How a Chinese region that accounts for just 1.5% of the population became one of the most intrusive police states in the world

  • China’s Xinjiang region is home to 1.5% of the country’s population, but accounted for one in five arrests in 2017.
  • This didn’t include the hundreds of thousands of people, possibly as many as 1 million, who are being held in extrajudicial political “re-education camps” designed to indoctrinate ethnic minorities and force them to reject their religious beliefs.
  • Xinjiang residents and, in particular ethnic Uyghurs, are banned from many religious acts and are monitored by authorities living in their homes, as well as surveillance apps, voice printing, and facial recognition cameras. Residents are also banned from entering certain stores and must swipe their ID cards first, which describes them as “safe,” “normal,” or “unsafe.”
  • Authorities use the fear of family being put in re-education camps to control and silence Xinjiang residents and students while abroad, and many are detained as soon as they return.
  • Some experts fear the camps, which have received little global attention, could soon become the site of mass murders.

The vast Xinjiang region in northwestern China is home to just 1.5% of the country’s entire 1.3 billion residents. But in 2017, one in five arrests in China occurred there.

In total, out of Xinjiang’s 22 million residents, 227,000 people were arrested – a 731% increase from 2016, according to data released last week from the advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

But what may be most concerning of all, is that these numbers don’t include the hundreds of thousands, possibly 1 million people, who have been rounded up and thrown into political “re-education camps” in the last 18 months. None of these people entered the official court system, most never committed an actual crime, and many have never been heard from again.

“This strong rise in 2017 [arrests] is consistent with all the other securitization measures, including massive police recruitment, deployment of sophisticated technologies, installation of checkpoints everywhere, etc. Re-education detainment figures are certainly on top of these numbers,” Adrian Zenz, a social researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology who used job ads and construction bids to estimate the number of detainees, told Business Insider. “It shows the scale of the security state in Xinjiang at these different levels.”

A ethnic Uyghur woman sweeps outside her house on July 1, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.

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A ethnic Uyghur woman sweeps outside her house on July 1, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.
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Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Authorities have been targeting Xinjiang residents and, in particular, the local Muslim Uighur minority, under the guise of fighting terrorism. But experts consider the recent crackdown an attempt to suppress expressions of religious identity that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) fears threatens the very stability of the Party.

To prevent this, local authorities have built and expanded facilities across Xinjiang where residents, mostly Uighurs, are forcibly detained and indoctrinated with the will of the CCP.

They are bullied and threatened into abandoning their Muslim beliefs and instead study Chinese history, write personal reflections, and sing songs like “Without the Communist Party, there is no New China.” Many are isolated, beaten, tortured, and are unable to go home.

Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese national who is currently on trial for illegally entering Kazakhstan to rejoin her family and is believed to have been arrested at the request of China, recently testified about the scope of one camp she worked at that held 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs.

“In China they call it a political camp but really it was a prison in the mountains,” Sauytbay said this month. “That I am discussing this camp in an open court means I am already revealing state secrets.”

In one town, Radio Free Asia reported that police were given the goal of detaining 3,000 Uighurs or Kazakhs a week who were critical of the government on social media or who just had family living overseas. In another county, authorities were reportedly given a quota of placing 40% of the population in re-education camps for “religious extremism,” essentially just leaving children and the elderly.

To afford this huge crackdown, Xinjiang’s security spending has skyrocketed. In 2017, its expenditure jumped more than 90% to 57.95 billion yuan ($8.52 billion) from 2016. China now spends more on domestic security than its defense force.

Ethnic Uyghur members of the Communist Party of China carry a flag as they take part in an organized tour outside Id Kah Mosque on June 30, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.

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Ethnic Uyghur members of the Communist Party of China carry a flag as they take part in an organized tour outside Id Kah Mosque on June 30, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.
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Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

‘Some of the most horrifying things happening in the world today’

Problems for China’s Uyghur population became more pronounced when Chen Quanguo became Xinjiang’s party secretary in 2016. He was previously the party boss in Tibet where he oversaw an increase in security, surveillance, and arbitrary regulations, and the same pattern has since been unfolding in Xinjiang.

Uyghurs have been banned from fasting during Ramadan, refusing to eat pork, refusing to wear shorts, refusing to watch state TV or listen to state radio, wearing burqas, having “abnormal” beards, performing traditional funeral rites, speaking to family members overseas, travelling overseas, and giving their children Islamic names such as Mohammad and Fatima (children under the age of 16 have even been forced to change their names).

A Chinese flag flies over a local mosque recently closed by authorities as an ethnic Uyghur woman sells bread at her bakery on June 28, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.

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A Chinese flag flies over a local mosque recently closed by authorities as an ethnic Uyghur woman sells bread at her bakery on June 28, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.
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Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Communist slogans and Chinese flags have been installed on mosques, nearly 1,000 of which are set to have facial recognition security cameras installed.

Surveillance also runs from the archaic to the technological extreme.

The region has hired scores of new police officers – 10,000 jobs were advertised in January and February 2017 alone – and “convenience police stations” are found roughly every 500 meters in the capital of Urumqi. Since last December, local officials have been required to “live, eat, and study with local families” in their homes. State-run media have also reported how 40,000 officials “promote Party policies and socialist ideas” by reading newspapers to locals.

Xinjiang also operates under a grid management system where paid volunteers are allocated a small number of houses to monitor. According to Radio Free Asia these grids are set to get smaller with 15-to-20 houses per grid, and volunteers have been instructed to learn where people live, the organizations they belong to, and “the sort of lives they lead,” including their political opinions. Grid monitors are also required to carry out “psychological interventions” when required.

Messaging apps are constantly monitored, but authorities have also demanded residents install surveillance software on their phones, and put GPS trackers in cars. Police have collected voice samples to identify who is speaking on tapped phone calls, and taken DNA samples, fingerprints, and iris scans.

Men install a CCTV camera in a shopping street in the old town of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017.

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Men install a CCTV camera in a shopping street in the old town of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017.
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REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Outside the home, 40,000 facial-recognition cameras are being used to track, and block, the movement of Uyghurs.

Poet and filmmaker Tahir Hamut who fled China with his family recently told the Financial Times about being called into a police station to give authorities samples of their DNA, fingerprints, voice prints, and facial expressions.

“They adjusted [the] camera to my eye level. They had me look up and look forward and down, left and right and back,” Hamut recalls. “They had the women pucker their lips and filmed that. Every step had to be completed perfectly; each expression could not be done too quickly or slowly. If you made a face too fast, the computer would ask you to stop and have you repeat it again. I had to try many times. Many people had to spend an hour to complete this facial filming.”

The US State Department has described Xinjiang as having ” unprecedented levels of surveillance” and is fast becoming one of the most intrusive police states in the world. Experts also consider it a testing ground for the rest of China.

At a hearing for the Congressional-Executive Commission on China last week, Sen. Marco Rubio compared the situation to science fiction.

“I don’t even know how to do this while containing my anger,” Rubio said. “[This] is stuff from a horrible movie, these are crazy things, things we’ve read about that used to happen thousands of years ago, regimes in a science fiction, I mean forcing people to eat certain foods that violate their dietary laws of their religion, controlling what people name their children, trying to strip their identity from them, both religious and and ethnic, the list goes on. These are some of the most horrifying things happening in the world today.”

A mix of ethnic Uyghur and Han shopkeepers hold large wooden sticks as they are trained in security measures on June 27, 2017 next to the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.

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A mix of ethnic Uyghur and Han shopkeepers hold large wooden sticks as they are trained in security measures on June 27, 2017 next to the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.
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Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Residents can’t even shop where they want

Biometric data, as well as information on each resident’s ethnicity and religious practices, is not only collected by authorities but tied to each person’s ID card.

For Uighurs, these cards are checked when they’re doing everything from traveling to filling up petrol. Regular checkpoints on the roads require Uighurs to get out of their cars, place their card in a reader, and walk through body scanners. It’s also been reported that individuals who buy knives require a QR code of their ID information to be etched onto the blade.

An activist who goes by the pseudonym Azat Erkin, because he still has family in Xinjiang, recently described in a Facebook post a meeting he had in Kazakhstan with an ethnic Han resident from Xinjiang. The man, who was given the name Wang Hao to protect his identity, said his wife worked in one of the political camps and went on to explain what life is currently like in the region.

“Citizen IDs are divided into three kinds now in Xinjiang – white, yellow, and red. Your moving about is relatively free if yours is categorized as white. If it’s yellow, you can go from the villages to the towns, but only with the approval of the local commune authorities (whose office is web-linked to national security). If it’s red, you can only stay in the village, and don’t have permission to go anywhere,” Wang said, per an English translation.

“Even if you have to get an emergency operation done they won’t let you leave the village, with you left at home to wait for death. Most of the people who have come out of education centers are marked as red,” he said.

While Business Insider wasn’t able to independently verify these claims, we did speak with Erkin who repeated the information. It also fits into what we already know, Timothy Grose, a China expert at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, told Business Insider.

“I cannot confirm a literal color-coding of citizens’ identification cards , but I have heard several corroborating reports that describe labeling citizens as “safe,” “normal,” and “unsafe” (via the ID system) based on metrics such as faith, age, faith, religious practice, foreign contacts, and experience abroad. These categories appear to overlap with the color coding described in the Facebook post,” Grose said.

“From my understanding, the identification cards – swiped at the virtually hundreds of checkpoints standing in intersections, bookstores, shopping malls, etc. – are flagged electronically. Therefore, when an individual swipes his/her ID card, it pulls up vital information about that person, including his/her “risk” to society,” Grose said.

Wang also described how residents’ movement is severely restricted by access cards that, once swiped, not only display personal information but also include geo-restrictions, meaning individuals are banned from entering certain shops, restaurants, and markets.

“Unless you have it on you, you can’t go in stores, and even then you can only go in designated ones. For example, my access card only lets me shop at the stores downstairs and the shopping mall(s). I can’t go into any other stores in the commune, or buy anything there,” he said referring to a residential district. “If I tried, it would automatically alert the police. So you have to pay whatever the price is at the designated stores, with no choice to shop elsewhere.”

Forgetting to carry ID cards is also a violation of local rules.

Police officers guard near a new laser and water show that is part of a local government tourism development on June 30, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.

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Police officers guard near a new laser and water show that is part of a local government tourism development on June 30, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.
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Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

There is no escape

While most Xinjiang residents are unable to leave – in 2016, residents’ passports were recalled and it was announced that locals would require approval to travel – those who do manage to go overseas find they’re still at the mercy of police back home.

Business Insider is aware of instances where police have reportedly asked residents abroad to send pictures of themselves holding newspapers to confirm residents are where they say they are. One Xinjiang resident in DC said they were told to take a picture of themselves holding a newspaper in front of the White House.

But as unusual as that is, it’s relatively mundane compared to some lengths police go to.

A young Chinese pro footballer who traveled abroad to train and play matches as part of his job has reportedly been held in a re-education camp for months for “visiting foreign countries.” Last year, 200 Uyghur students were arrested in raids in restaurants, shops, and accommodations across Egypt, thought to be under orders from Chinese police, and two men who voluntarily travelled home are believed to have died in custody.

And one Uyghur student who was studying in the US was held in a detention center without charge for 17 days when he went back to China over a semester break.

Business Insider is also aware of a Chinese student studying in Australia who was reportedly called back to Xinjiang by secret police after posting criticisms on social media. She reportedly said she was told about being sent to political re-education. She has not been heard from since returning to Xinjiang over the winter break.

It’s not an unusual outcome for those put in re-education camps, but many are there not because of their own actions but are used as leverage to silence outspoken exiles and expats abroad.

Tahir Hamut, a Uighur Muslim poet and filmmaker from China, delivers remarks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on July 24, 2018.

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Tahir Hamut, a Uighur Muslim poet and filmmaker from China, delivers remarks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on July 24, 2018.
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State Department photo/Public Domain

The poet Hamut spoke last week at the State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom about how his two brothers-in-law were detained in “retribution” once he and his family arrived in the US last August.

“In spite of this, I still shared what I had seen with the international media. This has led to the detention of one of my brothers. Like all other Uighurs living in exile, I cannot contact my relatives at home. I don’t know whether they’re alive or not,” Hamut said.

Gulchehra Hoja, a Radio Free Asia journalist who now lives in the US and writes about the Xinjiang region, testified last week to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China that more than 20 of her relatives “remain missing, certainly held in what’s called political reeducation camps run by the Chinese government.”

Her brother was the first to be detained in September last year while driving his mother to a doctor’s appointment, and has not been seen since. In February, her aunts, cousins, and their children all disappeared in one day. Her parents also went missing in February and were released a month later.

“Authorities have questioned my parents about me. Where I am, and my work for an organization they claim is anti-China. Many of my colleagues at the RFA share the same situation, their families are also missing, detained and jailed, after receiving threats about their work at RFA,” Hoja told US senators.

Family members of five Radio Free Asia journalists, including two US citizens, have recently been detained. Detaining relatives, or just threatening to do so, is an incredibly common and effective way of controlling and silencing Chinese individuals while they are abroad.

“When I heard my brother was detained, I [initially] chose not to speak up because my mother asked me, ‘Please I already lost you, I don’t want to lose my son too.’ My family haven’t been able to be reunited in 17 years,” Hoja said. “We don’t want to put them in further danger because of our acts or any word against China.”

“I believe any Uyghur has a friend or family member in the camps right now,” Hoja said.

Foreign residents aren’t just forced to stay quiet. According to BuzzFeed News, the threat of these camps is being used to force Uighurs to spy for China. The government reportedly uses these individuals to gather information about Uighurs overseas, disrupt these communities, and intimidate others to not speak out against China.

Dabancheng detention center.

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Dabancheng detention center.
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Shawn Zhang

Too big to hide

Satellite images clearly show the immense size, security measures and speed with which detention centers have been built over the last year.

Shawn Zhang, a law student in Canada whose family in China have also been contacted by police over his critical social media posts, has been using satellite imagery to identify potential camps throughout Xinjiang. The largest building Zhang has found is in Dabancheng, which he estimates holds 8,000 to 10,000 people – around 20% of this one area’s population.

With so many parents disappearing into camps, orphanages are overflowing. In 2017, the city of Kashgar built 18 new orphanages.

Despite diplomatic and press efforts to raise the issue with Chinese authorities, China’s Foreign Ministry jas said it “had not heard” of the situation in Xinjiang and state-run media has largely avoided the subject.

But that may be beginning to change.Ethnic Uyghur children joke as they taunt a local police officer on June 29, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.

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Ethnic Uyghur children joke as they taunt a local police officer on June 29, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.
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Kevin Frayer/Getty

For what appears to be one of the first times, state media last week reported on how “extremists” are having their “religious thoughts” reformed while in official prisons.

And earlier in the month, the tabloid-like Global Times described how authorities “relocated 461,000 poverty-ridden residents” from Xinjiang to other areas in the first three months of the year. According to Zenz, these numbers are consistent with one program aimed at training “rural surplus laborers.”

“My research also shows that many counties launched recruitment notices for “training” facilities in early summer 2017, and that many of them likely function on a scale where the one extreme is political re-education in highly secured detainment facilities, and the other is compulsory vocational training with some re-education contents.

The purpose of this Global Times article seems to be to justify the fact that many residents are being relocated into training facilities and then relocated for employment,” Zenz told Business Insider.

Police patrol on a scooter as an ethnic Uyghur boy stands in his doorway on June 27, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.

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Police patrol on a scooter as an ethnic Uyghur boy stands in his doorway on June 27, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.
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Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

An entire population could disappear

Xinjiang is a “textbook” case for Magnitsky sanctions, Rep. Christopher Smith, co-chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said last week. In April, Smith and Rubio sent a letter to the US Ambassador in Beijing requesting the embassy begin researching specific individuals who could be targeted for possible human rights violations under the Global Magnitsky Act.

“This is what these people do with the power they have now. Imagine what they will do when that power grows militarily, economically, and geopolitically. Because if this is how you treat your own people, how do you expect them to treat some other part of the world,” Rubio said at the commission’s hearing on Xinjiang last week.

“And the international organizations that stand by and say nothing, why? Because China went into somebody’s country and built a road or a bridge, or maybe bribed them and gave them a billion dollars to be quiet and go along. This is sick,” he added.

While such rhetoric can seem exaggerated in the world of international diplomacy, it may not to be. The foreign minister for Vanuatu, which has accepted millions of dollars in loans from China and is unlikely to be able to afford repayments, told Australia’s “60 Minutes” earlier this year, in no uncertain terms, that China expects support at the UN in exchange for its cash.

And with China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative seeing an influx of cash and infrastructure in up to 70 countries, the consequences for human rights could be devastating.

Already, estimates are that 5-to-10% of the Uighur population have disappeared into political camps.

But what concerns Rian Thum, a historian at Loyola University, is the possibility of history repeating itself as the system becomes too big to prevent improvisation at the lower levels.

“The most frightening purpose is the one that hasn’t occurred yet: while torture and deaths in the camps seem to be happening at pretty low levels, that can change, and in fact I don’t think we can rule out the possibility of mass murder,” he told the commission last week.

Thum is not alone in his beliefs. Hamut, who still has been unable to contact his family, agrees.

“I believe the Chinese government is likely to carry out mass kills of Uighurs in concentration, like the Nazis did to Jewish people,” he said.