Re-Education Through Labour: China’s Uighur Internment Camps

“The government didn’t give up on me. It has actively saved and assisted me, giving me free food, accommodation and education.”

“In China they call it a political camp but really it was a prison in the mountains…In the end, all the officials had one key point. The greatness of the Chinese Communist Party, the backwardness of Uighur culture and the advanced nature of Chinese culture.”

It is reported that dozens of new ‘re-education’ centres have recently been opened in Xinjiang

Opposed musings, yet both of these men were inmates at the same facility. It is the latest move by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to provoke international criticism and controversy; a series of ‘re-education’ centres to house Uighur ‘extremists’ in China’s restive north-western province of Xinjiang.

The Uighurs are a Turkic people with a greater historical affiliation with Central Asia than with China. Unrest in Xinjiang – one of China’s autonomous regions – has grown in recent years, as the CCP has sought to upset the ethnic balance by encouraging a mass wave of Han immigration.

For the CCP it’s simple; the ‘re-education’ centres are turning Uighur men and women away from a path of Islamic extremist separatism towards one of Communist Chinese integration. At the same time, they are provided with food and comfort, withdrawing the privations that lead these people to listen to dangerous propaganda in the first place.

For many Uighurs, on the other hand, the camps are a systematised attempt to destroy their culture and force their loyalty to the CCP and the dominant Han.

Two ethnic Uighur women pass Chinese paramilitary policemen standing guard outside the Grand Bazaar in the Uighur district of the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang

The designation’re-education centre’ is only a very short leap from the ‘re-education through labour’ policy that persisted throughout the Mao era.

Almost everyone, from petty criminals, to drug addicts, to prostitutes, to political dissidents, wound up in forced labour camps across China’s rural provinces from the 1950s onwards. Here they underwent an intense programme of communist indoctrination, interspersed with back-breaking work on farms and in factories. These ‘undesirables’ were rarely given a trial, an accusation made by some former Uighur internees held in the Xinjiang camps.

Forced labour in Mao’s China. The policy formally persisted for decades after his death

People were forced into ‘schools’ where Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ would become the only other constant in a life of misery:

The schools were not concentration camps or gulags, but they were isolated places of detention where the inmates had restricted freedom and had to do hard labour under strict supervision. Because every cultivable area in China is densely populated, only in arid or mountainous areas was there space to contain the exiles from the cities. The inmates were supposed to produce food and be self-supporting. Although they were still paid salaries, there was little for them to buy. Life was very harsh. (Chang, 2004, pp. 479-80)

This description – from the renowned author Jung Chang describing the fate of her parents in Mao’s China – is strikingly similar to the reports coming out of Xinjiang.

In short, it appears that Xi Jinping has relaunched a banner Maoist policy in a very targeted manner. It adds further credence to the idea that Xi wishes to emulate the unquestioned allegiance that the Chairman once commanded from his population, often through brute force and murderous repression.

Mao’s Little Red Book: it has become synonymous with his personality cult and repressive rule, something Xi Jinping seeks to emulate

The CCP’s determined grip on almost every avenue of information dissemination has helped skew the Xinjiang story. Undoubtedly there are extremist elements amongst the Uighurs and it’s likely that the majority of the Uighur people would prefer a separate state.

Yet the one-sided media coverage that persists in China, and the CCP’s ability to shield its worst excesses from the outside world, portrays a region under constant siege. ‘Counter-terrorism’ – a favoured buzzword in the West – is readily used to justify ethnic crackdowns. The ‘re-education’ centres are just one element of this.

The international community has given a typically muted response. Harsh words and threats of sanctions are nothing new for the CCP. If that is what the party has to endure to enable a free pass on another flagrant violation of human rights, then so be it.

Unfortunately, China has proved itself rather good at suppressing dissent and undermining minority groups. Forced labour, internment without trial and extra-judicial kidnappings are standard practice, honed over the years. Those who wish to avoid such punishment stifle their grumbles in order to live a quiet life. As long as the Communist state continues to offer them the illusion of development, this cycle will continue.

Of course, things can change and the Xinjiang camps may only further radicalise those young men and women most likely to carry out domestic acts of terror.

The aftermath of a terrorist attack carried out by Uighur separatists in Urumqi. The CCP has used such incidents as an excuse for an ethnic backlash

But the power of population is on the side of the government. The clever ploy of moving millions of Han Chinese into Xinjiang means that the Uighur don’t even form a significant majority in their own land. Unless they can harness the support of the displaced Han – and this is unlikely given ethnic and cultural differences – then their sorry plight looks set to persist.


Chang, J. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (2004)


On the Eve of Destruction: Cameroon’s Colonial Legacy Sets Alight

With ethnic and political violence flaring around the world, and humanitarian disasters unfolding in front of our eyes, the last thing we need is a new crisis. Yet that is exactly what appears to be happening in Cameroon, traditionally seen as one of Africa’s most stable countries.

A protest in Bamenda, northwest Cameroon. The government has tried to censor information about the violence in its English-speaking regions

Thousands of people are fleeing bloodshed in the country’s English-speaking western provinces, where separatists are fighting for a new state (Ambazonia). It comes shortly before a national election, in which President Paul Biya expects to win a seventh term.

As an 85-year old who has shed all semblance of responsibility for the Anglophone part of the country, established a virtual one-party state, and is in no mood to relinquish power, Biya is reminiscent of Robert Mugabe. Still, the historic split between French and English-speaking provinces in Cameroon adds an unwanted powder keg that could ultimately explode to embroil neighbouring states in what is a particularly restive region.

The veteran Biya is a virtual dictator accused of human rights abuses

As with many of Africa’s present troubles, Cameroon’s has its roots in the colonial and post-colonial era. Having initially fall under control of the German Empire in 1884 during the ‘Scramble for Africa’, Kamerun – as it was known – was ‘liberated’ by British and French forces during World War One.

In 1919, the League of Nations – that nascent international organisation whose failings are well known – designated Kamerun an international mandate. The larger, eastern part of the country was to be administered by France as Cameroun, with the west falling under control of the British as the Cameroons.

Bananas being loaded for export to Germany in 1911

For the next four decades these separate yet inextricably linked territories were subjected to the same cultural indoctrination as France and Britain imposed on their other African colonies. This did not necessitate a disappearance of indigenous culture, only that succeeding generations grew accustomed to a certain societal existence that spilled into the independence era.

‘Freedom’ came in the early 1960s when both European powers were retreating from empire, having come to the belated realisation that the 19th century had long since past. French Cameroon secured its independence in 1960, having fought its colonisers and their local allies throughout the 1950s.

The changing face of Cameroon

In 1961, a plebiscite was held in the British Cameroons to decide on where the peoples’ future lay. The Muslim-dominant northern part of the territory joined with Nigeria, with the Christian south electing to fuse with their French-speaking neighbours in a Federal Republic of Cameroon. This became a non-federalised republic in 1972 and Paul Biya assumed power in 1982.

It is since Biya’s ascension that the seeds of Cameroon’s current woes began to be sown in earnest. An avowed Francophone with a penchant for unduly rewarding his allies, he has neglected his English-speaking people. The government in Yaounde is exclusively French-speaking and judicial officials sent to the western provinces are too.

Paul Biya with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy – the Cameroonian leader has retained a strong relationship with France

What had been a decades-long peaceful agitation for a separate state has turned into brutal violence, with civilians as usual bearing the brunt of the fighting. A relatively strong economy – in terms of Africa – has perhaps discouraged a bigger uprising until now. Commodity markets, including coffee, bananas and rubber, have provided opportunities for French and English speakers alike.

But stagnation and discrimination have fanned the flames. A national army accustomed to waging war on an arbitrary scale against terrorist groups like Boko Haram are committing atrocities reciprocated by the separatists.

It seems a simple suggestion, but why not allow a separate English-speaking state? An official return to the colonial divide could bring stability without overlordship.

Sadly, no government will willingly suffer a degradation of their nation’s sovereignty. In Paul Biya, moreover, Cameroon has a leader with nothing to lose. He has less than a decade to live, has a secure rule backed by France, and a government staffed by loyal apparatchiks. The majority of his Francophone brethren seem to offer him at least tacit support and now, in the face of an Ambazonian insurgency, he can call on them to defend the motherland.

The ironic flag of the self-declared state of Ambazonia

With the societal upheaval that endemic violence brings already evident in west Cameroon, the territory has the potential to become a haven for Boko Haram and other terrorist groups, who have been forced out of previous strongholds by regional governments, aided by their international partners.

France has the ability to put pressure on Biya but is unlikely to do so, Paris still reveling in its supposedly paternalistic relationship with its former colonies. Britain has little to zero influence in West and Central Africa these days and other global powers will be loath to embroil themselves in another far-flung catastrophe.

Watch this space…with election day looming, Cameroon is on the eve of destruction.