This is the fourth article in a four-part series from Xinjiang. Read more here:
- Xinjiang 2.0: Is China’s persecution of millions of Muslim Uyghurs entering a sinister new phase?
- Hilton hotel to be built in Xinjiang after China bulldozes mosque
- How China forces Xinjiang Muslims into slavery after torturing them in ‘re-education camps’
A breeze wafted into Tahir’s tiny shop, where he had placed a tea-smoked egg, girde nan – a round, dense bread – warm milk and white mulberries in front of me. Breakfast was served.
Within minutes, two men in plainclothes poked their heads in. Tahir, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, waved them off, seemingly unruffled.
But then he turned to me and whispered: “Police… We are all so scared here.”
I started to leave, but he shook his head and motioned for me to eat.
It was a bold move for a Uyghur, as China’s crackdown in Xinjiang region has blanketed most people with fear.
Between his halting Mandarin and my few words of Uyghur, we stumbled through a conversation.
He had an adult child living in the US, and was eager for news from abroad. They hadn’t seen each other in nearly eight years.
“It’s too dangerous for him to return,” Tahir said.
Displacement, defiance and danger
The United Nations estimates that more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in internment camps – for praying at home, growing a beard or contacting people abroad. Former detainees have recounted to the Telegraph stories of horrific physical torture and political indoctrination.
Beijing is erasing Uyghur tradition and culture, restricting the use of Uyghur language in schools, and demolishing mosques.
As international condemnation grew, China denied the allegations, saying the world was welcome to visit Xinjiang – which means “new frontier” – and see for themselves.
The Grand Bazaar in the city centre of Urumqi, Xinjiang province. Coronavirus is often used as an excuse to prevent reporters from accessing sensitive locations.
Credit: Lorenz Huber
I was keen to investigate what had changed since my last assignment to Xinjiang in 2019. Then, I’d gone at the end of Ramadan, finding no sign that Uyghurs were allowed to observe the Muslim holy month.
We faced a number of obstacles – constantly tailed by minders, turned around at checkpoints and stalled by fake roadblocks near internment camps in an effort to prevent us from going further.
This time, we faced similar challenges, at one point, getting detained for nearly three hours while looking for a major shrine in Hotan, Imam Musa Kazim. We’d walked a few hundred metres down a dirt path when a white pickup came from nowhere, and a handful of men jumped out.
Soon, others joined, and the crowd swelled into 30 men in plainclothes, demanding to see our passports without identifying themselves and aggressively blocking us from going any further. Some of them we’d seen earlier in the day following us around town.
At first, they claimed it was a military zone and we weren’t allowed to be there. Then they accused us of trespassing on company property and stealing trade secrets, alleging we had illegal snuck into China. We had walked down an open dirt path that lined a field of sand, trees and a small river.
One of the men grabbed my neck, and at least three others latched onto my bag to drag me around. They tried to take videographer Lorenz Huber’s camera and in the end confiscated some equipment. Both of us were hit in the face, causing my lip to bleed, though I didn’t notice until much later.
Even when we did delete photos as these 30 men had demanded, they continued to block us from leaving. Now, they wanted us to ‘confess’ to our alleged mistakes and apologise.
The day before, after hiking an hour into the desert to find the remnants of the Imam Asim shrine, we were met by nearly a dozen men who tried to stop us from filming or taking photos of the destroyed site, using their bodies and hands to intercept us, cover our cameras and push us away.
Communal places such as mosques and market bazaars are being demolished. Photos: Lorenz Huber
It was clear that they were there for us, as the men referenced our recent travel history in China, saying we had been to provinces with coronavirus and weren’t allowed to be at the shrine – though we had already been tested before departing Beijing and upon arrival in Xinjiang, including by regional public health authorities.
What was less clear was how they had managed to follow us – perhaps they’d tailed our taxi, and correctly guessed where we were heading when we disembarked for the desert on foot. O perhaps our devices had been hacked and they were tracking us that way. As we left, they followed us out for hours on foot through the desert.
Policing ‘part of Xinjiang’s scenery’
It was a taste of the surveillance police state that has proliferated in Xinjiang.
We encountered security checkpoints – some masquerading as coronavirus temperature checks, outfitted with facial recognition cameras and metal detectors – trying to find detention facilities and industrial parks where former detainees said they were forced to work.
Police officers and plainclothes agents would hold us up, offering a litany of coronavirus-related excuses, including threatening us with 21 days’ quarantine if we didn’t leave.
Once, we were told that without valid test results from the last 24 hours, we wouldn’t be allowed into the town of Dabancheng. Dabancheng is home to Xinjiang’s largest detention facility with 92 buildings, based on satellite images. A second one nearby was built in 2020 with 17 buildings, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank.
At a highway exit point toward an industrial park, we were told that only trucks, not passenger cars, could enter the area “because of the epidemic risk."
The nature of the challenges had evolved since 2019. On my previous visit, police would call the driver every time I got into a taxi, demanding to know the destination, and usually forcing the driver to turn around and take us somewhere else.
We were also very visibly followed on foot and by unmarked cars almost all the time – on the street, inside restaurants – making it hard even to have small talk with Uyghurs.
Government agents used to stage lots of fake roadblocks – ‘accidents’ or ‘electrical work’ along streets leading to sensitive sites, such as detention facilities – to prevent journalists from advancing.
The oppressive nature of police surveillance made it difficult to make small talk with local Uyghurs
Credit: Lorenz Huber
On my recent trip, we only encountered one of these, with coronavirus-related excuses taking precedent.
Digital surveillance may also have advanced enough to allow for a less obvious physical tail, though we did notice the same cars behind us a few times.
As our nine days showed, it was clear that there were many efforts to control what we could see and do.
Some form of state obstruction occurs on every reporting trip I do in China, even when I’m in Beijing, though in Xinjiang it is a near-constant – and 30 plainclothes men was the biggest group I had encountered in one go.
After having been turned back a few times one afternoon, I remarked to our Han Chinese taxi driver that it was hard to see very much of Xinjiang beyond the police and all quite “mafan” – a pain.
He laughed and replied: “Well, security and police are part of Xinjiang’s unique scenery.”
Assimilation through disintegration
The long-term goal of China’s campaign seems to be to disrupt Uyghur identity, culture and heritage – to force assimilation rather than risk any challenge to its rule.
One of the biggest impacts of the crackdown is how families and communities have been torn apart. Fathers, uncles, sisters, daughters have been thrown in detention, while children are instructed to inform on their parents, a chilling parallel to a Uyghur translation of George Orwell’s 1984 I saw in a state-run bookstore.
Children have either been separated from their parents or made to tell on them to officials. Photo: Lorenz Huber
Those with relatives abroad, like Tahir and his son, are unable to communicate easily. And with mosques and shrines getting raze,d and bazaars being shut, Uyghurs are also losing places where they’d normally gather.
Every so often, Tahir would stand up and hover at the doorway, or go outside and busy himself with stacking stools and sweeping debris. It was his way to show anyone who was watching that we weren’t ever alone in the shop together for long.
When I said quietly in my broken Uyghur that many foreigners, and Western governments, knew what was happening here, his breathing suddenly became laboured. Tahir looked away, his chest rising and falling rapidly.
All he could do was nod, silently.