ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now we're going to talk to somebody who has shed light on re-education camps in far-western China. No one knows how many people are imprisoned in these centers. Estimates range from tens of thousands to as many as a million people. In these detention centers, Muslim members of ethnic minority groups are brainwashed, indoctrinated, made to report on neighbors and family members. Gerry Shih of the Associated Press has published an extraordinary account based on his interviews with some of the survivors of these prisons. Welcome.
GERRY SHIH: Thanks, Ari.
SHAPIRO: First, give us some context. In this remote province, the Chinese government has spent decades trying to change the local population in many different ways, and at times, the population has fought back.
SHIH: Absolutely. I mean, this is a hugely important region for China. It's resource rich. It's half the size of India. And it's home to about 10 to 15 ethnic minorities, the vast majority of whom are Muslim. There has been, for decades, currents of separatism in the region. And because of that, also because of quite heavy-handed government oppression, there have been numerous incidents of violent extremism. And so the government, the Chinese government in Beijing that is, has said that there needs to be some sort of fundamental program to get rid of extremism, get rid of separatism. And so they've come up with this idea in the last couple of years that they could essentially build a network of schools, internment camps, a mix of both, that would fundamentally change the thinking of millions of people.
SHAPIRO: You spoke with multiple survivors of these camps. One person in particular had a very compelling story. He was a citizen of Kazakhstan, and when he crossed the border into China, he was detained. Tell us about this man.
SHIH: Sure. So he was born in China. He immigrated to Kazakhstan, and when he returned to China last year, he was working for a Kazakh tourist agency where he had sent a lot of invitation letters to Chinese folks looking to leave the country. And because of that, he was ensnared in this police investigation. They said, what were you doing sending all of these letters out? Were you helping people escape the country? Were you helping send them to the Middle East, to Syria? And his case essentially kind of ballooned out of control. He was hauled off to prison. He was interrogated for four days. And then after that, he sort of languished for about seven months before the local police decided that, you know what? You should also have a stint in re-education. So then they kind of packed him off for another three weeks into one of these centers.
SHAPIRO: These re-education detention centers have some aspects of a typical prison. But there are also levels of psychological coercion that seem really unusual. Tell us about that.
SHIH: Essentially, the idea is to fundamentally erase what would otherwise be considered normal religious practice elsewhere. Another idea is to sort of inculcate a profound sense of patriotism, a profound sense of loyalty, to the Chinese state. And so a lot of the curriculum is chants, songs, recitations of lines about how great the Communist Party is, how many good things the Communist Party has done for the people of this pretty impoverished region and the dangers of Islam. If you visit a mosque outside your local area, that's considered extremist. If you name your child a name like Mohammed (ph) or some other sort of Islamic name, that's also considered religious. And so it's this intense educational program that seeks to sort of wipe out traces of religion in life as well as ethnic identity.
SHAPIRO: So when you asked the Chinese government about this, did they have a reply?
SHIH: When we asked the government about the existence of these camps, they essentially said that they do not exist. However, ethnic minorities enjoy full constitutional rights as all Chinese citizens. In some cases, when asked, the Chinese government does say that it is an internal matter, that the Chinese government has worked very hard to maintain social stability and to promote ethnic unity and alleviate poverty in this region. And that's how they would frame it.
SHAPIRO: Your story ends on a very sobering note. You describe the man at the center of your story, Omir Bekali, not wanting you to publish his account out of fear of what would happen to his family, his relatives, who are still in China. What made him change his mind?
SHIH: Yeah. Earlier this year, he talked to us, and then he said, you know, maybe you should not publish this story because I had been warned not to talk about what had happened to me. And then in late March and in early April, his family inside Xinjiang in China were taken away by the police. And he is convinced that they were sent to re-education camps themselves. And he said that, you know, after his family had been detained, he had really nothing left to lose. And that's why he decided to talk. And it was a tremendous credit to him that he decided that even after losing his family that this was the right thing to do.
SHAPIRO: Gerry Shih of the Associated Press, thank you for joining us.
SHIH: Ari, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.