The camps in Xinjiang, China, made global headlines this month. The exact number of members of the Muslim Uighur and Kazakh ethnic minorities imprisoned there is unknown. Some estimate hundreds of thousands, others a million. United Nation bodies and international human rights organizations have called on the Chinese government to release those detained. But as shocking as these reports are, indefinite detention on such a massive scale in China is not new. For years, centers across China have detained hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens—not on religious grounds, but for drug use. Understanding this process helps situate Xinjiang’s camps inside China’s larger carceral system.
In China, drug use is technically decriminalized; under Chinese law, it is an administrative, not a criminal, offense. China, however, is not Portugal, where drug use was fully decriminalized in 2001 and where the police help those who use drugs find appropriate medical and social care. While the Chinese government funds methadone maintenance therapy and needle exchanges, police still detain thousands of people every year for using drugs.
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