Surviving the Crackdown in XinjiangApril 05, 2021
Sabit was able to glimpse into an interrogation room across from her own. There she saw a young Uyghur man in an orange vest and black trousers, his wrists and ankles locked into a tiger chair. His face was dirty and unshaven. His eyes were unfocussed. His head was drooping. Officers dressed in black were screaming at him. Sabit was ushered past, back to her room for questioning.
Sabit’s interrogation lasted several hours, as officers recycled the same questions that she had been asked at the airport. While she spoke, she could hear smacks and electric shocks from the Uyghur man’s cell across the hall. With his screams filling the room, she found it hard to focus. The lead interrogator turned to his partner. “Tell them to cut it out,” he said. “It’s affecting our work.” The torture quieted, but only for a time.
In another cage, the old professor was held captive with the two Uyghur men. At night, the professor slept on a mattress on the floor, and the younger men were handcuffed to the wall, so that they could not recline; in the coming days, Sabit noticed that the young men were unshackled only to eat and use the toilet, and that they never bathed.
The next day, Sabit was shuttled to a hospital for a medical exam. Her blood was drawn, and a urine sample was taken; she was also given an electrocardiogram, an ultrasound, and a chest X-ray. Back at the station, officers took photographs and fingerprints, and sampled her DNA. She was given an iris scan, and compelled to speak into a microphone, so that her voiceprint could be taken: more data to be uploaded to IJOP.
From the police station, Sabit and another detainee, a young Uyghur woman, were driven to a compound surrounded by a wall topped with concertina wire. A sign read “Kuytun City Vocational Skills Re-education Training Center Administrative Bureau.” Inside was a three-story building, a former police station that had been hastily repurposed. The women were ushered in and told to face a wall. Sabit tried to survey the place, but the light was dim. Standing beside her, the Uyghur woman began to cry.
The detention cells were revamped offices, with walls, doors, and windows reinforced with iron latticework, giving them the appearance of cages. The doors were chained to their frames and could not be opened more than a foot; detainees had to shimmy through. In Sabit’s cell, five bunk beds were crammed into a twelve-by-fifteen-foot space, with three cameras and a microphone hanging from the ceiling.
Sabit and the other women had to exchange their clothes for drab uniforms that were accented with fluorescent stripes and a photo-I.D. tag. Male guards patrolled the halls and the compound’s exterior—each officer working a twenty-four-hour shift—while female staff members served as disciplinarians, following the women wherever they went, including the bathroom. When the disciplinarians were not there, the surveillance cameras were; even when showering, the detainees could not escape them.
The only language permitted in the building was Mandarin. Some of the older women did not know a word of it, and were consigned to silence, except for a few phrases they had to memorize. Everyone was required to shout “Reporting!” when entering a room, but many of the women forgot, enraging their minders. One disciplinarian, a member of the bingtuan, routinely insulted and humiliated the women. Detainees who angered her were subjected to punishments, which included being locked in a tiny room and shackled to a tiger chair for the night. She often intoned, “If you don’t behave, you’ll stay here for the rest of your life.”
Sabit quickly learned that every moment was controlled. The women had to wake at precisely eight each morning, but, except for trips to the washroom and the toilet, they were locked in their cells twenty-four hours a day. They had three minutes to wash their faces and brush their teeth, a minute to urinate. Showers could not exceed five minutes. Some women left soapy because they had misjudged their time.
For meals, the women had to line up in their cells to await a food cart, with their backs facing the door. The cups and bowls issued to them were made from cheap plastic, and Sabit, watching the hot food and water soften them, feared that toxins were leeching into her diet. (Later, replacements were introduced.) Sabit’s cell had no table, but the women were assigned stools—painful to use, because they were only about a foot tall. The women squatted on them and put their bowls on the floor. If they ate too slowly, or not enough, they were reprimanded. The elderly women, and people with dental problems, struggled, but neither age nor ailments spared them insults.
The detainees were forbidden to sit on their beds during the day, though after lunch they were made to lie down, with eyes shut, for a compulsory nap. At 10 p.m., they were ordered to sleep, but the lights in their cells were never turned off, and they were not allowed to cover their eyes with a blanket or a towel. (The younger women volunteered to take the top bunks, to shield the older ones from the light.) If anyone spoke, everyone in the room would be punished with an ear-splitting reprimand from a blown-out loudspeaker. Any nighttime request to use the bathroom was treated with contempt, and eventually the women stopped asking. Dispirited, uncomfortable, often verbally abused, they masked their pain, because displays of sadness were also punished. “You are not allowed to cry here,” the guards had told them. School taught them how to turn from the cameras, hide their faces, and quietly cry themselves to sleep.
Then, a month into Sabit’s detention, it was announced that everyone would study Mandarin six days a week—to master the “national language.” After learning of a detainee who was let go after three months, Sabit thought that perhaps she, too, could sail through the lessons and “graduate.”
The classroom, fortified with iron meshwork, was adjacent to her cell. There were rows of desks, and a lectern behind a fence at the front. A surveillance camera was mounted in each corner. During classes, two police officers stood guard.
The detainees were told that they needed to master three thousand Chinese characters, even though several women, Sabit among them, already knew more than twice that many. No matter how fluent the women were, they were forced to perform the exercises, over and over, until the others caught up. Some of the elderly women who had never been schooled in Mandarin struggled with the lessons. To spare them punishment, Sabit and a few others covertly helped them.
The classes, of course, had nothing really to do with language. As a government document made clear, reëducation was intended to sever people from their native cultures: “Break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.”
Sabit and the other women had to learn Communist songs and sing them loudly before each meal. (If they did not show sufficient zeal, guards threatened to withhold food.) Every morning, they had to stand and proclaim their fealty to the state:
Ardently love the Chinese Communist Party!
Ardently love the great motherland!
Ardently love the Chinese people!
Ardently love socialism with Chinese characteristics!
They were compelled to watch videos like “The Hundred-Year Dream,” which celebrated China’s economic growth and power. The screenings were followed by discussion groups, in which detainees had to repeat propaganda and profess gratitude to the Party for saving them from criminality. On Saturdays, guest speakers gave presentations on terrorism law. The detainees were obliged to recite seventy-five “manifestations” of religious extremism.
It didn’t take great insight, Sabit thought, to recognize the absurdity of the curriculum as a counterterrorism tool. Most of the young women who were rounded up had secular life styles; they frequented bars on weekends and had barely any ties to religion, let alone religious extremism. The elderly women, though more traditional, clearly posed no threat, but their internment would stymie the transmission of cultural knowledge to younger generations.
All their work seemed geared toward pageants that were organized for visiting Party dignitaries, who would come to inspect the women’s progress and the camp’s efficacy. During these events—held at first in a room where the guards slept, with beds pushed to one side—the women had to recite maxims of Xi Jinping, sing patriotic anthems, dance, and make a show of Han cultural pride. “You need to have a smile on your face,” guards would say. “You need to show that you are happy.”
Sabit was often a featured performer; because of her fluency and her education, the camp could count on her to demonstrate that the program was a success. She would project excitement and positivity, in an exhausting pantomime. Many of the women felt ashamed by the hollow display, but still campaigned to perform. The preparations offered a respite from the language classes, and the pageants gave them a chance to prove their “transformation” and perhaps be set free.
At some point during every inspection, the visiting dignitaries would ask, “Do you recognize your mistakes?” In preparation, the detainees wrote out statements of repentance; the guards explained that anyone who did not do so would never leave. One detainee, a member of a Christian sect called Eastern Lightning, invoked a Chinese law that guaranteed freedom of religion, declaring, “I did nothing wrong!” She was taken away, to what the women assumed was a harsher facility—a pretrial detention center or a prison.
The logic of these forced admissions was clear: to gain their freedom, the detainees had to tear themselves down. Sabit strove to qualify her answers with words like “potentially,” and to characterize her life overseas as a “lack of patriotism” rather than as a manifestation of Islamic extremism. But, having lived in Shanghai, she found it hard not to seethe; she knew Han urbanites who had left the country for vacations in Malaysia, and who had used WhatsApp and V.P.N.s. Were they also infected?
Over and over, Sabit and the women confessed. Yet no one was released, and gradually Sabit’s optimistic delusions collapsed. In February, 2018, China’s annual Spring Festival arrived, and the women were preparing for a pageant, when a camp administrator woke them in the middle of the night and forced them into a classroom to write out their mistakes. When they were done, he gathered their papers, tore them up, and berated the women for being dishonest, then kept them writing until dawn. Sabit wondered if she was losing her grip on herself. Could she be wrong? she thought. Had she betrayed China?
And yet the longer she was confined the more convoluted her path to freedom appeared. By then, her minders had instituted a point system: the detainees were told that they had each been assigned a score, and if it was high enough they could win privileges—such as family visits—and even release. Points could be gained by performing well on examinations, or by writing up “thought reports” that demonstrated an ability to regurgitate propaganda. The women could also win points by informing on others. One detainee, Sabit recalled, was “like another camera.”
The threat of losing points was constantly dangled over the women. For a minor infraction, the guards might announce that they were docking a point; for a large one, they might say that the penalty was ten points. Yet the women were never told their scores, so they were never sure if the points were real. One day, a woman got into a fight and was brought to a camp official, who furiously reprimanded her, then tore up a paper that, he claimed, recorded her score. “You now have zero points!” he declared. Back in the cell, Sabit and the others consoled her, but also gently pushed for details of what the official had said, hoping to glean some insight into how the system functioned. “We thought, Well, maybe they really are recording our points,” Sabit recalled. “Maybe there is something to it.”
In the winter of 2018, new arrivals began flooding into the camp. Word spread that the arrests were driven by quotas—a new kind of arbitrariness. As an official involved with IJOP later told Human Rights Watch, “We began to arrest people randomly: people who argue in the neighborhood, people who street-fight, drunkards, people who are lazy; we would arrest them and accuse them of being extremists.” An officer at the camp told Sabit that the arrests were intended to maintain stability before the Two Sessions, a major political conclave in Beijing.
The camp strained to manage the influx. Most of the new arrivals had been transferred from a detention center, which was also overflowing. There were elderly women, some illiterate, some hobbled. One woman, the owner of a grocery, was in custody because her horse-milk supplier had been deemed untrustworthy. Another was an adherent of Falun Gong; she was so terrified that she had attempted suicide by jumping out of a third-floor window.
For many of the new arrivals, the reëducation camp was an improvement. At the detention centers, there was not even a pretense of “transformation through education.” Uyghurs and Kazakhs were brought in hooded and shackled. The women spoke of beatings, inedible food, beds stained with urine, shit, and blood. Sabit met two women who had bruises on their wrists and ankles—marks, they told her, from shackles that were never removed.
With more women than beds at the camp, the authorities tossed mattresses on the floor, before shuffling the detainees around to find more space. New protocols were introduced. The women had to perform military drills inside their cells, and submit to haircuts. In Kazakh and Uyghur culture, long hair symbolizes good fortune; some of the women had grown their hair since childhood, until it was, as Sabit remembered, “jet black and dense, reaching their heels.” Later, evidence emerged to suggest that the internment system was turning hair into a commodity. (Last year, the United States interdicted a thirteen-ton shipment of hair, which White House officials feared had been partly harvested at the camps.) In Kuytun, the locks were cut with a few brutal chops, as some of the women begged the guards to leave just a little more. Sabit refused to beg, trying to hold on to some pride, but as her hair fell she felt a great shame—as if she had been transformed into a criminal.
At night, it was announced, the detainees would help police themselves, with the women serving two-hour shifts.
The detainees, too, began to buckle. They joked that the state was merely keeping them alive. Some went gray prematurely. Many stopped menstruating—whether from compulsory injections that the camp administered or from stress, Sabit was unsure. Because they could shower only infrequently and were never provided clean underwear, the women often developed gynecological problems. From the poor food, many suffered bad digestion. One elderly woman could not use the bathroom without expelling portions of her large intestine, which she had to stuff back into herself. The woman was sent to a hospital, but an operation could not be performed, it was explained, because she had high blood pressure. She was returned, and spent most of the time moaning in bed.
In class one day, a detainee who had lost most of her family to the camps suddenly fell to the floor, unconscious. Her sister, who was also in the class, ran to her, then looked up at the others with alarm. The women tearfully rushed to her aid but were stopped by the guards, who ordered them not to cry. “They started hitting the iron fence with their batons, frightening us,” Sabit recalled. “We had to hold back our sobbing.”
Signs of psychological trauma were easy to find. An Uyghur woman, barely educated, had been laboring to memorize Mandarin texts and characters. One evening, she started screaming, yanked off her clothing, and hid under her bed, insisting that no one touch her. Guards rushed in with a doctor and took her away. The camp administrators, however, returned her to the cell, arguing that she had been feigning illness. Afterward, the woman occasionally had convulsions and was sent to the hospital. But she was not released.
When camp officials announced in July that Sabit and the other women were going to be moved to a new facility, the news seemed ominous. Not knowing where they were going, they feared that their situation would get worse. One night, guards roused the women and told them to pack: a bus was waiting to take them away. On the road, a caravan of police cars escorted them, and officers manned intersections. “A lot of people were crying,” Sabit recalled. “I asked the girl next to me, ‘Why are you crying?’ And she said, ‘I saw a street that I used to walk on, and I started thinking of my previous life.’ ”
In the darkness, they approached a massive, isolated complex. One of the buildings was shaped like a gigantic “L,” and surrounded by a wall. As the bus drove alongside one of its wings, the women counted the windows, to estimate how many cells it contained. Sabit was struck by the lifelessness of the structure. Its unlit chambers seemed hollow. Inside, she and the others learned that the building was indeed empty: they were its first occupants. It was summer, but inside the thick concrete walls it felt cold, like a tomb.
In the new building, the detainees were divided by ethnicity. With few exceptions, Uyghurs were subjected to harsher measures; some were sentenced, implying that they would be transferred to prison.