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China claims it’s released most Muslims from internment camps. That’s doubtful.

Where’s the evidence?

Rushan Abbas, a Uighur in Washington, D.C., holds up a photo of her sister.
Rushan Abbas, a Uighur in Washington, DC, says her sister is among the many Uighurs detained in interment camps in Xinjiang, China.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo
Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

Top Chinese officials claimed Tuesday that a majority of Muslims detained in internment camps have been released and “returned to society.” But they offered no evidence that was true — and China experts have noted there’s every reason to be skeptical of the claim.

More likely, China is attempting to quell international criticism of its massive network of internment camps, which are estimated to hold at least 1 million Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in the northwestern Xinjiang region.

“Presently, the majority of people who have undergone education and training have returned to society and returned to their families. Most have already successfully achieved employment,” Xinjiang government vice chair Alken Tuniaz told journalists at a Beijing press conference, according to the New York Times. He added that the former detainees are now “living happily.”

This announcement, which paints the Chinese Community Party’s effort to “reeducate” Muslims as a resounding success, came as a surprise — and Uighurs in the diaspora were quick to question it.

“I won’t believe China’s claims myself until I hear from my sister,” Rushan Abbas, a Uighur American who’s become a prominent advocate for her people in Xinjiang, told me Tuesday. “My sister is still missing since September 2018. She is a retired medical doctor, fluent in Chinese, and CCP had no reason to detain or ‘reeducate’ her.”

Scholars were equally dubious. “We’re aware of some people being released, but we’re also aware of people being newly detained,” David Brophy, a Xinjiang expert at the University of Sydney, told the Wall Street Journal.

The repression of Uighurs is one of the most harrowing — and yet one of the most neglected — humanitarian crises in the world today. China depicts the Uighur people as a separatist and terrorist threat, and describes Islam as a mental illness fueling that threat. In 2017, it opened several internment camps aimed at forced indoctrination. These places are reportedly sites of death, of torture, of Muslim detainees being forced to memorize CCP propaganda, renounce Islam, and consume pork and alcohol.

Are Uighurs being “employed” with forced labor in factories?

It is indeed possible that many former detainees now have jobs, as the Chinese government claims they do — but the important question is whether those jobs have been foisted upon them against their will.

For months, experts and analysts have been raising concerns that China may be using the internment camp system as a feeder for a new forced labor system, reminiscent of the country’s now-abolished “reeducation through labor” system that saw hundreds of thousands of citizens coerced into working for years.

As Brophy told the Journal, “How much of this employment involves forced relocation to elsewhere in China? How much of it is taking place in education camps that have now been repurposed as heavily surveilled factories?”

We’ve recently seen mounting evidence — including first-person accounts — that China is funneling Uighurs from the camps to factories, where they perform forced labor like embroidering clothes. Satellite analysts have noted the construction of what appear to be factories or warehouses near the camps.

Adrian Zenz, a German academic who’s played a leading role in uncovering the human rights crisis in Xinjiang, has argued — based on official Chinese documents and state media — that the country is setting up a “grand scheme of forced labor” as a means of social control. “Government documents blatantly boast about the fact that the labor supply from the vast internment camp network has been attracting many Chinese companies to set up production in Xinjiang,” he wrote in a preprint report this month.

Speaking to the press, Zenz explained, “Those who are in the camps are supposed to get jobs, permanent factory jobs. The reason is that in these jobs the government can control them. They can’t take off on Friday to go to the mosque, they also can’t fast, they cannot do basic religious practice.”

In response to evidence of forced labor, big clothing retailers like Target are investigating their supply chains to see whether their products are linked to Xinjiang’s factories.

The officials at the Beijing press conference did not address the factory hypothesis head on, yet what they did say seems to fit with it. “You could say that maybe 90 percent or more have found suitable work to their liking with an impressive income,” said Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang’s regional chair, according to the Times. “These people have now become a positive factor in society, leading other ordinary people to create business and employment.”

Last year, in the course of defending the camp system, Zakir said the government was getting “job assignments” ready for detainees.

China does not allow journalists to freely investigate the reality in Xinjiang for themselves — and in the absence of such reporting, the international community should be skeptical of Beijing’s narrative. Foreign journalists are known to be followed and surveilled when they move around Xinjiang; in some cases, they are threatened with arrest and the destruction of their reporting materials.

Of course, the surveillance journalists experience is nothing compared to the monitoring Uighurs endure on a daily basis. The government wants to tighten its control over them, especially now that it’s rolling out its Belt and Road Initiative, a sprawling infrastructure project for which oil- and resource-rich Xinjiang is crucial. So it’s been stepping up its surveillance, including by flying drones disguised as birds over the region.

China profiles Uighurs there using a facial recognition system that the Times has called “automated racism.” Uighurs are also forced to hand over a wealth of biometric data: DNA samples, fingerprints, voice samples, and blood types. As they walk through the streets, they’re stopped at multiple checkpoints, where authorities inspect their phones. Uighurs are even forced to install a surveillance app on their phones called JingWang. And officials have installed QR codes on the outside of Uighurs’ homes, giving authorities quick access to their personal information.

Given the constancy and intensity of China’s surveillance, one thing is clear: Even if a majority of Uighurs truly have been released from the camps, and even if they’re not being funneled into forced labor in factories, the “freedom” they experience back home is no real freedom at all. They are almost certainly not, as the Xinjiang vice chair claimed, “living happily.”

Watch: China’s secret internment camps

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