Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 11, November 2019
By Adrian Zenz, Ph.D.
Senior Fellow in China Studies
Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation
In the wake of growing international criticism, the Chinese government has sought to counter human rights accusations over its re-education and internment campaign in Xinjiang through an elaborate propaganda campaign. This campaign portrays the region’s network of so-called “Vocational Skills Education Training Centers” (zhiye jineng jiaoyu peixun zhongxin 职业技能教育培训中心) as benign training institutions that offer persons who committed minor offenses an alternative to formal prosecution. Since late 2018, the state has invited media and official representatives from other nations and even from the western media to participate in official and closely-chaperoned tours of a select number of “showcase” centers.
Drawing on the government’s own statements, this article seeks decisively to refute these propaganda claims. Overall, the author analyzed three types of data sources, all of which are mutually consistent and confirm the growing body of first-hand witness accounts. The first type consisted of official government documents and related media reports that are publicly accessible but not designed for international audiences. The second source consists of local government data in the form of detailed tables and spreadsheets that list the fates of thousands of minority individuals. The third source is a confidential, classified Chinese policy document issued by the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s Party Political and Legal Affairs Committee. This highly significant document details how Xinjiang’s so-called “vocational training centers” are supposed to be run.
In combination, these three sources provide us with unprecedented insights into the region’s re-education internment campaign. Together, they decisively refute Beijing’s propaganda claims.
In this article, Xinjiang’s “Vocational Skills Education Training Centers” are referred to as “Vocational Training Internment Camps” (VTICs). This terminology acknowledges that these facilities offer some form of vocational training, although this “training” only constitutes a relatively small part of the whole indoctrination package. At the same time, this terminology clarifies that these extrajudicial facilities function in a prison-like internment fashion.
Specifically, this article will show the following:
- According to government statements, VTICs “wash clean the brains” of those interned in them. Those subjected to such coerced brainwashing are referred to as “re-education persons” – the same term used for detained Falun Gong practitioners. The classified document states that detainees who show signs of resistance are to be subjected to “assault-style re-education” efforts.
- Specifically, those interned in VTICs are called “detained re-education persons”. Numerous documents make clear that these “trainees” are in involuntary detention. Despite extensive research, the author did not even find a single government document that supports government claims that people willingly consent to being placed into a VTIC, that they sign any kind of agreement to that end, or that they can request leave. The classified document mandates special security measures to ensure that detainees cannot “escape” while relatives visit them in the camps.
- VTICs are guarded by large, dedicated police units, including armed police forces. In one case, the number of security guards was over twice as high as that of the camp’s teaching staff. In another county, the wages of the designated VTIC police force were budgeted to be nearly three times as high as this county’s entire regular vocational education budget. Government regulations and the classified document both specify that VTICs must implement “escape prevention” measures that also apply to prisons. The classified source adds that VTICs must have dedicated police stations, should employ only the “most capable security forces”, and put extremely stringent security and surveillance measures in place.
- VTICs are administered by newly established “education and training bureaus” (ETBs) that fall under the authority of the criminal justice system and are funded from domestic security budgets. They are neither funded nor managed by the regular education system. The classified document mandates that every county in Xinjiang must have an ETB. Based on the new data, the author estimates that Xinjiang likely has approximately 1,300 to 1,400 extrajudicial internment facilities.
- VTICs represent only one of up to 8 forms of extrajudicial internment in Xinjiang. Detailed local government data sets show that the internment campaign has mostly swept up males, especially household heads. Internment shares in rural Uyghur majority regions (including those sentenced to prison) range between 10 and 30 percent of the adult population. In 2018, the Xinjiang government provided 1.6 billion RMB in VTIC food subsidies to its ethnic minority regions, enough to feed just under one million persons in this particular form of extrajudicial internment alone.
- Evidence shows that the internment drive has focused on removing male authority figures from families as part of the state’s coercive social re-engineering campaign. Internment shares of younger women, who often feature in propaganda videos or “model camps,” are typically very low. Consequently, interned populations feature a much higher share of adults aged 40 or higher than those who are not interned.
- Overall, the author suggests a new speculative upper limit estimate of 1.8 million or 15.4 percent of adult members of Xinjiang’s Turkic and Hui ethnic minority groups, and a new minimum estimate of 900,000 or 7.7 percent. These figures pertain to all minority adults in previous (since spring 2017) or current extrajudicial internment. While still speculative, the new upper limit is eminently defensible based on existing and new data sets.
- Official data proves that the internment campaign has pushed families below the poverty line by depriving them of their primary labor force, and that net population growth rates in southern Xinjiang have dramatically declined since the beginning of the internments.
- The classified document specifies that “students” can only “complete their studies” after having spent at least one year in the facilities. Only once they have fulfilled a detailed set of stringent “graduation” criteria do they actually receive an intensive 3-6 months of skills training. This would indicate a minimum term at the VTICs of 15-18 months, which is consistent with the time between the onset of the re-education campaign (April 2017) and the first propaganda videos published on Chinese media channels showing the “successful outcomes” of the camps (October 2018).
- According to the classified document, the Xinjiang government considers VTIC work to be “highly sensitive” in nature. All related information is “strictly confidential” and VTIC data material “must not be aggregated” even by its own staff, likely in order to conceal the scale of the internment campaign.
- Chinese claims that Xinjiang has no “re-education camps” are simultaneously true and false. They are superficially true in that such denials use a Chinese term for “re-education” that the government itself never employs. However, they are also manifestly false, given there is abundant evidence from government documents that there are several types of dedicated re-education facilities in Xinjiang, and that the officially-stated primary goal of the VTICs is not “vocational training” but “transformation through education”. Government claims that Xinjiang has no “concentration camps” are both semantically and technically false, and contradicted by the state’s own terminology. Even so, the author suggests that the term “re-education camps” (or “internment camps”) is more accurate and helpful.
As China’s internment and related propaganda campaign progresses, this article provides crucial incriminating evidence about the real nature and purpose of the region’s VTIC network. The empirical evidence discussed below should suffice to support significant, concrete actions by the international community against this unprecedented atrocity.