“At the police station I had to empty my pockets and hand over my belt and laces. Then they sat me down on an iron chair and started to ask questions.”
The Chinese border guard jerks his head toward a conveyor. With hands raised, I stand on the narrow belt, which pulls me slowly through a large, grey machine. There is a hum as I’m scanned from head to toe. Soon, the guards will snoop through my luggage. They will examine the photos and messages on my phone, and open documents on my computer. They will scan my fingerprints, photograph my face. And then they will ask questions: Why do I want to enter? What is my occupation? Do I have friends or acquaintances I plan to visit? After half an hour, the interrogation is over. I find myself in the glaring sunlight standing on the street.
Xinjiang, western China. This is the land through which traders once passed while travelling the Silk Road, transporting gold and glass to the Middle Kingdom in exchange for silk and porcelain to bring back. For thousands of years, these oases connected the East with the West, a bridge for goods, inventions and religions. Today, this area of desert more than six times the size of the UK is a testing ground for a surveillance state more technically advanced than anywhere else on earth: a dystopia of high-tech controls and police repression. It is a place where people are spied on by the state around the clock. Cameras record every path and every meeting. State-appointed minders spend weeks in the homes of families and even sleep in their beds. It is a place where everyone is under suspicion. A beard or traditional clothing? WhatsApp, Facebook, or other prohibited smartphone apps? Regular prayer? Frequent trips to the petrol station? In Xinjiang, any of these are reason enough to disappear into a vast and secret system of re-education camps and prisons.
“They interrogated me for days without interruption. At some point I fell asleep. Then I heard the call for prayer but I pretended to be sleeping. It’s a trick. When you respond to the calls, they say you’re a religious extremist.”
The city of Korgas sits on the edge of the Tianshan mountains, a border town between Kazakhstan and China. Along the six-lane highway, skyscrapers and building cranes dot the sky. Two thousand miles from the booming coast, Beijing has big plans here. Korgas will be a transport hub for trade between Central Asia and Europe. For billions of yuan, they are building the largest dry dock for containerised freight in the world – a showcase for China’s global economic power. But the city looks as if it’s in the midst of a war. Entrances to buildings are blocked by anti-tank barriers made of steel and barbed wire. At crossroads, military posts are guarded by machine guns. Police cars race through deserted streets, sirens screaming. Only a few traders and travellers cross the border. The journey to China’s west is too dangerous.In just one and a half years – and hidden from the eyes of the world – China has built in Xinjiang the world’s largest network of internment camps. According to a US Congress report, this is the “largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world”.
Xinjiang means “new frontier”. For a long time, its remote deserts and mountains marked the natural limits of imperial China’s sphere of influence. Their oases were inhabited mainly by Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic people whose language is related to Turkish. There were also Kazakhs, Mongols, Kyrgyz and Tajiks – a melting pot of languages, cultures and religions. In 1949, Mao Zedong’s troops occupied the region. Xinjiang became a province of the newly-formed People’s Republic of China and later received the status of an autonomous region. In the following decades, Beijing’s communists sent millions of Han Chinese as workers and peasants to this region once primarily populated by Muslims. State enterprises began to exploit its rich mineral resources. More Chinese came. Today in many places, the 11 million Uyghurs and 1.6 million ethnic Kazakhs have become a minority in their own homeland.
In front of the Korgas bus station, policemen in black uniforms guard the entrance. Every traveller has to place their identity card on an electronic reader. A camera with facial recognition checks the biometric data. Only after a green bar appears are you allowed to pass. Each passenger is checked three times – at the ticket counter, at the entrance to the waiting area, and on the bus. Each trip is registered and recorded by the authorities.
With a black handheld scanner that looks like a large smartphone, one of the policemen takes a picture of me and uploads it. From now on, I am registered in Xinjiang’s surveillance system – a system that controls all aspects of people’s lives. It monitors phone calls, emails and chats. It records what people buy, which websites they visit, how much electricity they consume, when and where they visit friends. As it turns out over the following 13 days, the system reaches into every corner of life. In every street, every alley – even in the remotest of villages – surveillance cameras follow people’s lives. They are installed on metal bridges above streets, on house walls, on street lamps, on kiosks. They stare at you in shops, restaurants, offices, schools, mosques, government offices, hospitals – they watch in every taxi and bus. The state has millions of eyes here.
“I had been disloyal to the Fatherland, they said. They cuffed my hands and feet, and pulled a black sack over my head. Then they took me to the camp.”
After several miles, police stop our bus for a security inspection. Four Han Chinese passengers are allowed to remain seated. All the others – about a dozen Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and me as a foreigner – have to disembark and are directed by uniformed men to a newly built hall. There the procedure begins again: ID and passport control. Facial and full-body scans. A woman and a man have to hand over their cell phones. The officers connect it to a small device that downloads photos, messages, chat histories and call logs. The pattern is the same everywhere in Xinjiang, and the controls are directed exclusively against the Muslim population. The police state deems them a security risk. In the morning when leaving their homes, while riding the bus, while working, upon entering the supermarket, or just on the street – people are constantly being checked. Any day for a Uyghur or a Kazakh – every day, in fact – is a series of inspections and police harassment.
The Chinese government explains these so-called security measures as protection against terrorism. For years, riots and attacks have been mounting, unsettling the Han Chinese population. In 2014, men armed with knives stormed a railway station in Kunming (Yunnan province) killing 31 people. A year earlier, Uyghur suicide attackers steered a car into a crowd in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. In 2009, the Xinjiang regional capital Urumqi witnessed mass protests and a violent uprising that were brutally crushed by China’s military. Nearly 200 people died.
Beijing blames Uyghur terrorist groups for the attacks, saying that Uyghurs from Xinjiang have been fighting alongside the Islamic State in Syria. “There is no doubt that intense control contributes to the peace in Xinjiang today,” writes the Global Times, the state newspaper. It is preventing the province from becoming a “Chinese Syria”.
Many observers see it differently. They say the riots are an expression of growing desperation among Uyghurs. Since the 1990s, Beijing has continued to curtail the rights of minorities while repressing their culture. In schools today, children are taught almost exclusively in Mandarin. Teachers are forbidden to speak Uyghur – even during breaks and parent-teacher talks. Women are no longer allowed to wear veils covering their faces. Imams have been arrested, mosques closed. Travel abroad has become almost impossible. Since 2016, the authorities have been collecting the passports of Uyghurs and Kazakhs. New controls and safety regulations are continually limiting people’s lives. In some places, knives can only be sold after the buyer’s ID number is engraved on the blade – protection against possible knife attacks. Twenty-nine Muslim names were banned as “extremist”, among them common names such as Mohammed and Fatima. Children with these names have to be renamed.
Beijing calls the campaign a “people’s war on terrorism”. In reality, it’s a war against its own people. As its highest ranking general in this war, China’s Communist Party sent party secretary Chen Quanguo to Xinjiang in 2016. Chen had previously earned a reputation as a hardliner in Tibet. Under his rule, Xinjiang has developed into a surveillance state whose scale and cruelty is unrivalled even in authoritarian China. In his first year the police advertised for 90,000 new staff. Hundreds of thousands of new surveillance cameras were installed. In 2017, police and security spending doubled to 58 billion yuan, or about £6.6 billion. Some districts spend a tenth of their budgets on surveillance.
“The camp is located in the Altai area next to a prison. A huge new building for a few thousand inmates. I was forced to strip naked. Then they examined me and shaved my hair. I was brought to a room with 16 people and a hole in the floor for a toilet. As the newcomer, I had to sleep next to the toilet.”
Gulja, Northern Xinjiang. The smell of roasted lamb skewers and chili noodles float in the air. Chinese pop songs blast from the department stores on Liberation Street. Posters promote cell phones and facial creams. At first glance, Gulja, populated mostly by ethnic Kazakhs, looks like a normal small Chinese town – until you notice the security guards with wooden clubs the size of a baseball bat standing in front of markets and at the intersections. Or the security gates in front of shops, restaurants and hotels. To enter, you have to walk through metal detectors and X-ray machines that check for weapons and explosives.
There are newly-built police stations every few hundred yards, painted in blue and white. In front of them, policemen carry assault rifles, batons and shields. Thousands of these neighborhood police stations have been built over the past two years. They are part of the comprehensive “grid for the administration of society”, under which the people are carefully monitored. Each police station is responsible for about 500 residents who are also expected to spy on and denounce each other. Red and blue warning lights flash day and night. From the evening on, they submerge the city in a surreal, flickering glow.
“The daily routine was always the same. Get up at six, have breakfast, make our beds. Then lessons: memorise the results of the Party congress; sing the national anthem and Party songs. In the evening, we had to write essays on what we would do better in the future.”
Dolkun Tursun was in his apartment in Gulja late one night, video chatting with his two adult daughters, when he heard loud knocking. “Now they are here to take me away,” were the last words his daughters heard. Then the screen went black. This was in October 2017. Since then, the then 51-year-old has been detained. “We don’t know how he is doing,” says his wife, Gülnur Beikut, at our first meeting. She wears a blue dress; a simple gold necklace hangs around her neck. The interview with her and with all other family members of camp inmates has to take place at an unnamed location outside China. Anyone who talks to a foreigner in Xinjiang – or even just makes a call abroad – risks being arrested immediately and disappearing into a camp.
Tursun is a member of the Chinese Communist Party who worked his way up from maths teacher to deputy director of city markets in Gulja, an administrative post. Like tens of thousands of ethnic Kazakhs, he moved to neighbouring Kazakhstan in 2011 after retiring – and because life there is cheaper. The family kept an apartment in Gulja. Last March he received a call from his previous employer who had questions about his pension. He should come to Xinjiang for two days to discuss them. “He thought it was just a formality,” his wife explains. But when he arrived in Gulja, authorities immediately took his passport. Officials accused him of having WhatsApp installed on his phone. Tursun had to spend 14 months in a in re-education camp. Since December he has been under de facto house arrest in Gulja. His family is hoping he will be allowed to return home.
There is no formal charge, no trial, no judge. Most people in Xinjiang are picked up at night or early in the morning. In some cases, the families are told which camp their relatives are in. Others disappear without trace. Nobody knows how long they will be gone.
More than a dozen families from Xinjiang tell me about the internment of their relatives. Many show photos or copies of an ID. The pictures show the faces of fathers, sons, uncles or grandfathers who have disappeared in the past few weeks or months, arrested on arbitrary pretexts. Their only offence: not being Han Chinese.
Erbolat Savut, a 33-year-old clothing merchant, was working when police arrested him. “They accused him of getting too much petrol,” says his brother, Bolatzhan Savut, after Erbolat has spent half a year in a camp. Even after his release he is not allowed to leave the county. Islam Madinam, a retired electrician who used to work at China Telecom, was taken away by authorities from his home in Tarbaghtay county. The authorities had already installed surveillance cameras in the apartment, says his daughter, Kurmangül Slamkyzy. “They threatened my mother, too, saying that she would also be sent to a camp if she talked about his arrest.” Bolat Razdykham, 57, was recovering from a cancer operation on his larynx when security forces took him away from the hospital in Urumqi. He has family abroad. The charge was disloyalty to China. For months the daughter, Liza Bolat, did not even know where her parents were being held. In December they were suddenly released.
The extent of the mass arrests is hard to imagine. Adrian Zenz, a German researcher, estimates that one in nine Uyghurs and Kazakhs between the ages of 20 and 79 is currently being detained. Citing interviews with local cadres, foreign broadcaster Radio Free Asia reports that camps in some regions have fixed quotas for people admitted. In many villages, the fields are not cultivated because there are not enough men left. All over Xinjiang, new children’s homes are being built for those whose parents have both been detained.
For a long time, China denied the existence of the camps. As late as August 2018, Beijing’s representative to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Hu Lianhe, said: “There is no such thing as a re-education camp.” To safeguard against terrorism only “security and social management” had been strengthened in Xinjiang. Inquiries from the UN Commission on individual cases were rejected by the Chinese delegation as “not fact-based”.
Meanwhile, China has changed its PR strategy. Beijing does not deny the existence of camps any more, but calls them vocational training centres. State television shows happily singing Uyghurs attending classes for their professional education. A new law attempts to give the institutions a legal appearance. “Its purpose is to get rid of the environment and soil that breeds terrorism and religious extremism and stop violent terrorist activities happening,” says Xinjiang´s governor, Shohrat Zakir. China has so far denied human rights organisations access to the internment camps. The Chinese population is also supposed not to notice the situation in Xinjiang. Censors systematically erase any information about re-education camps from the internet.
“Every day, we had to renounce the Muslim faith and confirm that we respect the laws of China. Before every meal, we chorused: Long live Xi Jinping!”
At a late hour in the Jade Capital hotel, I am called out of bed. An officer from the security police is waiting at reception. He wants to know why I’m in town. He takes a picture of me, a kind of mug shot where I have to hold my passport open under my face. Although I am officially travelling as a tourist, I am suspicious. Most hotels in Xinjiang are not allowed to accept foreign guests any more and each must be registered with the authorities. In the city of Aksu, a later stop on my journey, plainclothes security officers will follow me for hours. At the oasis city of Yarkant, policemen will force me to erase pictures from my camera just moments after witnessing a lesson in political re-education being conducted in a side street. Guarded by security personnel with wooden clubs, 200 Uyghur men and women sat on the ground in the alley singing a song with the chorus “I love China. I love my fatherland”. As I approach, the guards immediately jump at me and try to grab my camera. “You can only take pictures of official sights,” a police officer later explains. My trip could become “very unpleasant”, he warns.
China wants to prevent any information about Xinjiang from leaking to the outside world. The internet in the region is even more censored than in the rest of the country. Foreign email and messenger providers are blocked, along with much of the global internet. Only Chinese apps like the messaging service WeChat or the navigation app Baidu Maps are allowed. With these, the authorities can read and monitor everything in real time. The data collected, along with information from surveillance cameras, account activity, profiles, shopping behaviour and health documents, is put into the so-called Integrated Joint Operations Platform, Human Rights Watch reports. Artificial intelligence and self-learning algorithms systematically analyse the data. As soon as they detect any suspicious activity – even deviations in shopping behaviour – a message is automatically sent to the relevant police station. In certain places, Uyghurs are required to load the monitoring app “Jingwang” (“clean web”) on their smartphone so all communication can be controlled. Under the guise of free health checks (“medical examinations for all”), authorities in cities, villages, and even schools collect genetic material and voice samples from the Muslim population. All of this ends up in the database.
“Xinjiang is a test laboratory for China’s digital surveillance state,” says Zenz, the China researcher. Many new technologies, such as big data, iris scans, and identification via speaker recognition are being tested in Xinjiang before being deployed across the country. The next step is the export of the technology to other authoritarian states. Governments in Pakistan, Malaysia and Zimbabwe are already using Chinese surveillance technology. “In a way, it’s a high-tech version of the Cultural Revolution,” Zenz says. An attempt to gain total control over the lives and thoughts of individuals.
Residents of Xinjiang are categorised using an official questionnaire that people have to fill out. Points are deducted for anyone who is male and of military age, who has relatives abroad, has travelled to one of 26 specific countries, is unemployed, prays several times a day, or is from a minority. The system considers them untrustworthy. “You get a credit when you participate in the weekly flag ceremony and sing the national anthem,” says a shop owner in Gulja.
“Every morning we had to fold our blankets like in the military. If the guard was not satisfied, you had to start all over again. Once, I threw my blanket in anger. Two guards took me away. They brought me to a room with iron hinges attached to one wall. They strapped me down and tied me up with a long, iron chain. After three hours I was in so much pain that I just screamed, ‘I’ll do anything you want!’ After that, I never dared to rebel.”
The mosque in the oasis city of Kuqa, built in the 16th century, is the second largest in Xinjiang. The entrance is blocked with barbed wire and metal barriers painted red and white. There is no one inside except for two guards with batons. Dozens of surveillance cameras are mounted on the buildings and walls, monitoring every corner of the mosque. The prayer halls, big enough for 3,000, are empty. Ghostly silence. During my almost two-week journey though Xinjiang, I do not meet a single person praying. Not once do I hear the call of a muezzin. Any form of religious practice is considered suspicious. Hikvision, the market leader in surveillance cameras with headquarters in the eastern city of Hangzhou, recently received an order to equip 967 mosques in Xinjiang with high-resolution video cameras providing automatic facial recognition.
In the old town of Kuqa, I meet people loading their belongings onto trucks. The district near People’s Street with narrow alleys and Uyghur homes is scheduled to be demolished in the coming days. “We got money and a new apartment,” says a resident. Not far away, excavators are already digging the foundations for new skyscrapers. Quarter by quarter, over recent years traditional settlements have been demolished and replaced by new neighbourhoods. Entire cities have been destroyed.
Teams of party officials and policemen regularly visit the homes of Muslim families to eradicate “extremist behaviour” and “tumours”, according to official reports. Fanghuiju is the name of the campaign. If a Uyghur man does not drink alcohol or fasts for Ramadan, he is already under suspicion. Another campaign is called Jieduirenqin, or “becoming a family”. The campaign forces Muslim families to host a Han Chinese guest for a time in their home. The Chinese guests are expected to teach the Muslims Mandarin and to sing the national anthem with them, all the while spying on their family life. 1.6 million families, mostly Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs, have already hosted such a family spy. If the Muslim family does not show enough patriotism, or has a Koran at home, they are later visited by state security.
Most Han Chinese living in Xinjiang seem to endorse the harsh crackdown on minorities. The distrust between the ethnic groups runs deep. And so do the prejudices. “The cities are safe now,” says a Chinese teacher on the train to Yarkant, adding: “The Uyghurs have four or five children and don’t care about education. That’s the problem.” In southern Hotan, which has grown into a modern high-rise metropolis in recent years, a shop owner says of his Uyghur customers: “We can improve the infrastructure and build up the economy. But raising the level of the people here is much more difficult.”
In today’s Xinjiang, there is no debate on China’s minority policy. One of the few public voices to question Beijing’s policy was Zhang Haitao, a Han Chinese living in Urumqi. “The so-called ethnic or religious problems are basically a human rights problem,” he wrote on social media. “It is shameless that China’s communists act as saviours and declare that they have freed the Uyghurs from poverty.” Zhang was arrested and put on trial. The two quoted sentences were cited as proof of his alleged “incitement to undermine state power”. His sentence: 19 years in prison.
“At night we had to alternate keeping watch so that no one tried to kill himself. One of the inmates tried: he wanted to hang himself using his underwear. As punishment, he got a week with his hands and feet in shackles.”
For centuries Kashgar was the centre of Uyghur culture. Today, a giant statue of Mao Zedong watches over the streets and markets near People’s Square. The once magnificent oasis city has become a popular tourist destination, mainly for Chinese tour groups who cheerfully roam about the old town. Do they wonder about the steel-helmeted guards who process the visitors at the many checkpoints? Han Chinese pass to the right, where they can go unchecked. Uyghurs and other minorities go to the left – waiting in long lines to be checked by police.
Xinjiang’s re-education camps are a well-kept secret. Their location cannot be found on any map. No official pictures exist. Most of them are located in the remote countryside, out of reach for foreign travellers. Many of the camps are disguised as schools, hospitals or companies.
No one knows exactly how many people are currently being held. Adrian Zenz, who researches at the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal in Germany, has evaluated hundreds of documents from local authorities and other information on the internet. He estimates that there are up to 1,300 re-education camps in Xinjiang, where “between several hundred thousand and just over one million” people are being detained. United Nations experts and human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, have made similar estimates.
“At some point I could not stand it anymore. One night, when I was supposed to be on guard, I ran against the wall with my head. Again and again. I did not want to live any more.”
A high wall in the north of Kashgar is secured with double rolls of barbed wire. Guards with rifles stand along the road. On the other side of the fenced entrance gate, Alsatians pace. “The glorious light of the party enlightens the Tianshan Mountains,” reads a propaganda slogan. The lanes around the sprawling grounds are also exceptionally well-guarded. Surveillance cameras watch every entrance of the surrounding alleys. A sign next to the main entrance reads: “School of Commerce and Finance.” In fact, the facility is a re-education camp.
But even a digital surveillance state leaves traces. Adrian Zenz and other foreign researchers and human rights activists are searching the Chinese internet for tender bids from local authorities for security technology and construction work that give an indication of the location and size of the camps. They study applications and CVs of former security guards from which a number of camps per district can be calculated. They scour chat groups and local media reports to find hidden clues.
“All of these things are information I can use,” says Shawn Zhang, a law student in Vancouver. Zhang has managed to uncover more than three dozen secret facilities. Using Google Earth satellite imagery, he can track the construction of warehouses and even see barbed wire fences. The satellite images are the most definitive clue to their existence. Mostly through intermediaries in other countries, Zhang also receives information from residents, former prisoners and even guards. One of the re-education camps he uncovered is the Kashgar School of Commerce and Finance. A second camp he identified in Kashgar is also heavily guarded during my visit. The sign at the entrance says “Psychiatric Hospital”.
“I woke up in a hospital. Two policemen were standing by my bed. At first I thought that I had to go back to the camp and cried. But then they loosened my handcuffs. I’m free, they told me. I could hardly believe it.”
Shawn Zhang is a 29-year-old Han Chinese, born in Zhejiang province, who studied in Beijing. He became interested in the situation in Xinjiang because of Western media reports. “A massive secret detention system? I didn’t believe it. There is so much fake news,” he says. So he sat down at his computer and started researching using his own sources and material. The results shocked him: “The more I looked, the clearer it became that these re-education camps really do exist.” Zhang has paid a high price for his commitment. Because his name is apparently on China’s wanted list, he cannot go back home. Most recently, Zhang applied for permanent residence in Canada.
Do Beijing’s leaders see the irony? The same digital technologies with which China is suppressing minorities are helping to uncover their secret network of internment camps. And of all people, one of their own, a Han Chinese who has never been to Xinjiang, is providing the evidence to the world.
“They presented me with several documents: a statement that I have to keep everything secret, one saying that I will have nothing to do with religion any more, and another one saying that I will not charge for damages. I signed everything.”
Kairat Samarkhan, who is 30, was released in February after three months and 25 days. Shortly afterwards he escaped from China. He lives in a hidden location abroad.
When entering and leaving Xinjiang, border guards forced Harald Maass to unlock his computer and cell phone and hand them over for inspection – an experience the former correspondent did not even have in North Korea. On his journey through Xinjiang, he tallied the number of police checks. Over the course of 13 days, he was subjected to such checks 57 times.
- This AP investigation, datelined Almaty in Kazakhstan, was among the first by a western news organisation to glimpse the inside of the camps through a former inmate
- The Wall Street Journal has made good use of satellite imagery in its mapping of the growth of the camp network
- This multi-media story by the New York Times gives a close-up view of the surveillance state in one Xinjiang city, Kashgar
Photographs by Harald Maass and Getty Images