‘Admit Your Mistakes, Repent’: China Shifts Campaign to Control Xinjiang’s Muslims

‘Admit Your Mistakes, Repent’: China Shifts Campaign to Control Xinjiang’s Muslims

Beijing closes some camps but continues to keep tabs on Uighurs and ethnic Kazakhs in far western region

Hundreds of discarded metal bed frames lie jumbled in a grassy lot here behind a recently emptied re-education center for ethnic-minority Muslims in northwest China. Red stickers on them read: “Recognize your mistakes, admit your mistakes, repent.”

Chinese authorities say everyone has completed their studies at such sites—which Beijing describes as vocational schools. Rights groups and Western governments say that about a million people, most of them Uighurs, have been detained in dozens of such centers across the region in recent years.

The government has long said it is fighting extremism. Muslim activists say the aim is to eradicate their culture and religion.

To reinforce the government’s message, state media broadcast images of the center here, officially named the Kashgar City Vocational Training School, with its darkened classrooms stripped bare of furniture, a bundle of orange internet cables discarded on the floor.

An hour’s drive to the south, however, a larger re-education camp was still in use in early January, with bright lights illuminating a ring of high gray walls. Two years before, locals had referred to it as a school. A uniformed guard blocking the road described it as something else.

“It’s a jail,” he said. “It’s never been a school.”

The images of the two camps illustrate a shift under way in the government’s approach in Xinjiang, an expanse of deserts, oasis communities and mountains on the doorstep of Central Asia that is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities.

During a recent visit to several cities and towns in the Uighur heartland of southern Xinjiang, it was clear that many of the overt security measures employed in recent years have been rolled back after months of international scrutiny and criticism from the U.S. and other Western nations.

Yet other, at-times more subtle, forms of control remain in place.

A semblance of normalcy appears to have returned to areas that were once patrolled by paramilitary police and armored vehicles and were once largely devoid of working-age Uighur men—targets of the re-education campaign. Street-corner checkpoints have been abandoned. Young men laughed and joked with friends.

Facial-recognition scans and manual and electronic ID checks are still pervasive, taking place at the entrances of residential compounds and public buildings rather than on the street. The doorways to some Uighur homes are still marked with a QR code that police can scan for information on the people living inside.

Discerning the truth in Xinjiang remains a challenge. Local officials block foreign reporters from moving freely in the region, particularly in the vicinity of re-education camps. Xinjiang’s Propaganda Bureau didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Local Uighur residents shy away from speaking to reporters, fearful of official retribution, making it difficult to have more than brief conversations with them.