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HOTAN, China — On the edge of a desert in far western China, an imposing
building sits behind a fence topped with barbed wire. Large red characters
on the facade urge people to learn Chinese, study law and acquire job
skills. Guards make 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 remove any devotion to Islam.

Abdusalam Muhemet, 41, said the police detained him for reciting a verse of
the Quran at a funeral. After two months in a nearby camp, he and more than
30 others were ordered to renounce their past lives. Mr. Muhemet said he
went along but quietly seethed.

“That was not a place for getting rid of extremism,” he recalled. “That was
a place that will breed vengeful feelings and erase Uighur identity.”

Though limited to China’s western region of Xinjiang, it is the country’s
most sweeping 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
an iron grip in Xinjiang, a region almost as big as Alaska where more than
half the population of 24 million belongs to Muslim ethnic minority groups
Most are Uighurs, whose religion, language and culture, along with a
history of independence movements and resistance to Chinese rule, have long
unnerved Beijing.

After a succession of violent antigovernment attacks reached a peak in 2014
the Communist Party chief, Xi Jinping, sharply escalated the crackdown,
orchestrating an unforgiving drive to turn ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim
minorities into loyal citizens and supporters of the party.

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