In 2017, the behaviour of the Chinese state in Xinjiang took a lurch towards inhumanity with a crackdown on ‘extremism’, as the authorities chose to describe it. It led to the imprisonment of probably over one million Uyghurs and other Muslims and to the construction of a complex network of internment camps and forced-labour institutions. But that was not all. This crackdown was accompanied by the development of a region-wide, high-tech system of surveillance and control which, together with the ‘re-education’ provided in the camps, was designed permanently to eradicate any threat to the state from the local population. It was always more than a simple security issue. Enormous efforts have been put into remoulding both the population and the physical space of Xinjiang. The local ethnic (that is, non-Han Chinese) populations have been subjected to a systematic assault on their social and religious lives. Mosques in their hundreds have been destroyed. Traditional dwellings have been replaced with modern, Chinese-style housing. The whole enterprise has been designated as genocide by the US secretary of state. This judgement was echoed, albeit in more temperate terms, by the (unofficial) international tribunal on Xinjiang that met recently in London.
Huge efforts have been made to obfuscate the realities of life in the camps (even speaking openly in Xinjiang about them can lead to incarceration). Although their existence has been well documented abroad and grudgingly admitted by the Chinese state, relatively few first-hand accounts of what actually goes on in them have emerged. One is Gulbahar Haitiwaji’s moving and devastating How I Survived a Chinese ‘Re-education’ Camp. It is not an easy read.
Haitiwaji was living in France and fairly well settled in the refugee Uyghur community there when she was lured back to Xinjiang on the pretext of needing to sort out her pension from her previous place of work. Once there, she found herself embroiled in a deepening nightmare that