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’s Defiant Development: how long can it last?

Modernisation theory predicts that economic development will increase with access to financial capital and advanced technological education and gradually lead to greater political development along more democratic and pluralistic lines of governance. (Im, 1987)

Such a process has been particularly evident in the East Asian states of South Korea and Taiwan, and to a lesser extent in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. China, however, remains a glaring exception.

One visits any major Chinese city today and it is clear that Western capitalism has triumphed. Branded stores line the main streets, there is a Starbucks on every corner, youngsters eyes’ remain glued to smartphones and provocative fashion statements merge into a crowd of designer labels.

Starbucks is just one of thousands of Western brands to become pervasive in China. There are few Chinese equivalents in the West
Starbucks is just one of thousands of Western brands to become pervasive in China. There are few Chinese equivalents in the West

After Deng Xiaoping opened up the Chinese economy to foreign investment and technological expertise in the 1980s, the slumbering Red Dragon has risen. Now the world’s second largest economy, China fits the bill for the first part of Modernisation theory.

Yet the idea that an “economically independent middle class [which China now undoubtedly has] whose threshold for autocratic rule would diminish” (Gomez, 2004) has not come to fruition. China remains a firmly autocratic country with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) retaining a strong grip on the reigns of power.

It is true that government protests are on the rise, yet these are predominantly restricted to isolated pockets of the country, far from the seats of political and economic power. More significantly, they are generally the work of the poorer classes who have been marginalised in the rural areas.

There is no argument that poverty remains in parts of China’s most prestigious cities. One need only cross a vast modern shopping mall from the trendy Xintiandi district in Shanghai to arrive at a series of derelict backstreets, where a person can buy a hot meal for 2 Yuan and residents sell their meagre wares from rickety stalls on the filthy sidewalks. Similarly, within shouting distance of the popular pavilions at Yu’uan Garden are the remnants of the area’s former inhabitants, poor workers whose families have been exiled to high-rises on the edge of the city.


Within a few hundred metres of the picturesque and popular pavilions of Yu'uan Garden are impoverished backstreets
Within a few hundred metres of the picturesque and popular pavilions of Yu’uan Garden are impoverished backstreets

That said, what major city doesn’t have its poorer districts? The fact that cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have rid their centres of the poorest people and created a pseudo-Western capitalist dreamworld has helped to stifle dissent.

The middle-class, meanwhile, remains content. Whilst growth rates have slipped from the hallowed 8%, at 7.7% they are still vastly superior to most other nations’. As long as economic empowerment continues, and the new generation of Chinese are given the opportunity to live the consumerist lifestyle that has become paramount to them, then they can tolerate their political restrictions.

China certainly faces challenges in the future. How long can the growing income inequality in the country be ignored? What of the complaints of ethnic minorities? The Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang province have become increasingly volatile. Will the Chinese government use this terrorist threat as a rallying point for the majority Han, a nationalistic aside to cover-up the inherent unfairness of their political system? Certainly China has proved far more effective in controlling the Islamic threat than the West but in such a vast country, terrorism will become increasingly difficult to control.

Perhaps such is the rate of Chinese growth, that the predictions of Modernisation theory have yet to take effect. Taiwan and South Korea have far smaller populations, who benefited from a more even and sustained economic development, encouraging a more concerted agitation for political reform later on.

Despite the Han majority, there is no real homogenisation in China. People are out for themselves, taking advantage of the favourable economic conditions to create a future that would have looked impossible less than thirty years ago.

The Pudong skyline is emblematic of China's development
The Pudong skyline is emblematic of China’s development

As the Shanghai Tower reaches imperiously into the Pudong skyline, surrounded by the other brazen structures of capitalist success, one can imagine Mao turning in his grave. Yet with China now a great power, and the political authority of the CCP still secure, it is hard to believe that the barbaric Chairman does not at least have a wry smile spread across his countenance.


Gomez, E.T. (ed.) (2004), The state of Malaysia: ethnicity, equity, and reform (RoutledgeCurzon: London)

Im, H.B. (1987), ‘The Rise of Bureaucratic Authoritarianism in South Korea’, World Politics, Volume 39(2), pp. 231-257