On the edge of a desert in the far west of China, an imposing building sits behind a fence covered with barbed wire. The large red characters on the facade urge people to learn Chinese, study law and acquire work skills. The guards make it clear that visitors are not welcome.
Inside, hundreds of ethnic Uighur Muslims spend their days in a high-pressure indoctrination program, where they are forced to listen to lectures, sing hymns praising the Chinese Communist Party and write "self-criticism" essays, according to detainees who have been released.
The goal is to rid them of devotion to Islam.
Abdusalam Muhemet, 41, said police stopped him for reciting a verse from the Koran at a funeral. After two months in a nearby camp, he and more than 30 people were ordered to give up their past lives. Muhemet said he did, but silently boiled.
"That was not a place to get rid of extremism," he recalled. "That was a place that would engender vengeful feelings and erase the Uighur identity."
This camp outside Hotan, an ancient oasis city in the Taklamakan desert, is one of the hundreds that China has built in recent years. It is part of a campaign of impressive scale and ferocity that has swept hundreds of thousands of Chinese Muslims for weeks or months from what critics describe as brainwashing, generally without criminal charges.
Although limited to the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, it is the country's largest internment program since the Mao era, and the focus of a growing chorus of international criticism.
China has sought for decades to restrict the practice of Islam and maintain tight control in Xinjiang, a region almost as large as Alaska, where more than half of the population of 24 million belongs to ethnic minority Muslim groups. Most are Uighurs, whose religion, language and culture, together with a history of independence movements and resistance to the Chinese government, have puzzled Beijing for a long time.
After a succession of violent anti-government attacks reached its peak in 2014, Xi Jinping, head of the Communist Party, drastically intensified the crackdown, orchestrating a relentless campaign to turn ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities into loyal and supportive citizens. of the match
"Xinjiang is in an active period of terrorist activities, an intense fight against separatism and a painful intervention to deal with this," Xi told the officials, according to state media reports in 2017.
In addition to the mass arrests, officials have intensified the use of informants and expanded police surveillance, including the installation of cameras in the homes of some people. Activists and human rights experts say the campaign has traumatized Uyghur society, leaving communities and fractured families behind.
"The penetration of everyday life is almost total now," said Michael Clarke, an expert in Xinjiang at the Australian National University in Canberra, capital of Australia. "You have an ethnic identity, the Uighur identity in particular, being identified as this type of pathology."
China has categorically denied reports of abuse in Xinjiang. At a meeting of a UN panel in Geneva last month, he said he does not operate reeducation camps and described the facilities in question as mild corrective institutions offering job training.
"There is no arbitrary detention," Hu Lianhe, an official with a role in Xinjiang politics, told the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. "There are no reeducation centers."
The committee pressed Beijing to reveal how many people have been detained and released, but China's Foreign Ministry dismissed the lawsuit as lacking a "factual basis" and said China's security measures were comparable to those of others. countries
The government's usual defense, however, is contradicted by overwhelming evidence, which includes official directives, studies, press reports and construction plans that have appeared online, as well as the testimonies of a growing number of former detainees who fled to countries like Turkey and Kazakhstan.
The government's own documents describe a vast network of camps, generally called centers of "transformation through education," which has expanded without public debate, specific legislative authority or any appeals system for detainees.
The New York Times interviewed four recent inmates of Xinjiang who described physical and verbal abuse by the guards; singing routines, conferences and self-criticism meetings; and the anxiety of not knowing when they would be released. His statements echoed in interviews with more than a dozen Uighurs with relatives who were in the camps or who had disappeared, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid government reprisals.
The Times also discovered online reports written by teams of Chinese officials who were assigned to follow up on families with detained relatives, and a 2017 study that said officials in parts of Xinjiang were indiscriminately sending ethnic Uyghurs to the camps to comply with the numerical quotas.
The study, conducted by Qiu Yuanyuan, an academic from the Xinjiang Party School, where officials are trained, warned that the arrests could be counterproductive and fanatical radicalism. "Imprudently setting quantitative targets for transformation through education has been misused" in some areas, he wrote. "The orientation is imprecise, and the scope has expanded."
The Xinjiang government issued "de-radicalization" rules in 2017 that gave a vague authorization to the camps, and many counties now manage several of them, according to government documents, which include requests for tenders from construction companies to build them.
In government documents, local officials sometimes compare inmates with patients who require isolation and emergency intervention.
"Anyone infected with an ideological virus should be sent quickly to the 'residential care' of the transformation classes through education before an illness arises," said one. document issued by party officials in Hotan.
The number of Uighurs, as well as Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities, who have been detained in the camps is unclear. Estimates range from several hundred thousand to perhaps one million, with exiled Uyghur groups saying the number is even greater.
The Chinese government says it is winning a war against Islamic extremism and separatism, which it blames for the attacks that have killed hundreds in recent years. The information about this violence is censored and incomplete, but the incidents seem to have decreased considerably since 2014.
Still, many who have left the indoctrination program say it has hardened public attitudes against Beijing.
"It did not help," said Omurbek Eli, a Kazakh businessman, about his time in a camp in 2017. "The result will be the opposite, they will become even more resistant to Chinese influence."