The Sunday Telegraph

China showcases its vision of Xinjiang while its persecutio­n of Uyghurs enters a new phase

- By Sophia Yan CHINA CORRESPOND­ENT in Kashgar, Xinjiang

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’

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 ??  ?? Some parts of the security perimeter have been dismantled
Some parts of the security perimeter have been dismantled
 ??  ?? Indents in the post show where razor wire used to be attached
Indents in the post show where razor wire used to be attached
 ??  ?? Prison bars have evidently been removed from a suspected reeducatio­n camp
Prison bars have evidently been removed from a suspected reeducatio­n camp
 ??  ?? Uyghurs scan a QR code in order to enter a food market in Kashgar, Xinjiang
Uyghurs scan a QR code in order to enter a food market in Kashgar, Xinjiang

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