Inside China’s internment camps: tear gas, Tasers and textbooksOctober 25, 2018
On state television, the vocational education centre in China’s far west looked like a modern school where happy students studied Mandarin, brushed up their job skills, and pursued hobbies such as sports and folk dance.
But earlier this year, one of the local government departments in charge of such facilities in Xinjiang’s Hotan prefecture made several purchases that had little to do with education: 2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray.
The shopping list was among over a thousand procurement requests made by local governments in the Xinjiang region since early 2017 related to the construction and management of a sprawling system of “vocational education and training centres”.
Government propaganda insisted the centres were aimed at countering the spread of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism through “free” education and job training.
However, an AFP examination of more than 1,500 publicly available government documents – ranging from tenders and budgets to official work reports – shows the centres are run more like jails than schools.
Thousands of guards equipped with tear gas, Tasers, stun guns and spiked clubs keep tight control over “students” in facilities ringed with razor wire and infrared cameras, according to the documents.
“Detain those who should be detained to the greatest extent possible”, cadres were told. Detentions surged, catching local governments unprepared. In 2017, spending by justice bureaus throughout Xinjiang exploded, driven largely by huge outlays for building and running vocational centres.
The offices spent nearly three billion yuan ($432 million) – at least 577 percent more than planned – according to AFP’s calculations.
Around April 2017, local governments began posting a wide variety of tenders related to the facilities.
Some orders – furniture, air conditioners, bunk beds, cutlery – would not seem out of place at a typical Chinese university.
But others resembled prison equipment: sophisticated surveillance systems, cameras for recording students in their rooms, razor wire, a system for eavesdropping on phone calls, and infrared monitoring devices.
At least one centre requested “tiger chairs”, a device used by Chinese police to restrain interrogation subjects. The gear was necessary, party officials in the regional capital Urumqi argued in an emergency request for Tasers, to “guarantee staff members’ personal safety”.
Non-lethal weapons, it said, were important for “reducing the possibility of accidental injury in some situations where it is not necessary to use standard firearms”.
While China has rejected estimates that upwards of one million are held in the centres, tender documents hint at huge numbers.
In a one-month period in early 2018, Hotan county’s vocational education bureau, which oversees at least one centre, ordered 194,000 Chinese language practice books.
And 11,310 pairs of shoes.