HOTAN, China – The first grader was a good student and loved by her classmates, but she was heartbroken, and it was no mystery to her teacher why.
“The heartbreaking thing is that the girl often slumps and cries alone on the table,” he wrote in his blog. “When I asked around, I found out that she missed her mother.”
The mother was taken to an internment camp for Muslim ethnic minorities. The girl’s father had passed away, he added. Instead of being educated by other relatives, the authorities sent her to a state boarding school – one of hundreds of such facilities that opened in the far west of China in Xinjiang.
In the past three years, up to 1 million ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and others have been sent to Xinjiang detention centers and prisons, an indiscriminate move to weaken the population’s commitment to Islam. While these mass arrests are causing worldwide outrage, the Chinese government is simultaneously pushing ahead with reaching out to children in the region.
So far, almost half a million children have been separated from their families and placed in boarding schools, according to a planning document published on a government website. The ruling Communist Party has set itself the goal of running one or two such schools at Xinjiang across 800 communities by the end of next year.
The party has introduced schools as a means to fight poverty, arguing that if their parents live or work in a remote area or are unable to care for them, they will make it easier for children to learn. And it is true that many rural families strive to send their children to these schools, especially when they are older.
However, schools are also designed to receive and indoctrinate children at an early age without the influence of their families. This emerges from the planning document published in 2017. Students are often forced to register because the authorities have detained their parents and other relatives. ordered them to take jobs away from home or judged them to be unsuitable guards.
Schools are closed to outsiders and closely guarded, and it is difficult to interview Xinjiang residents without putting them at risk of being arrested. However, a worrying picture of these institutions emerges from interviews with exiled Uyghur parents and a review of the documents published online, including procurement materials, government reports, government media reports, and school blogs from teachers.
State media and official documents describe education as a key element in President Xi Jinping’s campaign to end extremist violence in Xinjiang. This ruthless and far-reaching effort also includes mass detention centers and extensive surveillance. The idea is to use the boarding schools as incubators for a new generation of Uighurs who are more secular and loyal to both the party and the nation.
“The long-term strategy is to conquer, captivate, and win over the young generation from the start,” said Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Washington, who deals with Chinese politics that breaks up Uyghur families.
To carry out the assimilation campaign, the Xinjiang authorities have recruited tens of thousands of teachers from across China, often Han Chinese, who are the country’s dominant ethnic group. At the same time, prominent Uyghur educators were detained and teachers were warned that if they resisted, they would be sent to the camps.
Children in boarding schools are only allowed to come into contact with the family once or twice a week if they are in a regimented environment and immersed in an unknown culture – a limitation that “affects the religious atmosphere on the children at home should abolish ”, is the words of the 2017 directive document.
The campaign builds on previous measures in Canada, the United States and Australia in which local children were taken out of their families and sent to home schools to assimilate them by force.
“The big difference in China is the scale and system,” said Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado who studies Uyghur culture and society.
A public discussion of the trauma inflicted on the Uyghur children through separation from their families is rare in China. References to social media are usually quickly censored. Instead, state-controlled news media focus on the party’s goals in the region, where predominantly Muslim minorities make up more than half of its 25 million inhabitants.
Chen Quanguo, the party’s chief official in Xinjiang, visited a kindergarten near the border town of Kashgar this month and asked teachers to ensure that children learn to “love the party, love the motherland, and love people.” “.
Science versus writing
Abdurahman Tohti left Xinjiang and emigrated to Turkey in 2013. He left cotton growing behind to sell used cars in Istanbul. But when his wife and two small children returned to China for a visit a few years ago, they disappeared.
He heard that his wife was sent to prison, like many Uighurs who had traveled abroad and returned to China. His parents were also arrested. However, the fate of his children was a mystery.
Then, in January, he spotted his 4-year-old son in a video on Chinese social media that appeared to have been taped by a teacher. The boy appeared to be in a state boarding school and spoke Chinese, a language his family did not speak.
Tohti, 30, said he was excited to see the child and relieved that he was safe – but also gripped with despair.
“What I fear most,” he said, “is that the Chinese government is teaching him to hate his parents and the Uyghur culture.”
Beijing has been trying for decades to suppress Uyghur resistance to Chinese rule in Xinjiang by using schools in the region to indoctrinate Uyghur children. However, until recently, the government had allowed most classes to be taught in Uighur, partly due to the lack of Chinese-language teachers.
After a wave of anti-government and anti-Chinese violence, including ethnic unrest in 2009 in Urumqi, the region’s capital, and fatal attacks by Uyghur fighters in 2014, Xi urged the party to act harder in Xinjiang earlier this year New York Times leaked.
In December 2016, the party announced that the work of the region’s education office was entering a new phase. The schools were to become an extension of the security aspirations in Xinjiang, with a new focus on the Chinese language, patriotism and loyalty to the party.
In the 2017 Policy Document, which was published on the Ministry of Education’s website, officials from Xinjiang introduced their new priorities and led the expansion of boarding schools.
Without specifying Islam by name, the document called religion a harmful influence on children and said that student life in school “confronts the shock of going back and forth between learning science in the classroom and listening to scriptures Home would decrease “.
By early 2017, the document said, nearly 40% of all middle and primary school children in Xinjiang – or about 497,800 students – were in boarding school. At that time, the government stepped up efforts to open boarding schools and provide schools with dormitories. Recent reports indicate that the push is continuing.
Chinese also replaces Uighur as the main language of instruction in Xinjiang. Most elementary and middle school students are now taught in Chinese, compared to 38% three years ago. And thousands of new rural preschools were built to introduce Chinese to minority children at an earlier age, state media reported.
The government argues that teaching Chinese is critical to improving the economic prospects of minority children, and many Uighurs agree. But Uyghur activists said the entire campaign was an attempt to wipe out the remains of their culture.
Several Uighurs living abroad said the government put their children in boarding schools without their consent.
Mahmutjan Niyaz, 33, a Uyghur businessman who moved to Istanbul in 2016, said his 5-year-old daughter was sent to a detention center after the detention of his brother and sister-in-law, the girl’s guardian.
Other relatives could have taken care of her, but the authorities refused to admit her. Now, said Niyaz, school has changed the girl.
“My daughter used to be playful and open-minded,” he said. “But after she went to school, she looked very sad in the photos.”
The primary school stood out in a dusty village near the old silk road town of Hotan in the south of Xinjiang, nestled between fields of barren walnut trees and simple concrete houses.
It was surrounded by a high wall with two layers of barbed wire. There were cameras on every corner. And at the entrance there was a guard with a black helmet and a protective vest next to a metal detector.
That was not always so. Last year, officials in the Kasipi village converted the school into a full-time boarding school.
Kang Jide, a Chinese teacher at the school, described the frenzied process in his public blog on the Chinese social media platform WeChat: all of the students were broadcast in just a few days. The classrooms have been rearranged. Bunk beds were set up. Then 270 new children came and left school with 430 students, each in sixth grade or below.
The officials called them “students of kindness” and referred to the party’s generosity in making special arrangements for their training.
The government said that children in Xinjiang boarding schools will be taught better hygiene, etiquette, and Chinese and science skills to help them succeed in modern China.
“My heart suddenly melted after seeing the great smile of these retarded children,” said a retired official who, according to a state media report, attended a primary school in Lop County near Hotan. He added that the party had given them “an environment in which they can be carefree, learn happily, and become healthy and strong.”
But Kang wrote that the separation from their families took a toll on the children. Some never received visits from relatives or stayed on campus during the holidays, even after most teachers left. And his students often asked to use his phone to call their parents.
“Sometimes when they hear the voice at the other end of the call, the children start to cry and they hide in the corner because they don’t want me to see them,” he wrote.
“It’s not just the kids,” he added. “Of course, the parents at the other end also miss their children so much that their hearts break and they tremble.”
The internment camps, which the government calls vocational training centers, have also overshadowed non-boarding students. Before the school was remodeled, Kang posted a photo of a letter an 8-year-old girl had written to her father who had been sent to a camp.
“Daddy, where are you?” The girl wrote in an uneven scribble. “Dad, why don’t you come back?”
“I’m sorry, daddy,” she continued. “You have to learn hard too.”
Nevertheless, Kang generally supported schools. In his blog, he described teaching Uyghur students as an opportunity to “water the motherland’s flowers”.
“Kindness students” receive more attention and resources than day students. For example, boarding schools have to offer psychological counseling, and in Kasipi the children received a range of materials, including textbooks, clothing and a red Young Pioneer scarf.
Learning Chinese was the priority, Kang wrote, although the students also immersed in traditional Chinese culture, including classical poetry, and taught songs that praised the party.
During a recent school visit, children in red and blue uniforms were seen in a courtyard next to buildings labeled “Cafeteria” and “Student Residence”. At the entrance, school officials refused to answer questions.
In Xinjiang schools, tighter security has become the norm. In Hotan alone, more than $ 1 million has been spent on purchasing surveillance and safety equipment for schools such as helmets, shields and truncheons in the past three years, according to procurement documents. A facial recognition system had been installed at the entrance to a primary school.
Kang recently wrote on his blog that he had started a new teaching job in North Xinjiang. Reached there by phone, he refused to be interviewed. But before hanging up, he said that his students in Kasipi had made rapid progress in learning Chinese.
“I feel very fulfilled every day,” he said.
“Engineers of the human soul”
In order to carry out its campaign, the party needed not only new schools, but also an army of teachers, a revision of the curriculum – and political discipline. Teachers suspected of contradiction were punished and textbooks rewritten to discard subversive material.
“Teachers are the engineers of the human soul,” the Urumqi Education Office recently wrote in an open letter using a sentence that Stalin first used to describe writers and other cultural workers.
The party went to great lengths to attract teachers from all over China to Xinjiang. Last year, almost 90,000 people were hired, some of whom were selected for their political reliability, officials said at a press conference this year. According to government data, the influx last year was about one fifth of the teachers in Xinjiang.
The new recruits, often ethnic Han, and the teachers they joined, mostly Uyghurs, were both warned to act. Those who opposed Chinese-language politics or opposed the new curriculum were classified as “two-sided” and punished.
The deputy general secretary of the oasis city Turpan, who wrote earlier this year, described such teachers as “scum from the Chinese people” and accused them of “being enchanted by extremist religious ideology”.
Teachers were asked to express their loyalty and the public was asked to keep an eye on them. A sign outside a nursery school in Hotan urged parents to report teachers who made “irresponsible comments” or who attended unauthorized religious services.
Xinjiang officials spent two years inspecting and revising hundreds of textbooks and other teaching materials in accordance with the 2017 policy document.
Some who helped the party write and edit the old textbooks ended up in prison, including Yalqun Rozi, a prominent scholar and literary critic who has contributed to compiling textbooks on Uyghur literature for over a decade.
According to his son Kamaltürk Yalqun, Rozi was sentenced to 15 years in prison last year for attempting subversion. Some other members of the committee that compiled the textbooks were also arrested.
“Instead of welcoming the Uyghurs’ cultural diversity, China called them a malignant tumor,” said Yalqun, who lives in Philadelphia.
There is evidence that some Uyghur children have been sent to boarding schools far away.
36-year-old Kalbinur Tursun entrusted five of her children to relatives when she left Xinjiang to give birth to a child in Istanbul, but has not been able to contact her for several years.
Last year, she saw her daughter Ayshe Tursun, then 6, in a video that was distributed on Chinese social media. It was posted by a user who appeared to be a teacher at a school in Hotan – more than 500 kilometers from his home in Kashgar.
“My children are so young; You just need your mother and father, ”said Tursun, expressing concern about how the authorities raised her. “I’m afraid they’ll think I’m the enemy – that they won’t accept me and hate me.”
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
© 2019 The New York Times Company