Woman describes two years in a Chinese re-education camp

The Guardian published a piece adapted from a book called Survivors of the Chinese Gulag in which a woman named Gulbahar Haitiwaji describes two years spent in a re-education camp in Xinjiang. Haitiwaji and her husband and two children fled China in 2006. They spent the next 10 years living in France. Then in 2016 she got a call from someone claiming to be from the oil company where she had worked for 20 years before leaving China. This person said she needed to return home in order to sign documents connected to her retirement. Haitiwaji wanted to give power of attorney to a friend who still lived in China but she was told that wasn’t possible. She would have to return home.

When Haitiwaji arrived at the oil company offices a few weeks later to sign the papers she soon was redirected to a police station where she was taken to an interrogation room:

We discussed the reasons I left for France, my jobs at a bakery and a cafeteria in the business district of Paris, La Défense.

Then one of the officers shoved a photo under my nose. It made my blood boil. It was a face I knew as well as my own – those full cheeks, that slender nose. It was my daughter Gulhumar. She was posing in front of the Place du Trocadéro in Paris, bundled up in her black coat, the one I’d given her. In the photo, she was smiling, a miniature East Turkestan flag in her hand, a flag the Chinese government had banned. To Uighurs, that flag symbolises the region’s independence movement. The occasion was one of the demonstrations organised by the French branch of the World Uighur Congress, which represents Uighurs in exile and speaks out against Chinese repression in Xinjiang…

Suddenly, the officer slammed his fist on the table.

“You know her, don’t you?”

“Yes. She’s my daughter.”

“Your daughter’s a terrorist!”

From that point on, Haitiwaji would spend five months as a prisoner in the police station. Then eventually she was told she would be transferred to “school.”

On my first day, female guards led me to a dormitory full of beds, mere planks of numbered wood. There was already another woman there: Nadira, Bunk No 8. I was assigned Bunk No 9.

Nadira showed me around the dormitory, which had the heady smell of fresh paint: the bucket for doing your business, which she kicked wrathfully; the window with its metal shutter always closed; the two cameras panning back and forth in high corners of the room. That was it. No mattress. No furniture. No toilet paper. No sheets. No sink. Just two of us in the gloom and the bang of heavy cell doors slamming shut.

This was no school. It was a re-education camp, with military rules, and a clear desire to break us.

As Haitwaji describes it, the “brainwashing” was a combination of endless memorization and of communist propaganda combined with the constant threat of punishment for even the most minor infraction:

I’d thought the theory classes would bring us a bit of relief from the physical training, but they were even worse. The teacher was always watching us, and slapped us every chance she got. One day, one of my classmates, a woman in her 60s, shut her eyes, surely from exhaustion or fear. The teacher gave her a brutal slap. “Think I don’t see you praying? You’ll be punished!” The guards dragged her violently from the room. An hour later, she came back with something she had written: her self-criticism. The teacher made her read it out loud to us. She obeyed, ashen-faced, then sat down again. All she’d done was shut her eyes.

In the end, worn down by the threats and harsh treatment, she denounced her own family for crimes against the party.

During violent interrogations by the police, I kowtowed under the blows – so much so that I even made false confessions. They managed to convince me that the sooner I owned up to my crimes, the sooner I’d be able to leave. Exhausted, I finally gave in. I had no other choice. No one can fight against themselves for ever.

After two years a judge held a mock-trial and pronounced her innocent. She was free to leave.

This is something out of Orwell’s 1984 but it’s happening right now. Perhaps a million people have been through this dehumanizing process and many of them are not just being brainwashed, they are forced to work in prison factories.