Uighurs in Xinjiang, China
Uighurs in Xinjiang, China. Credit: Vice News

A Secretly Filmed Documentary Exposes A Dystopian Nightmare for Uighur Muslims in China

Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province of Northwestern China are living in a police state like no other on earth. Using counter-terrorism as a pre-text, Chinese authorities have rounded up over a million Uighur men and women, forcing them into what they call “re-education centers.”  Men and women are arrested, seemingly for minor offenses like growing a beard, or having foreign contacts, or sometimes for no reason at all. They languish in these detention centers indefinitely.

Outside the prison walls there is also a mass experiment in population control: authorities use facial recognition technologies, spyware and other high tech means to instill fear in Uighurs.

What we know about conditions in those camps and life in Xinjiang has come largely from reports of human rights organizations.

It is extremely rare for a journalist –let alone a western journalist — to access Xinjiang to report on human rights abuses on the ground. But that is exactly what my guest today, Isobel Yeung, did. Posing as a travel blogger, Isobel Yeung, surreptitiously filmed a documentary for Vice News that aired in June on HBO. The documentary provides a visceral sense of the dystopian police state that Xinjiang has become for its Uighur population. It also exposes one consequence of the mass roundups of Ughur men and women, which is the orphaning of children who Isobel Yeoung discovers are placed into their own kind of re-education centers, posing as kindergartens.

Isobel Yeung is on the line to discuss her reporting from Xinjiang, which is a feat of journalism. In our conversation she discuss how she gained access to the Xinjiang, the police state she encountered and how a pervasive sense of fear is being used to oppress a population of millions.


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Xinjiang is incredibly difficult to report on. Journalists have found that you are not able to report freely because you are either followed by government or undercover cops to ensure you do not speak to locals. You are often given access to these dog and pony shows with a curated tour, which the government wants to present. So, we decided to sneak in as tourists and pose as travel bloggers.

How did you avoid suspicion?

Nobody avoids it, but we were able to slip under the radar for a period of time. Most people mistook me for a local, which was good because white people raise more alarm bells. But, it is also a hindrance because all Uighur’s are treated as security threats. The fact that we had foreign passports affords us a degree of protection. At the same time that this massive crackdown on the Uighur community has taken place, the Chinese has been building the tourism industry. So, it is not totally abnormal that tourists would be travelling around.

Can you describe the ubiquity of security cameras and police officers?

This is the strictest and most sophisticated surveillance state in the world. It is impossible to exaggerate the dystopian nature of what it is like there. Every few meters you have a surveillance camera, voice recognition, facial recognition, and checkpoints to scan bodies and phones to ensure you don’t have anything content that would upset the communist party.

How are these measures used to oppress Uighur people?

The Chinese Communist Party would say this is about national security and that they are preventing future terrorist attacks. There have been a handful of violent riots and attacks within the region in the past decade. These measures are being used to eradicate a religion, culture, ethnicity, and really an entire population.

For instance, it is a law that all knives and sharp objects are chained to the wall to prevent any potential violent attacks. It is laughable that these extreme measures are taken against the entire Uighur population, yet they are.

What do we know about these re-education centers?

So, the UN has estimated that a million Uighurs that have been placed across the region in these camps. They are put in there for a variety of reasons. Uighur people say they have been placed in the camps for reading the Quran, studying Arabic, speaking the Uighur language, wearing a headscarf, and just insulting the Communist Party in any way they perceive. Further, having visited any foreign countries is also seen as extremist so they can be abducted for that as well.

When people are abducted, there are a lot of kids orphaned. You tracked down some of these “kindergartens”. Can you tell the story of the woman in Istanbul?

This woman left China to give birth. She left five of her children with her parents, thinking her or her husband would be back in a couple weeks. When her husband came back, he was arrested and placed in detention. She has not seen her children or heard from them in three years. Uighur’s living abroad can’t have any contact in Xinjiang. She got one sign of her daughter’s existence via a WhatsApp video in a group chat that the Uighur diaspora have. She spotted her daughter in the back of the video where she believes is at a state-run orphanage. So, she believes her children are being brought up there. We have spoken to many Uighurs whose children have been taken away from them and are being brought up in these institutions.

How did you go about of tracking down some of these institutions?

It began with that video. We were able to track that to a social media profile within a city, and then we looked into the government records and saw the number of state kindergartens had exploded at the same time they were rounding up hundreds of thousands of Uighurs. We looked into satellite imagery that matched the descriptions of what we were reading. We were able to track several locations, so we returned to Xinjiang to see some.

On this second visit, had security around you tightened?

Yes, we were followed from the moment we arrived, and arguably before. Most days there were plain clothed police officers following us, listening to everything, and tracking us wherever we went. In addition, uniformed policeman were looking at our phones and deleting any content they wanted. Despite that, we were able to find some of these institutions. They had security fences around them and they were all in run-down neighbourhoods. We noticed that no kids were really leaving. The locals nearby seemed to think it was common knowledge that the Uighur kids were kept there.

Do we have any sense of the number of children separated from their parents?

No. However, we could see the number of kindergartens had increased by 2.6 times the previous amount in 2016 over just one year. The Chinese justify this by saying they are increasing education.

How does the reporting in Xinjiang compare to past reporting?

There is nothing like going to Xinjiang right now. I have witnessed a lot of real danger, but I have never witnessed this palpable fear that I saw. People are terrified to do, see, or even think something wrong.

How are the Han population affected by these ordinances and state policies?

A lot of the Han people have said these policies are far reaching. One person said his business has collapsed. As a hotel owner, he had to hire extra security personnel, and further, everyone has been sent to these concentration camps so there is nobody to spend money. The economy has collapsed. Other people see these measures as necessary.

What do you want listeners to leave understanding about Xinjiang right now?

This is the greatest human rights atrocity in the world right now. There has never been an abuse of this scale since the Holocaust. This development of a surveillance state means everyone outside of these facilities is in an open prison, fearing what will happen to them and their families. The international community has been largely silent, so hopefully we can educate people about this atrocity.

Shownotes by Lydia DeFelice