Why does China ‘retrain’ successful businessmen?

Chinese government officials have repeatedly stated that camps in Xinjiang provide job and vocational training, but a widely circulated photograph from one of the camps casts doubt on this claim.

Recently, Radio Free Asia (RFA) identified five men in a photo of detainees sitting in rows behind barbed wire in an internment camp in Hotan, Xinjiang. All five men already had good jobs and some ran successful businesses. In fact, one of the detainees was planning to build a bakery in the industrial zone where he is now incarcerated, Radio Free Asia reported.

RFA attributed the photo to the WeChat account of the Xinjiang Judicial Administration, an official Chinese government account.

The men are among more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other Muslim ethnic minority groups who have been detained since April 2017 in the camps. Many are reportedly beaten, tortured, forced to renounce Islam and made to memorize Chinese Communist Party propaganda.

Countries around the world have condemned China for its ongoing campaign to oppress the ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identities of its Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. The Chinese government also has called the internment “boarding schools.”

The men were first identified in a Facebook post by U.S.-based World Uyghur Congress Vice President Perhat Muhammed, and Radio Free Asia confirmed their identities as:

  • Mamtimin, an entrepreneur and medical equipment salesman.
  • Aziz Haji Shangtang, a baker and restaurant owner.
  • Eli Ahun Qarim, a religious teacher and jade merchant.
  • Abdulla Haret, a woodworker.
  • Abduleziz Haji, a driver for the labor insurance bureau.

Several of the men were known for their religious practices, according to Radio Free Asia’s interviews with the men’s friends and families of the men.

“I think the reason [Aziz Haji Shangtang] was arrested is that he performed a Haj pilgrimage [to Mecca in Saudi Arabia] in 2002,” one of Aziz’s neighbors told RFA. “They have arrested everyone who traveled abroad.”

“All of us were impressed with [Eli Ahun Qarim’s] religious understanding,” a former business partner of Eli’s said. “I think he was detained because of his religious knowledge.”

Long row of men standing in prayer (© Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)
Uyghur men praying in a mosque in Hotan, Xinjiang, in 2015. Since then, China has cracked down on religious practice in Xinjiang. (© Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

Abdulla Haret was a caretaker for his local mosque in Shipang, a neighbor told RFA. “The reason for his detention is probably because of his work at the mosque. He’s a man of faith and good character,” the neighbor said.

China has made a point of persecuting Muslims in Xinjiang, even going to so far as to ban certain Muslim names.

“China describes these sprawling camps with guard towers and barbed wire as simply ‘vocational training centers,'” said Samuel Brownback, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, last month. “We need to call these camps what they are; they’re internment camps created to wipe out the cultural and religious identity of minority communities.”