The wife of a Hui Muslim held in one of the internment camps details how the Chinese government silences inmates to hide the truth about its persecutions.
by Li Benbo
In 2019, facing pressure from the international community, the Chinese government agreed to invite media representatives to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to meet “students” at selected “vocational schools” – that is how the authorities call the dreaded transformation through education camps, where people are held against their will. The well-rehearsed charades in the camps, which the journalists were allowed to visit, were played under the watchful eyes of government personnel. In the videos released later, Uyghurs are seen singing and dancing, telling media representatives that they can leave the facilities freely to visit families whenever they wished.
On December 9, Shorat Zakir, the chairman of the Xinjiang government, told in a press conference that almost all “students” in Xinjiang had been released. This appears to be one more of the CCP’s shows, organized to fool the world.
The story of a Hui woman’s husband, which she shared with Bitter Winter, is proof that the authoritarian regime is doing anything it can to hide the real scope of the persecution against its people. To protect the woman and her family, we will call her by the pseudonym of Ma Li.
Freed, but not really
Ma Li’s husband was “set free” from the camp unexpectedly, after spending nearly two years there. He explained to his wife that he was released because some foreign journalists were coming to investigate the situation in the camp, and the government wanted to reduce the number of detainees. He was among the few dozen released inmates – a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people who are still detained.
Ma Li still vividly remembers the day her husband received a phone call and was demanded to go to a government office immediately. While she waited for him by the gate of the government compound, Ma Li noticed more than 20 Uyghurs being taken away from it. Living under the regime that needs no reason to arrest, jail, or even kill its people, Ma Li had a premonition that her husband was in imminent danger. She soon witnessed how right her intuition was: she saw her handcuffed husband being pushed into a police car. She later learned that he was sent to a transformation through education camp for interpreting the Quran in his WeChat group.
Ma Li was over overjoyed when he returned home after being locked up for so long, and she wanted to share her happiness by inviting their relatives for a celebration. But her husband cautiously asked her not to publicize the news and told her to expect a government inspection soon.
Trained for the “show”
A few days after he returned home, Ma Li’s husband and other released Muslims were sent to work in a factory against their will. They were only allowed to return home with special permissions and were closely monitored.
The former camp detainees were taught by government officials how to talk to the media and were told to repeat statements like, “I can go home every day. But I don’t bother doing this because I live very far from here. I prefer staying here after work. Going home once a week is enough.”
Their families were also gathered to be trained on what to say about their relatives’ detentions. “When did your husband get home?” a government official asked Ma Li. She told him the exact day, but the official ordered her to tell anyone who asks her that he had returned six months ago, making her memorize the fake date. She was also commanded to tell everyone that her husband had gone to the “vocational school” by his own will.
When the official asked Ma Li to deny that her husband was a Muslim, she realized that this was the limit for her, so she stopped answering the official’s questions. She was then dismissed as “too slow to be interviewed by journalists.”
An employee at a community office in Xinjiang told Bitter Winter that he had seen many times how well the CCP could manipulate people. Therefore, similar rehearsals that Ma Li has suffered through is routine work for community office personnel ahead of various inspections and visits by foreign journalists. “Officials sometimes disguise themselves as common people, and when visitors want to talk to someone, these guys come forward to answer their questions,” the community office employee said. “Ahead of journalists’ visits, those who had previously voiced their opinions are usually told to stay at home, controlled by specially-assigned personnel. So that the truth is never told to outsiders.”
Forced to keep silent
After her husband came home, Ma Li asked him a lot of questions about the camp, but he was unwilling to talk. According to a source familiar with the matter, many released detainees are compelled to sign non-disclosure agreements to keep them silent. If anyone is found to have leaked information about the camps, to foreign journalists, in particular, they may face “serious consequences.”
Ma Li’s husband repeatedly complained that his waist and legs hurt badly and mentioned a few other health problems. When she started putting together the details her husband disclosed sporadically, Ma Li realized how severe the conditions in the camp were: people were handcuffed and shackled, lived in confined spaces, and some inmates even died.
Ma Li’s husband has not been able to open up to his wife since his return. She remembers how during a brief visit to see her husband in the camp, their conversation in the presence of four guards was recorded, and her husband told her that he “lived a good life” in the camp. Though, at some point, he braved himself to ask her to get him out of there. No matter how much Ma Li tried to secure her husband’s release, she realized that not many government officials had the power to do so.
Ma Li’s husband told her that he was allowed to leave the camp because he had kept his head down and was cautious. He was told that he had been chosen to be released because he was deemed “smart and doing a good job.” Other inmates were not so “lucky.”