This is the third 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 naan – a round, dense bread – warm milk and white mulberries in front of me. Breakfast was served.
Within minutes, two men in plain clothes 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 the Xinjiang region has crippled most people with fear.
Between his halting Mandarin and my few words of Uyghur, we stumbled through a conversation.
He has an adult child living in the US, and is eager for news from abroad. They had not 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, either for praying at home, growing a beard or contacting people abroad. Former detainees 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 is 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.
I was keen to investigate what had changed since my last assignment to Xinjiang in 2019. Then, I had travelled at the end of Ramadan, finding no sign that Uyghurs were allowed to observe the Muslim holy month.
We faced myriad obstacles, from being constantly tailed by minders to being turned around at checkpoints and being stalled by fake roadblocks near internment camps to prevent us from going further.
Similar challenges beckoned this time around. At one point, we were detained for nearly three hours while looking for the Imam Musa Kazim mosque and shrine in Hotan. We had walked a few hundred metres down a dirt path when a white pick-up lorry came from nowhere, and a handful of men jumped out.
Others soon joined, and the crowd swelled into 30 men in plain clothes, demanding to see our passports without identifying themselves and aggressively blocking us from going any further. We saw some of them earlier in the day following us around town.
At first, they claimed it was a military zone and we were not allowed to be there. Then we were accused of trespassing on to company property, stealing trade secrets and illegally sneaking 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 on to my bag to drag me around. They tried to take videographer Lorenz Huber’s camera and confiscated some equipment in the end. We were both hit in the face, though I did not notice until much later that my lip bled.
Even when we followed the group’s demands to delete photos, they continued to stop us from leaving. They now 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 Musa Kazim shrine, we were met by nearly a dozen men who tried to stop us from filming or taking photos of the destroyed site. They used their bodies and hands to intercept us, cover our cameras and push us away.
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 affected by coronavirus and were not allowed to be at the shrine. This was despite the fact that we had already been tested before departing Beijing and upon arrival in Xinjiang, including by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
What was less clear was how they had managed to follow us. Did they tailgate our taxi, and correctly guess where we were heading when we left for the desert on foot? Or 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 plain-clothed agents would hold us up, offering a litany of coronavirus-related excuses, including threatening us with 21 days’ quarantine if we refused to leave.
On one occasion, we were told that without valid test results from the past 24 hours, we would be denied entry into Dabancheng Town, home to Xinjiang’s largest detention facility with 92 buildings, according to satellite images. A second one nearby was built in 2020 with 17 buildings, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
At a highway exit point towards 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. I had a bit more freedom of movement then. On my previous visit, police would call the driver every time I got into a taxi, demanded to know the destination, and usually forced 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 plenty of fake roadblocks – “accidents” or “electrical work” along streets leading to sensitive sites, such as detention facilities – to prevent journalists from advancing.
On my recent trip, we encountered only 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 am in Beijing, though in Xinjiang it is a near-constant. Thirty plain-clothed men was the largest 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 and 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.
Those with relatives abroad, like Tahir and his son, are unable to communicate easily. And with mosques and shrines getting razed and bazaars being shut, Uyghurs are also losing places where they would normally meet in.
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 were never 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.
The post Sophia Yan: What I discovered on my nine-day trip covering China’s repression in Xinjiang region appeared first on The Telegraph.