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)

China and Taiwan Enter New Era of Relations: American vigilance remains crucial for security

It was an historic day for the Chinese people; the People’s Republic (China) and the Republic (Taiwan) held high-level official talks for the first time since the Civil War ended in 1949. At the war’s conclusion, the defeated Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek fled the mainland for Taiwan where a rival government to that of Mao Tse-Tung’s communists in Beijing was established. Both sides have claimed to be the legitimate political representatives of the Chinese since, although it is the PRC that is internationally recognised.

Chiang Kai-Shek (l) fled to Taiwan after his Kuomintang were overthrown by Mao's communists
Chiang Kai-Shek (l) fled to Taiwan after his Kuomintang were overthrown by Mao’s communists

Relations between the PRC and the ROC have improved steadily over the past few years, with economic and communications ties expanding significantly. Ma-Ying Jeou’s reign as Taiwan’s Prime Minister has been characterised by attempts to improve relations with Beijing. Certainly, we have come a long way since the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis when Beijing contemplated taking control of the island by force, something it has never ruled out doing. Only the American promise of assistance to Taiwan in the event of an attack on Taipei secured the status quo.

Whilst today’s talks are not completely shocking given the current atmosphere of peace and stability in Sino-Taiwanese relations, it is an almost unthinkable evolution when looking back several decades. As long as Mao and Chiang ruled their respective territories there was no chance of rapprochement and the possibility of a renewal of civil war lurked menacingly.

Officially-sanctioned talks between China and Taiwan would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago
Officially-sanctioned talks between China and Taiwan would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago

In addition, the Americans and much of the Western world continued to see Chiang as the legitimate ruler of China and refused to engage with Beijing. Such a possibility was only contemplated after the Sino-Soviet split when the potential to undermine a greater enemy diluted the bitter taste of Mao’s atrocities and communist virulence. Prior to the United States’ official recognition of the PRC in 1979, the worry that it might get involved in another anti-communist intervention, such as those in Korea and Vietnam, was very real. Having Chiang and his Kumointang as ready-made replacements heightened the tension.

The US abandoned its Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan in 1980, although close military ties between Washington and Taipei persist with American arms sales a constant source of frustration in Beijing.

Shortly before Richard Nixon’s visit to see Mao in 1972, American Earl Ravenal made the following observation:

The logic is that alliance with Taipei and relations with Peking are mutually exclusive. And the facts are that our military support is unnecessary for the immediate defense of Taiwan, and the island in turn is unnecessary for the security of the United States and its regional interests.

Therefore, the military value of Taiwan is not a sufficient reason for upholding the indefinite partition of China. Yet the consequences of ending the alliance would be more significant than is generally appreciated, for it would not only signal abandonment of the containment of China but threaten the concept of collective security. (Earl C Ravenal, ‘Approaching China, Defending TaiwanForeign Affairs, October 1971)

Whilst state-to-state relations between the US and Taiwan no longer exist, unofficial ties between the two are strong enough to mean that the above statement still applies today.

American arms sales to Taiwan anger Beijing but are crucial for regional security
American arms sales to Taiwan anger Beijing but are crucial for regional security

Beijing may have softened its approach and rhetoric in dealing with Taipei, yet its ultimate goal of ‘One China’ remains. Without American vigilance and implied support for Taiwan’s sovereign integrity, the warming relations would soon freeze over.