The Sunday Telegraph
China showcases its vision of Xinjiang while its persecution of Uyghurs enters a new phase
Sunlight dappled over a massive compound surrounded by high walls, 20 minutes outside the centre of Kashgar, a city on the western edge of China.
Iron bars that covered windows of the many buildings had been stripped. Workers had begun taking down layers of fortification, including barbed wire and a perimeter fence.
Outside, sheep thronged a newly exposed patch of grass as workers had begun removing layers of fortification, including barbed wire and a perimeter fence. Two herders tried to move them along as armoured police and military vans rumbled down the road.
Inside, however, groups of detainees could be heard shouting.
This is one of the hundreds of detention centres in China’s Xinjiang region, where researchers estimate more than one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic Muslim minorities have been detained since 2017. The Sunday Telegraph travelled to this facility during a nine-day investigation in Xinjiang. Its scaledback security forms part of growing evidence China may be entering a new phase in its persecution of the Uyghurs.
China at first denied the existence of internment camps before admitting in 2018 these centres – allegedly for vocational training – were necessary for rehabilitating would-be terrorists. The following year, officials said everyone had “graduated” and were no longer being detained – but didn’t say what happened to them afterwards.
The country is now attempting to make the region look palatable at a time when international pressure has grown into allegations of genocide.
Visible military and armed police presence has been curtailed in some parts of Xinjiang compared to previous visits by the Telegraph. A few security checkpoints on roads that connect city centres to villages or cross county lines have been stripped down. Ones that remain operate under the guise of public health as coronavirus temperature check stations.
In Kashgar, clusters of facial recognition surveillance cameras have even been painted a mustard brown in an effort to camouflage them.
As some people have been allowed to return home from the camps, urban centres and rural areas are repopulating after having been deserted when entire communities were interned.
But being on the other side of the barbed wire fences doesn’t quite mean freedom. Everyone remains under the watchful gaze of the Chinese authorities via low and hi-tech options – informants who keep tabs on the community, digital surveillance, and other forms of tracking in the name of epidemic prevention.
Mandatory mobile apps – designed by local governments and justified as coronavirus contact tracing – require Chinese to register travel history and detailed personal information, including their ethnicity, yet another way to track movements. The programs were unable to register foreigners with passport numbers – a reason police at checkpoints barred Telegraph journalists from certain areas.
Former detainees have also told the Telegraph of being required to regularly report to local officials – anything deemed out of line could risk detention.
In Urumqi, going home means scanning a Chinese ID card and submitting to a facial recognition scan at the entry gate. All visitors must do the same, allowing the authorities to map individuals’ movements.
Police stations are on every corner, including ones attached to schools – often just a few steps apart – with teams wielding riot shields, batons and guns posted on the street. At times, officers are tucked into shops, now turned into local posts. Every few dozen metres circular blue signs designate a number for the location – used to identify places when people report “suspicious” behaviour to the police.
‘A few security checkpoints have been stripped down. Ones that remain operate under the guise of public health as Covid temperature check stations’
Knives at butcher stalls and fruit shops are chained, with QR codes etched on the metal, to ensure that the authorities can track every blade.
Authorities have in recent months banned the labelling of products as “halal” in Uyghur shops, a shopkeeper in Urumqi told the Telegraph.
Accounts from former detainees, Uyghurs abroad with relatives in Xinjiang and academics indicate that people are being shuttled from internment camps into other parts of a vast, coercive, state-run system.
“It shows both the confidence the government has in the breadth and success of its crackdown in eliminating dissent in that it is releasing people,” said Nathan Ruser, a researcher with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank.
Once out of the internment camps, “there’s basically two tracks”, said Sean Roberts, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University. “One, you can go into a residential labour programme … or two, formal charges are brought up against you and you’re put in jail.”
He said: “The mass incarceration and mass internment, combined with the ubiquitous surveillance – its main purpose is to instil an atmosphere of fear that makes any sort of resistance to state policies almost impossible.”
Many imprisoned are intellectuals – imams, professors, poets, musicians – who had sought to revive, preserve and disseminate Uyghur culture and history. People are being convicted – sometimes for life – for “things the government interpret as ‘extremist’ or ‘terrorist,’ such as praying at home, having the Koran, or teaching religion to your children”, said Rune Steenberg, a Xinijang specialist and postdoctoral researcher at Palacky University Olomouc in the Czech Republic.
In March, the UK, US, Canada and EU announced coordinated sanctions against Chinese officials for its ongoing crackdown in Xinjiang on Uyghurs and other primarily Muslim ethnic minorities.
China, in response, has taken a number of ambassadors and senior diplomats from countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Ukraine and Cuba on visits to Xinjiang to tout its narrative.
“The world’s attention has been directed to Xinjiang,” said Steenberg. “The Chinese want to portray it in a certain way; they’re trying to make reality – at least how it looks on the surface – closer to what they are presenting in their propaganda.”
There’s never quite an opportunity to forget that the Party is watching. In rural villages, state broadcasts run on a loop and over closed mosques red banners hang proclaiming “love the Party, love the country”.
“This propaganda attempt – portraying Xinjiang as a peaceful and harmonic place – it’s not just aimed abroad,” said Steenberg. “It’s also very much aimed at the Uyghurs themselves to try to bring down anti-government sentiment.”
China’s ministry of foreign affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Few attended midday prayers anymore on Friday in Urumqi at a state-sanctioned mosque; showing up means crossing through layers of security. Many – taxi drivers, waiters, shopkeepers, hoteliers – when asked how life fared in Xinjiang, would mumble that everything was fine even while shaking their heads no.
One street vendor selling socks and vitamins responded automatically: “I was in re-education for three years,” he said. “I learned Mandarin, and that the Communist Party is great.”
‘Going home means scanning an ID card and submitting to a facial recognition scan’