Most have only seen them from the air, but China correspondent Kirsty Needham took the risk and got down to ground level in Xinjiang to explore China’s vast and growing network of detention centres.
By Kirsty Needham /SMH
hey are the buildings in far western China that haunt the sleep of Uighur Australians. People go in and they don’t come out.
“Everyone talks about their absolutely ruined dreams,” says Sydney resident Ruqiya of anxiety levels among her fellow expatriates.
In the past 18 months, hundreds of these buildings have spread rapidly across the desert towns of China’s remote Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
The Chinese government has rejected claims that up to one million of Xinjiang’s 10 million Uighur Muslims are being held inside. It claims the buildings are education centres that teach the Chinese language to Turkic-speaking Uighurs, part of a campaign to “get rid of the environment and soil that breeds terrorism and religious extremism”.
On Tuesday, at a United Nations Human Rights Council review, China will be challenged to provide statistics on how many people are detained without charge, with a call for their immediate release.
A Central Asian people whose presence in the Tarim Basin dates to the 8th century, Uighurs have had an uneasy relationship with Chinese rule for 250 years, scholars say.
The region’s ancient history is politically contested, but Uighurs are said to have embraced Islam in AD 934, forming a unique tradition that drew from travellers on the Silk Road.
Ruqiya (not her real name) hasn’t spoken to her family in Xinjiang for 12 months. They won’t take her calls, or respond on social media. Simply having a relative who lives in a foreign country is enough to cast suspicion on a Uighur and lead to detention.
And so the fear of those living abroad, like Ruqiya, is worsened by the unknown. Has her family been taken? What really is happening inside?
In the ancient silk road oasis town of Turpan, the traditional architecture is yellow mud brick. The massive, modern white buildings in rows behind a high wall stand out. They are festooned with surveillance cameras. More are being constructed in an adjacent field.
“They are so big because 40 per cent of the town is inside,” explained a Turpan resident, when Fairfax Media travelled to Xinjiang to try to find out what was going on in China’s westernmost region.
This resident hasn’t heard of anyone getting out in the two years since the centres began operating.
A few hundred metres along the same road, there is another large centre. There are seven in Turpan alone.
The inmates are allowed one phone call a week, and a visit from family every 15 days, under rules set by local authorities.
Many people sent inside have been caught with material on their mobile phones that is deemed “too Islamic” or unsafe, by police who use a device that can read Arabic and scans digital content, I am told.
Few foreign journalists have been able to reach the centres and obtain photographs, as the Chinese government tries to blocks media access that it doesn’t control.
Even outside the centres, the Uighurs of Turpan appear to be under a lockdown imposed by the Chinese authorities.
At each road intersection there is a large police kiosk, where a helmeted officer stands out front holding a large club or electric shock stick. More officers check Uighur people’s cars and motorcycles at random.
Traffic is sparse, and goats wander along the road. But a convoy of a dozen black 4WDs and vans prowl the town daily, using flashing lights to maximum effect.
Outside a primary school, women wearing army camouflage and wielding oversized wooden clubs patrol the school crossing.
Razor wire is standard on public buildings. Red billboards proclaim: “Resolutely implement the Xinjiang Strategy made by the Party Central Committee and comrade Xi Jinping, especially the target of social stability.”
Markets, a lively outdoor community affair when I visited a decade ago, now take place inside a cage. Heavy iron bars block off a dark, covered marketplace where entry is gained through a gauntlet of security officers and a walk-through scanner.
Inside, there are no Uighur men of working age to be found among the stalls selling Turpan’s prized sultanas and raisins. There are few seen on the streets outside, either. Where are they?
Some older Uighur men and women gather on the street to chat in the late afternoon, the women displaying curly hair and calf-length skirts, the men clean-shaven. This is a major change, in a town where headscarfs were once common.
An anti-extremism law passed in 2017 banned face veils and “abnormal” beards, as well as using the concept of “halal” beyond food. Violating the ban on 15 “extreme behaviours” can get a Uighur sent to the centres.
To enter a Turpan restaurant and slurp the region’s famed hand-pulled noodles, diners must pass through a scanner supervised by an armed officer. Waitresses wear red arm patches declaring they are security wardens as they wipe down tables.
There are so many police, and so many surveillance cameras, that Xinjiang is surely the safest place in the world, another resident suggests grimly.
But China’s crackdown on Islamic influence also reaches beyond the public sphere and into homes. Up to a million Chinese public servants in Xinjiang have been conscripted to stay in Uighur villages and spread secular values, says University of Washington anthropology lecturer Darren Byler.
After interviewing a dozen Chinese public servants in Xinjiang who had been sent to live as “relatives” in Uighur homes, Byler says their work is surveillance. The Chinese are given instructions to take notes during week-long homestays and assess the Uighur family’s loyalty to China. They are told to check whether there is a Koran in the house, or if Friday prayers and Ramadan fasting are observed.
And they pose the question: does the family know anyone abroad? As a test, it is suggested the Chinese guest offers their host family a beer, Byler wrote in the Asia Society’s ChinaFile.
Uighurs have told Fairfax Media they are distressed at the intrusion into family privacy. One widow must allow a Han Chinese man into her house to spend the night several times a month, said an Australian Uighur. “Sending a man to a widow’s home – this isn’t even accepted in Han culture,” she said.
Until a few weeks ago, the Chinese government denied any “re-education centres” existed. But the scale of the building program, and the disappearance of tens of thousands of Uighurs, made this approach untenable.
Breaking the official silence, Chinese state television broadcast a propaganda documentary on October 16 depicting the buildings as vocational training centres where Xinjiang’s ethnic poor were being treated to free Mandarin language classes, instruction on national laws, and provided with work skills that would lead to a better life.
The “trainees” were paid a basic income, and shown a “colourful life” with dancing competitions and sport.
The next day, state newspapers carried thousands of words from Xinjiang’s second-in-charge, chairman Shohrat Zakir, in which he said most “trainees” had reflected on their mistakes and seen the harm of religious extremism.
The first of the “trainees” were expected to have sufficient skills to finish their “course” and receive certificates by the end of the year, he said. The world is watching and waiting.
Although 90 per cent of the population in China is Han, almost half (46 per cent) of Xinjiang’s population is Uighur.
Han comprised only 6 per cent of Xinjiang’s population in 1949, when Mao’s communist China absorbed the short-lived East Turkestan Republic into neighbouring lands conquered by the Qing Dynasty. But a surge in Chinese migration has resulted in Han now almost equalling the Uighur population at 41 per cent.
Over the past decade, Xinjiang has experienced a bitter cycle of government repression of Uighur culture – including a 2006 ban on children entering mosques – and eruptions of violence against Han Chinese.
In 2009, riots in the capital Urumqi saw almost 200 people, most of them Han Chinese, killed. In 2013, terrorists from Xinjiang exploded a car in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
In 2014, the nation was shocked by a sword attack that killed 20 and injured 100 at a train station in Kunming in Yunnan province. As Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang in 2014, a train station was bombed. A month later, 31 people died in a market bombing in Urumqi.
The Syrian ambassador to China told media in 2016 that up to 5000 “Xinjiang jihadists” were fighting with Islamic State and militias in Syria. The Chinese government feared these fighters would bring their skills home.
A new Communist Party boss, Chen Quanguo, was appointed to Xinjiang later that year. He had been recruited from Tibet.
He appears to have ramped up the campaign against Islamic foreign influence to an unprecedented level.
The impact of that campaign reaches far beyond southern towns such as Kashgar and Hotan, which are near the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan and considered hotspots for separatism and ethnic violence.
Ordinary Uighur life has been disrupted across the entire province as the campaign reaches even “mild” eastern towns like Turpan, and Hami, which has had bilingual Chinese and Uighur education since Qing times.
The University of Sydney’s David Brophy, an expert in Uighur political history, says: “Turpan and Hami have never been treated the same way as the south of the Tarim Basin. Going as far back as the Qing Dynasty these oases were regarded as more loyal, and better integrated into the empire, than regions to the south.”
Brophy adds that Hami was the starting point of a major Uighur uprising in the 1930s that briefly led to the formation of the first East Turkestan Republic in Kashgar in 1933. Turpan was important “in the formation of a modern discourse of Uighur nationalism”.
Asked why Beijing would extend its crackdown to Turpan and Hami, Brophy suggests another reason these towns are sensitive: “They’re both in strategic geographic locations, along major routes into and across Xinjiang.”
The Belt and Road Initiative, which links China to Europe via Xinjiang, could be a factor. Zakir, in his comments, emphasised that Xinjiang had been tasked with constructing “the core zone” of the new Silk Road.
And Turpan and Hami are the major stops on Xinjiang’s new high-speed rail line.
The high-speed train glides through the desert at 300 kilometres an hour. The landscape is stunning – snow-dusted mountains rising up from a moon-crater surface. Wind carves the black desert soil like a sculptor.
At Hami, on the eastern edge of Xinjiang, passengers alight and push tickets into automatic gates. The door swiftly opens. A false dawn. Within minutes of stepping out of the station, the dragnet descends.
Half a dozen police in bulletproof vests stand at the bottom of the train station stairs. Behind them, a heavy metal fence and SWAT police shed.
They are looking for Uighurs and foreigners. An old Uighur man in a traditional cloth cap is picked out and asked for his identity card and papers that permit him to travel here. He is guided to a makeshift police station the size of a shipping container, where a flow chart on the wall clearly shows the process for ethnic profiling. Han Chinese will hasten through an X-ray scanner to enter Hami, while Uighurs must be checked and checked and checked.
The Uighur man says he is visiting his son. But he must prove it, and is told to call the son. It takes 45 minutes before the police are satisfied and he can enter the town.
The police routine is repeated over and over as high-speed trains pull into Hami. But they are mostly carrying Han Chinese, with less than a dozen Uighurs.
When Fairfax Media is spotted by police we are likewise taken into a police station. After three hours there, we are escorted into Hami by security and propaganda officials offering to show a neon-lit “model” Uighur culture street built two years earlier.
The officials have been assigned to stop the foreign journalist from seeing anything more. But this is impossible. There are police kiosks with flashing lights every few hundred metres along the main road, and a roadblock demanding identity cards from minorities or foreigners.
Petrol stations are enclosed by razor wire. To fill up, a car must first pull into a police checkpoint, open the boot, and all occupants leave the car as it is searched.
The rapidly expanded police presence has come at a massive cost. Local government tender documents show a 15,000-square-metre police skills training centre was built in Hami in December at a cost of 55 million yuan ($11.1 million). A special forces training base built in March cost 12 million yuan.
Xinjiang’s total public security budget reached 57.9 billion yuan last year, soaring 93 per cent in 12 months, as thousands of roadside police kiosks were erected and auxillary police recruited.
The typical cost of building a “vocational education and training centre” is 40 million yuan, with each surveillance system an extra 3.8 million yuan.
A Hami town official said the only response he could give on the vocational training centres was to refer to what was published by state media.
This week, China’s government-controlled newspapers published scores of interviews with smiling “trainees”, including women who had reportedly escaped abusive marriages and Islamic extremism.
La Trobe University’s James Leibold says the propaganda, including the video broadcast on state television, gives an “aspirational view of what ‘vocational education’/ ‘transformation through education’ should look like”.
“There is likely a great variation of methods and conditions inside these camps, with some more benign and vocationally focused, and others more coercive and poorly run,” he says.
“Regardless, the intent is clear: the rewiring of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the image of the Han majority. Recent tours by senior Party leaders certainly signal a desire to normalise and standardise this thought and behaviour control process, and possibly transform it into a long-term strategy.”
In the capital Urumqi on Friday, mosques are open for prayer, but it is mostly older Uighur men and women who arrive at 2pm and pass through security scanners and police checks to enter.
Within 100 metres of one mosque, but out of view, a dozen paramilitaries with machine guns stand at alert inside a police kiosk.
Police who force Fairfax Media to delete photographs outside the mosque scold that foreigners don’t understand.
“There hasn’t been a terrorist incident in 20 months.”