Courageous personal testimony and painstaking research are giving us an increasingly detailed and shocking view of the centres in Xinjiang where hundreds of thousands have been held without arrest, charge or trial
The courage of former inmates and relatives, and the diligence of academics, journalists and other researchers, has brought a terrible secret into plain view. As the evidence piled up of the mass extrajudicial detention of Muslim Uighurs, Kazakhs and others in China’s north-western region of Xinjiang, it was met with silence or denial from Beijing. When experts told a UN panel this August that as many as a million could be held, a Chinese official insisted that: “There is no such thing as re-education centres.”
Still the satellite imagery, public documents and frightening personal testimonies amassed. With a UN human rights council meeting approaching next month, China suddenly announced that under revised legislation, local governments in Xinjiang could “educate and transform” people influenced by extremism at “vocational training centres”. This does not make the detentions themselves lawful, says one expert on Chinese law: “People are simply taken away.” But Beijing is now actively promoting the programme as an altruistic attempt to improve lives as well as stabilising the region, preventing further violent attacks. State media has shown “students” in uniforms playing ping pong and folk dancing, and learning skills such as hairdressing. The chairman of the regional government enthuses that the centres are air-conditioned, offer nutritious free meals and show that “life can be so colourful”.