Xinjiang 2.0: Is China’s persecution of millions of Muslim Uyghurs entering a sinister new phase?

  • Part One of a four-part dispatch from Xinjiang: Hilton hotel to be built after China bulldozes mosque

Sunlight dappled over a massive compound surrounded by high walls, twenty 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. 

Outside, sheep thronged a newly exposed patch of grass as workers had begun removing layers layers of fortification, including barbed wire and a perimeter fence.

A facility that used to be a reeducation camp outside of Kashgar in the evening of May 31, 2021. The building in the back still have iron bars in front of the windows. Workers of the facility on the ground claimed that the institution was a school for children of members of the communist party now

Credit: Lorenz Huber

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 Telegraph travelled to this facility during a nine-day investigation in Xinjiang. Its scaled-back 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. 

A facility that used to be a reeducation camp outside of Kashgar 

Credit:  Lorenz Huber

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 high-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.

Uighurs scan a QR code in order to enter a food market l in Kashgar, Xinjiang

Credit: Lorenz Huber

The programs were unable to register foreigners with passport numbers – a reason police at checkpoints barred Teleegraph 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 meters circular blue signs designate a number for the location – used to identify places when people report ‘suspicious’ behaviour to the police. 

Knives at butcher stalls and fruit shops are chained, with QR codes etched on the metal, to ensure that the authorities can keep track of every blade.

A door with a QR code in an alley inside Kashgar's new old town in the afternoon of May 31, 2021

Credit: Lorenz Huber

Chinese 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. 

Once out of the internment camps, “there’s basically two tracks,” said Sean Roberts, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University who has studied the Uyghurs. “One, you can go into a residential labour program…or two, formal charges are brought up against you and you’re put in jail.”

“The mass incarceration and mass internment, combined with the ubiquitous surveillance – it’s main purpose is to instill an atmosphere of fear that makes any sort of resistance to state policies almost impossible,” he said. 

Many imprisoned are intellectuals – imams, professors, poets, musicians – who had sought to revive, preserve and disseminate Uyghur culture and history, a development Chinese authorities deemed a threat to Communist Party control. 

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.

Even travelling abroad or having contact with people outside of China can be deemed ‘illegal’ behaviour, he said. “Why move them to a prison? Because then this is ‘legitimate,’ according to international law.”

Kashgar – China

In March, the UK, US, Canada and EU announced coordinated sanctions against Chinese officials for its ongoing crackdown in Xinjiang against 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 Mr 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.” 

The Uyghur Human Rights Group, an advocacy organisation, estimates at least 1,046 imams and other religious figures have been detained for their association with religious teaching and community leadership since 2014.

Forty-one per cent of those detained have been sentenced to prison, which “illustrates the intention of the Chinese government not just to criminalise religious expression or practice, but also to consider imams criminals by virtue of their profession,” the group wrote in a May report. 

But these cases “likely represent only the very tip of the iceberg given severe restrictions on access to information. 

“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. 

“But there’s a constant, compulsive need for ideological control by sentencing people that it hasn’t been able to correctly indoctrinate satisfactorily.” 

There’s never quite an opportunity to forget that the Party is watching. In rural villages, state broadcasts run on loop, and over closed mosques red banners hang proclaiming “love the Party, love the country.” 

The walls of a former reeducation camp outside of Kashgar still show some marks where barbed wire used to be attached

Credit: Lorenz Huber

Propaganda signs encourage passersby to “always follow the Party to move toward a splendid new era.” 

State newspapers in Uyghur posted on public bulletins denounce Western media coverage of human rights abuses in Xinjiang as outright lies – Beijing’s longtime stance.

“This propaganda attempt – portraying Xinjiang as a peaceful and harmonic place – it’s not just aimed abroad,” said Mr Steenberg. “It’s also very much aimed at the Uyghurs themselves to try to bring down anti-government sentiment.”

Some experts worry that China’s policies are creating, in the long-term, a serious risk of backlash. 

“The Chinese government has backed themselves into a corner,” said Mr Roberts. “Either it continues to be extremely heavy-handed in dealing with this population, or it lets up and risks a major retaliation.”

To de-escalate, he fears “the only solution is either an independent Uyghur state or the destruction of the Uyghur people.” 

But politically speaking, separating Xinjiang from the rest of mainland China is not an option under leader Xi Jinping who has sought to assert sovereignty especially ahead of the Party’s 100th anniversary in July. China’s ministry of foreign affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment.

At least for now, it’s clear Uyghurs know exactly where the boundaries lie and the risks if they cross the line. Few attended midday prayers on Friday in Urumqi at a state-sanctioned mosque; showing up means crossing through layers of security.

Many – taxi drivers, shopkeepers, hoteliers, waiters – when asked in passing by The Telegraph 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.”

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