Verifiability/reliability: Strong, from a verified public security WeChat account, but numbers of detainees are estimates by individual, not precise figures
"My unforgettable Xinjiang Aid life" (难以忘怀的援疆生活) is an essay by police officer Li Laihui, posted on WeChat by a verified account associated with Public Security Bureau of Jiyuan, Henan, in January 2018. It was deleted sometime after November 24, 2020; the archived copy is here.
There are many things notable about this essay, but most notably, it corroborates the earlier account of another officer who had posted about his trip to Chira County Detention Center from April to July 2017. Also notable is that Li Laihui states the Center was holding over ten times its normal capacity. Note that detention centers are not camps themselves; rather, in this context at least, they appear more similar to jails (≠ prisons) where people are held either administrative processing before a hearing. The spike in detainees is presumably because most of these people were being sent to the newly activated network of reeducation facilities.
Li's account is extremely self-righteous, and the utter terror and fear with which this officer and his colleagues seem to hold Uyghur prisoners/detainees (the county is over 99% Uyghur) is stunning. Li describes how he was recognized for averting potential security disasters that could have resulted, for instance, from guards loosening prisoners' shackles when they were eating. Charming.
难以忘怀的援疆生活 监管支队副大队长 李来会 按照公安部和省公安厅的统一安排部署，从2017年9月3日起，全省公安监管系统抽调50名监管民警赴新疆重点地区进行三个月的轮训支援。我有幸作为济源市公安局唯一的援疆民警参加了此次援疆任务。援疆回来已经一个多月了，回想起援疆生活，仍历历在目。在新疆工作期间的所见所闻、所感所悟难以用语言表达，经历的每个人每件事让人记忆犹新，心情澎湃久久难以平静。
My Unforgettable Xinjiang Aid Life Li Laihui, Deputy Head, Overseer/Oversight* Team In accordance with coordinated deployment by the Ministry of of Public Security and the provincial Public Security Bureau [PSB], beginning September 3, 2017, 50 oversight police were sent to key areas in Xinjiang for three months of rotational training support. I was fortunate enough to be the only Xinjiang Aid police officer from Jiyuan PSB to participate in this Xinjiang Aid mission. A month after returning, my life in Xinjiang is still fresh in my memory. What I saw, heard, felt, and learned in Xinjiang is hard to express. Every person and event I experienced remains unfaded in my memory. The surges of emotion will take much time to quiet.
* I previously translated this term as supervisory. The role is related to management of detention facilities; they appear somewhat higher ranked than everyday guards, but are still very much involved in the hands-on work, so "warden" seems inaccurate. The description of their work, according to the WeChat account's bio, is to "protect the legal rights of the detained, guarantee criminal cases progress smoothly, and ensure the safety of detention facilities~" (维护在押人员合法权益，保障刑事诉讼顺利进行，确保监所安全~ (yes, the ~ is actually there))
Energetically Responding to the Call, Keeping the Special Mission Firmly in Mind
In order to fully realize the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s series of important instructions on counterterrorism work, and to implement the directives of the Ministry of Public Security on dispatching overseer police officers to key areas in Xinjiang for rotation training support to ensure the safety of prisons, I volunteered to take part in the Xinjiang rotational training.
Around 9pm on September 3, 2017, 50 oversight police from Henan arrived at the Xinjiang Stability Maintenance and Anti-terrorism Training Base—Xinjiang Ürümqi Police Academy and underwent three days of intensive study and training. At the launch ceremony, overseer police from Henan, Jilin and Liaoning provinces reviewed their police oaths. Our loud shouts of slogans were stunning and inspiring.
Through our three days of study, we came to fully recognize the severity of the current international security situation. The bloody facts shown by a historical photo exhibition shocked us, and awoke us to the grim reality of the "third forces" in Xinjiang and the severity of the struggle [against it]. Islamic extremists have produced numerous case of violent terrorism in Xinjiang, and the vast majority of those they persecute are ordinary people. They use knives, axes, ramming with vehicles, homemade bombs and every other sort of tactic to commit outrageous crimes, which can easily be called inhuman. Through our training, we truly understood that "Xinjiang is a war zone" and also truly felt the meaning of the phrase "living in Xinjiang is the greatest fortune."
Quickly Acclimating and Integrating into Local Life and Work
On September 7th, the brief training ended and we headed straight to the front lines—the Hotan Prefecture of Xinjiang. At the Public Security Bureau of Hotan Prefecture, we rested. That night, us 12 members of the Chira County group, led by the director Wang Gangning, rushed to our battle positions—the Chira County Detention Center.
Chira County is located in southwest Xinjiang, at the northern foot of the Kunlun Mountains and the southern edge of the Taklimakan Desert. The population is under 160,000 and more than 99% are Uyghur. Chira County covers an area of 31,688 sq. km., with long distances between the towns and villages. It borders many countries. Sandstorms are a harsh feature of nature and the annual rainfall is less than 100 mm here, the last place in the motherland to see the sunset.
Our group of 12, the Chira Xinjiang Aid Team, arrived at the Chira County Detention Center at 8:00 that night and were welcomed by all the police and staff* of the detention center. But I realized all of these officers were dejected and dispirited. I wondered how our Xinjiang counterparts could be like this—how can we deal with violent terrorists here in such a state? Then I realized that this was the result of their overly intensive work. After our welcome, the leader said they had prepared a few dishes for us. We went to the cafeteria and found that there were only three small plates on the table: a plate of cold-tossed cucumber, a plate of cold-tossed shredded carrots, a plate of vinegar bean sprouts, plus a plate of steamed buns and small bowl of boiled water. This is the hardship we experienced when we arrived in Xinjiang. According to the director, the finances of the center are managed by the [presumably: Public Security] Bureau with payments transferred from the central government. Control [of finances] is very tight. All expenses in the office must be signed by the director for reimbursement. Vegetables are not produced locally there either, so you usually can't get cucumber or bean sprouts. Though these small dishes may not have seemed like anything, they were specially prepared for us, and can be considered high-standard.
* Staff here is 警务工作人, lit. 'police affairs worker', a term that does not appear to be a common among Chinese police forces. It seems to be related specifically to more local-level Xinjiang police, if we take this Zhihu (like Quora or Yahoo! Answers) to mean anything.
There were 12 official police officers in the detention center. Some police officers were left with scars or other health issues while suppressing riots and capturing security threats [i.e. those accused of endangering public security]. Some police officers also suffered from various illnesses due to discomfort from natural environment, and there were some who returned to work immediately after [medical] operations. Since 2014, there had been an increasing number of security threats, and the detention center has exceeded its normal capacity by more than ten times. Because of the serious shortage of police, detainees could not be used for work; all the work inside and outside the detention center had to be done by police. The long-term, continuous operation under such a heavy workload exhausted the police physically and mentally. The police there were remarkably able to endure hardship and such hard work, unimaginable to inland police.
For three months, I strictly followed the "Henan Oversight Police Xinjiang Aid Team Management Regulations," cooperating and exchanging [views, etc.] with colleagues with the mind of a new officer, strictly working according to the requirements of our work unit, and setting myself as a "host" and not a "passing guest." [I] concentrated my mind on doing the work, and my energy on concrete, practical matters. [I] gave play to my subjective agency and actively initiated my work. [I] consciously did what was needed but did not exceed boundaries, participated but did not interfere, and worked but did not just make work. In my life, I soberly recognized my everyday words and actions, [because] how one conducts themselves not only reflects their moral knowledge and quality upbringing. To that end, I was constantly wary of relaxing the demands I had for at any time or place. [I was] self-disciplined and gave it my all to adapt to the local environment and way of life. I put my entire heart and mind into this new collective and obeyed my superiors plans unconditionally. During my free time, if something came up for Uyghur colleagues I regularly would take their place without complaint. I really earned the trust and support of everyone, and I am very proud of myself.
Working Hard in the Face of Difficulty In the past three months, I have been involved in all the jobs at Chira Detention Center: transport, detention, patrolling, monitoring, meals, cleaning, labor [i.e. detainees' forced labor assignment, detailed below], court guard, etc. Throughout the process, I tried my best to complete the various tasks assigned by leadership. The work intensity is incomparable to the inland. [We worked] fifteen hours a day, [even] up to seventeen or eighteen hours. We transported 150-200 detainees* a day, sometimes up to 300 or 400. My rough estimate is everyone walked at least 20 kilometers per day. Some days there were several tens of detainees, and on heavier days up to one or two hundred. The [number of] detentions could range from dozens of people a day to as many as one or two hundred. As a court guard [I] transported people up to 100 times a day because our superiors required we assist the case management units 24/7, no matter what.
* i.e. escorted to a hearing, etc. "Person-times" here in Chinese here is renci 人次. It's used to count the flow of people—for example, a subway might be used by "one million people per day" in English, but in Chinese, it would more accurately be used "one million person-times" because people can use it more than once in the same day. Thus, the number of detainees might be half that if they are being transported to a place and back (i.e. one person being transported two renci). Previously, I had mistranslated this as 'detained 150-200 people' per day.
Once, for a labor project [i.e. prison labor: detainees being transported elsewhere for some project] in northern Xinjiang, the military police, tactical police,* and overseer civilian police were on full alert. There were over 2000 one-time laborers sent out on dozens of buses throughout the night. The overseer police had to ensure the safety of the military and tactical police, and also the absolutely safety of the laborers and of all of the vehicles. Because the route was long, no one dared slack off or relax. Except to refuel or change drivers, the vehicles were never to stop. If you were hungry, you ate some nan [a flatbread] and if you were thirsty you drank a bottle of water. Every half hour the overseer police had to report to one another on walkie-talkies, including a headcount and on vehicle safety. This went on for four days and three nights until we reached our destination. After all the prisoners were handed over one by one according to their assigned prisons, we finally could put our minds at ease. After all the vehicle personnel returned to the detention center, the labor project was successfully completed. These tasks are normalized in Xinjiang, but they're unimaginable inland.
* Tactical police, lit. special police (特警). A common translation is 'SWAT', but that might overstate their training/position to a Western reader. As described by Tynen 2019, pp. 55-56: "The shequ 'police officers' were technically not considered official 'police' and had the status more of a security guard. They wore uniforms that said SWAT in English with the Chinese translation 'special police.' The 'SWAT' were on the lowest strata of security personnel in the city."
One time on patrol, I found a suspect sitting in a shop, quietly messing with his legcuffs. I immediately told the other detainees to check his legcuffs, and the one on his left foot had already released! I immediately notified the correctional team to handle it and eliminated a major safety incident in time.
The auxiliary police and police staff who have been working with me are all relatively new. While studying their good working habits, I was diligent in observation and proactive thinking. [I] successively discovered that after lights were turned off in the morning, the solitary detention room couldn't be seen on patrol; that the police and police staff surreptitiously loosened the shackles of detainees; and that the hospital sick ward and the monitoring room had poor communication and the units' risk management personnel were not clearly [delineated]. I reported this to the Xinjiang Aid Small Group and it the leaders energetically received [my report] and fixed the problem, [and thus we] eliminated loopholes in a timely manner, and eliminated hidden dangers, and received unanimous praise from local leaders at all levels. I was later appraised as an Advanced Xinjiang Aid Work Individual by the Public Security Bureau of Hotan.
Fully Carrying Forward with the Spirit of "Outstanding Endurance, Outstanding Dedication, Outstanding Fighting, and Outstanding Sacrifice" of the Xinjiang Police
During my three months working in Xinjiang Aid, due to the extremely dry desert climate coupled with my age—[with] many years of diseases such as hemorrhoids, herniated lumbar discs, carotid artery plaques—and the local food of half-baked beef and mutton, few vegetables, and extreme spiciness such that I could not eat. I regularly was afflicted with bloody stool, insufficient blood supply to the brain, and back and leg pain. I often watched the surveillance cameras with bloodshot eyes, red and swollen legs from patrolling and escorting, and was unable to straigten my waist when I got up in the mornings. I endured all of these in silence, never complaining or getting tired, and kept moving forward. Because I always kept in mind my Henan Public Security Bureau, my Jiyuan Public Security Bureau—I could not bring shame to the Henan Public Security Bureau or Jiyuan Public Security Bureau! During my three months working in Xinjiang Aid, I truly experienced what hardship, what patience, and what dedication are. I have truly witnessed the Xinjiang Public Security police standing on the front line of stability maintenance, constantly experiencing trials of life and death, a baptism by blood and fire. It is impossible to imagine the huge workload in Xinjiang is without experiencing it. Continuously working and overtime until two or three in the morning is a common occurrence. Going ten days, half a month, or even a full month without a day off is a common occurrence. The difficult conditions, good work habits, and high sense of responsibility allowed me deeply feel the Xinjiang police' boundless loyalty to the motherland and unparalleled passion for public security.
This experience left my body in pain, but it also left my spirit with a precious wealth of life [experience]. After I return to work, I will continue to carry forward the Xinjiang police spirit of "outstanding endurance, outstanding dedication, outstanding fighting, and outstanding sacrifice", and earnestly do a good job of police oversight under the new circumstances, meeting new challenges with high morale and a conviction for victory.