The following table presents the data we have compiled based on interviews with eight ethnic Uyghurs. Their families reside in eight different villages in counties in the Kashgar Prefecture. According to the interviewees, each village has a population of between roughly 1,500 and 3,000, and the number of individuals taken into re-education detention camps from each village ranged from approximately 200 to 500 between mid-2017 to mid-2018.

In these villages, the ratio of residents detained in re-education camps is between 8% and 20% of a village population, with an average of approximately 12.8%.

Additionally, two of the eight interviewees, No. 7 and No. 8, also provided specific estimates of people forced to attend day/evening camps in their villages—800 and 300, or roughly 40% and 20% of the village population, respectively. However, other interviewees said that virtually every family had at least one member forced to attend day/evening re-education sessions. In this area, according to interviewees, a village variably has about 300 to 600 households.  If each household has at least one person being forced to attend these indoctrination sessions, then, there may be at least 300 to 600 residents, or 450 on average per village, who are forced into these day/evening camps.

At Least 30% of Southern Xinjiang Rural Uyghur Residents Forced into Extrajudicial “Re-education” Programs

We have extrapolated estimates of the numbers of rural residents detained in “de-radicalization” camps or forced to attend “re-education” sessions in both Kashgar Prefecture and all of Southern Xinjiang by mid-2018. The extrapolations are based on the limited data drawn from our interviews with Kashgar villagers, numbers provided by high-level XUAR officials, and the XUAR government’s claim that it nearly accomplished its “anti-terrorism” and “de-extremism” targets, including for the re-education programs, by the end of 2017.

Based on the sampling of interviews in villages in Kashgar Prefecture, we have conservatively estimated that at least 10% of villagers there are being detained in re-education detention camps, and 20% are being forced to attend day/evening re-education camps in the villages or townships, totaling 30% in both types of camps.

It is plausible that the percentage of Uyghurs in the eight villages forced into re-education are representative for the rural Kashgar Prefecture, as well as for the rural areas in the greater Southern Xinjiang sub-region, considering the Chinese government’s particularly harsh focus on that part of Xinjiang. Southern Xinjiang has become the “frontier” of the Chinese government’s heavily militarized “people’s war” on the “three evils”—“terrorism,” “religious extremism,” and “separatism.” Most “terrorist attacks” reported in state media are said to occur in Southern Xinjiang, which the Chinese government has declared a robust breeding ground for the “three evils,” especially since the 2009 unrest.

Since we have only obtained interviews with rural residents, we have focused exclusively on them, and not included urban residents in the tallies of detainees and of forced attendees to day/evening study sessions. According to data provided by the State-run Institute of Economic Research of Xinjiang Development and Reform, in 2012, 75.5% of the population in Southern Xinjiang, including the Kashgar Prefecture, resided in rural areas.

Using the estimate of 10% of residents in the eight villages detained in re-education camps as a guide, we estimate that approximately 240,000 rural residents may be detained in “re-education” centers in Kashgar Prefecture, and 660,000 in the larger Southern Xinjiang. Similarly, applying the 20% estimate of villagers forced to attend day/evening re-education sessions, we estimate that possibly 480,000 rural residents in the Kashgar Prefecture, and 1.3 million in the Southern Xinjiang sub-region, may have been forced to attend the day/evening sessions by mid-2018. The actual numbers must be higher since these numbers do not include the numbers of urban residents and of members in other ethnic minorities, in the Kashgar Prefecture or in the Southern Xinjiang sub-region.

The population of the Kashgar Prefecture was listed as nearly four million in the most recent government census of 2010. Since then, the population of ethnic minorities in Kashgar has grown at a higher rate than that of Han Chinese, a phenomenon that has alarmed authorities. Ethnic Uyghurs in the Kashgar Prefecture account for about 80% of the population, or roughly three million.

Southern Xinjiang generally refers to the sub-region that includes three prefectures—Kashgar, Hotan, Aksu—and one autonomous prefecture (自治州), Kizilsu Kirgiz. According to China’s 2010 census, the sub-region’s population was roughly 8.9 million. By 2016, the population may have grown to 11 million, where approximately 80% of the population, or roughly 8.8 million, is ethnic Uyghur.

While the government places particular emphasis on Southern Xinjiang due to the higher percentage of Uyghur and other ethnic minorities living there, the authorities’ so-called battle to “clean up malignant ideological influences” is focused on the entire XUAR. Uyghurs still make up about 24% of the population in Northern Xinjiang and 48.5% in the entire autonomous region. Based on the data at the local level, one could try to generalize and estimate that, for the XUAR as a whole, with a population of Uyghurs estimated at more than 11.3 million, or 48.5% of Xinjiang’s total population of 23 million (2014), roughly 30%, or 3.3 million, may have been subjected to “re-education,” including about 10%, or 1.1 million, in detention camps and about 20%, or 2.2 million, in day/evening forced brainwashing by June 2018.

We must be cautious in making these global generalizations, given that the government’s “de-radicalization” campaigns are mostly concentrated in Southern Xinjiang. However, reportedly other ethnic minorities (besides the Uyghurs), in both rural and urban areas, and in Southwestern and other parts of Xinjiang, have also been forced to undergo “de-radicalization” re-education, so the numbers may not be inconceivable.

A high-level XUAR official in a state media interview put forth the assessment that 30% of the population of Xinjiang should undergo “re-education,” including Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. As reported in 2015, Zhang Yun, the CCP Secretary of the XUAR Justice Department, explained why an appropriate goal would be to “re-educate” 30% of Xinjiang’s population:

“It was critical to get a grip on the origin [of extremism] and put an emphasis on [re-educating] the 30% who have been affected by extremist religious views. If this portion of the people are well-transformed, there will be less pressure to strike down hard.

This official used the example of a village to back up the percentages of Xinjiang’s population targeted for specific types of re-education or strike-hard campaigns:

“As an example, in one village, 70% of [Uyghur Muslims] influenced by religion are swept along by religious extremists, about 30% of the masses are polluted by religious extremist forces, and a very small minority of them have become criminals, … The 70% group go with the general [political] climate, so there’s no need to do much work on them, [since] when the general climate changes, it is very easy to swing them; and the masses in the 30% need to be educated and reformed through concentrated force. The third kind [a small minority of criminals] must be struck down. Release the 70% who just go along, reform the 30%, strike down hard on the very small minority, then, a village will be more or less cleaned up.”

In early 2018, officials in Xinjiang declared that they had met almost all the goals in the government’s anti-terror campaigns in presenting the Xinjiang government’s 2017 “work report” at the National People’s Congress annual session.

Two Types of Re-Education: Detention Camps and Day/Evening Forced Study Sessions

The “re-education” programs appear to be at least of two types, as noted in Table 2 above:

  • Internment camps, run by county or municipal government authorities, where detainees are incarcerated without judicial review, sometimes without being notified of a definitive time period, amounting to indefinite extrajudicial detention and forced disappearance;
  • Involuntary day or evening “study sessions,” or “open camps,” which are non-custodial, run by township or village government officials, and where the forced attendees are allowed to go home to sleep or for meals. There is usually no notification regarding a definite time period for the involuntary indoctrination, amounting to indefinite extrajudicial restrictions on freedom of movement.

Forced attendees to the day or evenings indoctrination sessions at township and village centers include those whose family members have been detained or travelled abroad, mostly women and elderly. Though this type of camp only partially restricts freedom of movement, they are mandatory and intrusive. Authorities have reportedly threatened the attendees with incarceration in the detention camps if they under-perform in denouncing their religion, in pledging loyalty to the CCP, or if they refuse to inform on or turn in others.

The interviewees told us that if authorities consider somebody, generally a young and able-bodied adult male, to be harboring “extremist” views or of being “disloyal” to China, officials would likely detain him in the re-education detention camps.

Mistreatment and torture are rampant in the detention camps. There have been several reported cases of deaths in these camps. At the detention camps, detainees are screened and, if found to be “hardcore” “terrorists” or “religious extremists,” they may be transferred to criminal detention or prison.

The number of criminal prosecutions rose dramatically in the XUAR in 2017, suggesting that some of the possibly up to one million extrajudicial “re-education” detainees in camps may have wound up being prosecuted in the criminal system. The total number of indictments in Xinjiang increased by five times in 2017 compared to the year before.

Suggested International Actions

On August 10 and 13, when the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) examines whether China has complied with its Convention, the Committee must press the Chinese government to:

  • End arbitrary detention of ethnic minorities in “de-radicalization” “re-education” camps in Xinjiang and report on the numbers of individuals currently in these camps, as well as the number of individuals attending “re-education” day/night sessions;
  • Allow for independent monitors into the XUAR to inspect “re-education” camps, including granting access to current and past detainees;
  • Remove any provision in China’s Counter-Terrorism Law, and related laws and regulations adopted by the XUAR government, that permit “de-radicalization” or “re-education” of ethnic populations; and
  • Establish an independent mechanism to investigate torture and other forms of ill-treatment in “re-education” camps.

In addition, governments in democratic countries, including the US, Canada, the UK, and EU member states, should use their own human rights tools, such as the US Global Human Rights Accountability Act (known as the “Global Magnitsky” Act), to sanction top Chinese officials responsible for mass extrajudicial incarceration, discriminately targeting Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.


Suppression and discrimination in law, policies, and practice in China against ethnic minorities in the XUAR, particularly the ethnic Uyghur population, have worsened since 2009. In reaction to the riots in Urumqi in 2009, ethnic clashes in 2015, and sporadic terrorist attacks, the Chinese government has subjected ethnic minorities in Xinjiang to repression and systemic discrimination in many facets of life.

The Chinese government has implemented militarized security measures, invasive policing, and community surveillance, including through “big data analytics”; forced hundreds of thousands of people into “re-education” camps; and drastically restricted ethnic language, culture, and religion. The Chinese authorities have imposed strict and stringent monitoring, control, and punishment, indiscriminately targeting ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, all under the pretext of “anti-terror, de-extremism, and counter-separatism” policies.

These discriminatory security measures in Xinjiang are dictated from the top: Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and the Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in May 2014 that the government would embark on a nationwide counter-terrorism campaign, but largely focused on China’s western sub-regions. Xi Jinping stated that China must “construct walls built with copper and iron, knit nets reaching the heavens and earth” by “strongly boosting police readiness through mass surveillance and mass management” in order to “harshly battle against violent terrorist activities.”

Regional stability and State control in Xinjiang are critically important for the success of Xi’s “Belt Road Initiative,” for which the XUAR is the primary land route for trade and investment in Central and South Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Construction of a pervasive security infrastructure in Xinjiang, which began as early as 2009, has greatly accelerated since 2016, after Xi appointed Chen Quanguo as the new Communist Party Secretary for the region.


Renee Xia, International Director (Mandarin, English), +1 863 866 1012, reneexia[at], Follow on Twitter: @ReneeXiaCHRD

Victor Clemens, Researcher (English), +1 209 643 0539, victorclemens[at], Follow on Twitter: @VictorClemens

Frances Eve, Researcher (English), +852 6695 4083 franceseve[at], Follow on Twitter: @FrancesEveCHRD

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