NOBODY knows what happened to the Uighur student after he returned to China from Egypt and was taken away by police.
Not his village neighbours in China’s far west, who haven’t seen him in months. Not his former classmates, who fear Chinese authorities beat him to death.
Not his mother, who lives in a two-storey house at the far end of a country road, alone behind walls bleached by the desert sun. She opened the door one afternoon for an unexpected visit by Associated Press reporters, who showed her a picture of a handsome young man posing in a park, one arm in the wind.
“Yes, that’s him,” she said as tears began streaming down her face. “This is the first time I’ve heard anything of him in seven months. What happened?” “Is he dead or alive?”
The student’s friends think he joined the thousands — possibly tens of thousands — of people, rights groups and academics estimate, who have been spirited without trial into secretive detention camps for alleged political crimes that range from having extremist thoughts to merely travelling or studying abroad. The mass disappearances, beginning the past year, are part of a sweeping effort by Chinese authorities to use detentions and data-driven surveillance to impose a digital police state in the region of Xinjiang and over its Uighurs, a 10-million strong, Turkic-speaking Muslim minority that China says has been influenced by Islamic extremism.
Along with the detention camps, unprecedented levels of police blanket Xinjiang’s streets. Cutting-edge digital surveillance systems track where Uighurs go, what they read, who they talk to and what they say. And under an opaque system that treats practically all Uighurs as potential terror suspects, Uighurs who contact family abroad risk questioning or detention.
The campaign has been led by Chen Quanguo, a Chinese Communist Party official, who was promoted in 2016 to head Xinjiang after subduing another restive region — Tibet.
Chen vowed to hunt down Uighur separatists blamed for attacks that have left hundreds dead, saying authorities would “bury terrorists in the ocean of the people’s war and make them tremble.” Through rare interviews with Uighurs who recently left China, a review of government procurement contracts and unreported documents, and a trip through southern Xinjiang, the AP pieced together a picture of Chen’s war that’s ostensibly rooting out terror — but instead instilling fear.
Most of the more than a dozen Uighurs interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity for fear that Chinese authorities would punish them or their family members. The AP is withholding the student’s name and other personal information to protect people who fear government retribution. Chen and the Xinjiang regional government did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But China’s government describes its Xinjiang security policy as a “strike hard” campaign that’s necessary following a series of attacks in 2013 and 2014, including a mass knifing in a train station that killed 33.
A Hotan city propaganda official, Bao Changhui, said: “If we don’t do this, it will be like several years ago — hundreds will die.” China also says the crackdown is only half the picture. It points to decades of heavy economic investment and cultural assimilation programs and measures like preferential college admissions for Uighurs.
The government has referred to its detention program as “vocational training,” but its main purpose appears to be indoctrination. A memo published online by the Xinjiang human resources office described cities, including Korla, beginning “free, completely closed-off, militarised” training sessions in March that last anywhere from 3 months to 2 years.
Uighurs study “Mandarin, law, ethnic unity, de-radicalisation, patriotism” and abide by the “five togethers” — live, do drills, study, eat and sleep together.
In a rare state media report about the centres, a provincial newspaper quoted a farmer who said after weeks of studying inside he could spot the telltale signs of religious extremism by how a person dressed or behaved and also profess the Communist Party’s good deeds.
An instructor touted their “gentle, attentive” teaching methods and likened the centres to a boarding school dorm. But in Korla, the institutions appeared more daunting, at least from the outside. The city had three or four well-known centres with several thousand students combined, said a 48-year-old local resident from the Han ethnic majority. One centre the AP visited was, in fact, labelled a jail. Another was downtown on a street sealed off by rifle-toting police. A third centre, the local Han resident said, was situated on a nearby military base.
While forced indoctrination has been reported throughout Xinjiang, its reach has been felt far beyond China’s borders.
In April, calls began trickling into a Uighur teacher’s academy in Egypt, vague but insistent. Uighur parents from a few towns were pleading with their sons and daughters to return to China, but they wouldn’t say why.
“The parents kept calling, crying on the phone,” the teacher said. Chinese authorities had extended the scope of the program to Uighur students abroad. And Egypt, once a sanctuary for Uighurs to study Islam, began deporting scores of Uighurs to China.
Sitting in a restaurant outside Istanbul where many students had fled, four recounted days of panic as they hid from Egyptian and Chinese authorities. One jumped out a window running from police. Another slept in a car for a week. Many hid with Egyptian friends.
“We were mice, and the police were cats,” said a student from Urumqi, Xinjiang’s regional capital.
SHOW OF FORCE
To enter the Hotan bazaar, shoppers first pass through metal detectors and then place their national identification cards on a reader while having their face scanned.
The facial scanner is made by China Electronics Technology Group (CETC), a state-owned defence contractor that has spearheaded China’s fast-growing field of predictive policing with Xinjiang as its test bed. The AP found 27 CETC bids for Xinjiang government contracts, including one soliciting a facial recognition system for facilities and centres in Hotan Prefecture.
Hours after visiting the Hotan bazaar, AP reporters were stopped outside a hotel by a police officer who said the public security bureau had been remotely tracking the reporters’ movements.
“There are tens of thousands of cameras here,” said the officer, who gave his name as Tushan. “The moment you took your first step in this city, we knew.”
The government’s tracking efforts have extended to vehicles, genes, and even voices. In February, authorities in Xinjiang’s Bayingol prefecture, which includes Korla, required every car to install GPS trackers for real-time monitoring. And since late last year, Xinjiang authorities have required health checks to collect the population’s DNA samples. In May, a regional police official told the AP that Xinjiang had purchased $8.7 million in DNA scanners — enough to analyse several million samples a year.
In one year, Kashgar Prefecture, which has a population of 4 million, has carried out mandatory checks for practically its entire population, said Yang Yanfeng, deputy director of Kashgar’s propaganda department. She characterised the check-ups as a public health success story, not a security measure.
To monitor Xinjiang’s population, China has also turned to a familiar low-tech tactic: recruiting the masses.
When a Uighur businessman from Kashgar completed a six-month journey to flee China and landed in the United States with his family in January, he was initially ecstatic. He tried calling home, something he hadn’t done in months to spare his family unwanted police questioning.
His mother told him his four brothers and his father were in prison because he fled China. She was spared only because she was frail.
Since 2016, local authorities had assigned ten families including theirs to spy on one another in a new system of collective monitoring, and those families had also been punished because he escaped. Members from each were sent to re-education centres for three months, he told the AP.
“It’s worse than prison,” he said. “At least in prison you know what’s happening to you. But there you never know when you get accused. It could be anytime.”
For the past year, Chen’s war has meant mass detentions, splintered families, lives consumed by uncertainty. It has meant that a mother sometimes can’t get an answer a simple question about her son: is he dead or alive? A short drive from Korla, beyond peach plantations that stretch for miles, the al-Azhar student’s mother still lives in the big house that he loved. When the AP arrived unannounced, she said she had not received any court notices or reasons about why her son and his father were suddenly taken months earlier. She declined an interview.
“I want to talk, I want to know,” she said through a translator. “But I’m too afraid.”
AP reporters were later detained by police, interrogated for 11 hours, and accused of “illegal reporting” in the area without seeking prior permission from the Korla government.
“The subjects you’re writing about do not promote positive energy,” a local propaganda official explained.
Five villagers said they knew authorities had taken away the young student; one said he was definitely alive, the others weren’t sure.
When asked, local police denied he existed at all.
News Corporation Network