“Like we were enemies in a war”

China’s Mass Internment, Torture and Persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang

“Like we were enemies in a war” China’s Mass Internment, Torture and Persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang

Illustrations by Molly Crabapple


Restrictions on freedom of movement

Muslims living in Xinjiang cannot move freely. The government restricts their travel both within Xinjiang and between Xinjiang and the rest of China. [[[Tom Phillips, The Guardian, “In China’s far west the ‘perfect police state’ is emerging”, 22 June 2017 ; Human Rights Watch, Eradicating Ideological Viruses: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims, 9 September 2018 ]]] Certain movement restrictions appear to affect all Muslims; more severe movement restrictions are placed on former detainees, the families of former detainees, and other targeted people.

For several months after being released, nearly all former camp detainees were placed under some form of house arrest or “neighbourhood” arrest. Those who were occasionally allowed to leave their homes (or other areas to which they were confined) were required to get written permission from the authorities beforehand. After this period, some of the restrictions placed on their freedom of movement were slowly lifted. (For more on freedom of movement restrictions placed on former camp detainees see Chapter 6.)

Members of ethnic minority groups who have never been sent to internment camps also face serious restriction on their movements within Xinjiang. Former residents of Xinjiang reported they and their family members were forbidden from travelling outside their neighbourhood without permission. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Reyhangül, who had been living outside of Xinjiang, returned to her hometown in 2018 to find that she now needed written permission from local government officials to travel to see her friends in another town. She told Amnesty the movement restrictions also affected her family and her community. “People were not moving anywhere [outside of our neighbourhood] because they could not get permission… My [family members] couldn’t go anywhere. They were essentially bonded to the house and to their work,” she said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Interviewees said permission was needed to enter specific Uyghur neighbourhoods in certain cities. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] “Since 2016, there were special areas in Urumqi where Uyghur communities are totally blocked. If I want to go into these areas then I have to give the police my ID and tell them where I am going and for how long,” Ismail said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Meryemgül told Amnesty the Uyghur population in her town had their movements restricted; her movements were even further restricted because she had travelled abroad:

There is a travel restriction. If we needed to go from town to town we needed to get permission [from the government]… Guests needed to be registered and you needed to ‘guarantee’ that guest… Because I went abroad, I had an ‘[alert]’ on my ID… When I went [to this town] there was a checkpoint and they checked my ID card and told me to come into a room where they held suspicious people… [After that] I was afraid to use my ID. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Former residents reported that a “flag” was assigned to their ID for reasons they did not know and that they were prevented from travelling to certain areas or entering certain buildings as a result. “If you got flagged from a checkpoint then the flag would stay with you… I got flagged and I was prevented from riding a bus and from entering a hospital.” [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

These movement restrictions are enforced through a ubiquitous electronic surveillance network. Whenever members of ethnic minorities do move about in Xinjiang, the government tracks their movements through their phones and by the ever-present network of surveillance cameras on street corners and lamp posts, many of which have facial recognition capabilities. [[[Tom Phillips, The Guardian, “China testing facial-recognition surveillance system in Xinjiang – report: system alerts authorities when suspects on watchlist stray from their home or workplace,” 18 January 2018 ; Paul Mozur and Aaron Krolik, New York Times, “A Surveillance Net Blankets China’s Cities, Giving Police Vast Powers: The authorities can scan your phones, track your face and find out when you leave your home. One of the of the world’s biggest spying networks is aimed at regular people, and nobody can stop it,” 17 December 2019 ; Paul Mozur, “One Month, 500,000 Face Scans: How China is Using A.I. to Profile a Minority: In a major ethnical leap for the tech world, Chinese start-ups have built algorithms that the government uses to track members of a largely Muslim minority group,” 14 April 2019 ]]]

Journalists have reported that the facial recognition technology is specifically programmed to “detect, track, and monitor Uyghurs.” [[[Avi Asher-Schapiro, Reuters, “Chinese tech patents tolls that can detect, track Uighurs,” 13 January 2021 ]]] “Every roof of a police station, a checkpoint, also has many cameras. On every corner, on every red light, there are many cameras. You can’t count. There are so many… They are at the entrance of every Uyghur-populated area,” Ismail said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Ibrahim told Amnesty a camera was installed outside his house after he was released from a camp. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Yerkinbek said officials threatened to install a camera in his place of work after they interrogated him and accused him of behaving suspiciously. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Two individuals who worked for the government told Amnesty that officials installed cameras outside the houses of families that were being monitored. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] “Targeted families have cameras installed outside of the gates of the house [to monitor them]… I saw this everywhere,” Aiman said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

In addition to surveillance by ubiquitous cameras, the population is monitored by a huge number of security forces, who often check ID and search people’s phones in the street, and by thousands of “convenience police stations” and other checkpoints located throughout Xinjiang. [[[Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Myunghee Lee, Emir Yazici, “Counterterrorism and preventive Repression: China’s Chainging Strategy in Xinjiang,” International Security, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Winter 2019/20), pp. 9–47 ; Adrian Zenz and James Leibold, The Jamestown Foundation, “Chen Quanguo: The Strongman Behind Beijing’s Securitization Strategy in Tibet and Xinjiang,” China Brief Volume 17, Issue 12 ]]] Numerous residents told Amnesty about the increase in the number of police on the streets. “The number of auxiliary police increased. They are everywhere. In one street you might be checked several times. You might be questioned several times,” Azhar said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

“[In 2016 and early 2017] the police were everywhere, you could hear the ringing of police sirens all the time,” Merdan said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] “Assistant police started randomly checking everyone’s phones… They were taking anyone with something [forbidden] on their phone to the camp… I used to clean my phone before I went into the city… It was a very scary time,” Yerkinbek said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Numerous residents told Amnesty how large numbers of security checkpoints were constructed in their towns and neighbourhoods in 2017. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] “After Chen [Quanguo] came [to Xinjiang as party secretary], he built thousands of police outposts in the street. Every 200–300 metres. I saw them myself every day in Urumqi… My home is on [a street], and in a very short time five or six [convenience] police stations were built within 1–2 kilometres [on the street],” Asanali told Amnesty. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Kunsulu described how the security forces grew dramatically in his area after 2017 and what it was like to go through checkpoints:

In streets, the police outnumbered people… Every street had a temporary police station… it was impossible to get into the market without an ID. They would check ID, search your body and then let you in… In the temporary police stations… you go through a metal detector and facial recognition, and you scan your ID card. If there are no problems, you can go through; if not, the room is divided into two parts. It is divided by glass with police on the other side. If something is wrong, you are questioned [on the other side]. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Residents told Amnesty International that at checkpoints they were required to have their ID scanned, to have iris or facial scans, and to have their phones and sometimes their bodies searched. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Interviewees also said they were required to scan their ID when they made purchases in butcher shops or gas stations, and that anything suspicious that was purchased, like a knife, needed to have a QR code on it. [[[Amnesty International interviews; See also, Steven Melendez, Fast Company, “In locked-down Xinjiang, China is tracking kitchen knives with QR codes,” 20 December 2017 ]]] “I went to the town centre for shopping. I went to a tailor… The [tailor’s] scissors had a bar code on them and were chained to the wall… Police were checking stores all the time. Even [steam] irons were chained to the wall,” Reyhangül said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] “In 2017… at every shopping centre, even little boutiques had to register the customers who came in and out so the police could follow up,” Azat said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Former residents of Xinjiang said movement restrictions were enforced in a discriminatory manner. Interviewees said the police stopped only ethnic minorities on the street and checked their ID. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Witnesses, including two who worked at a government checkpoints, reported that Han Chinese either did not need to go through the checkpoints at all or were essentially waved through without having their bodies or phones searched and without being questioned. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] “Only Uyghurs have to go through checkpoints,” Aisha said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] “There is an extra step for people from Xinjiang to get through airport security. They scanned our body twice with an X-ray machine,” Aidar said. “After the Urumqi riots, until 2016, only Uyghurs had to go through checkpoints. In 2016/2017 they started to check Kazakhs as well. I was on a bus and thought I did not have to [get off and go through the checkpoint], but the auxiliary police checked my ID and found out I was Kazakh and I had to get off the bus. Han don’t have to go through that,” Kunsulu said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Saken also reported that members of ethnic minorities were regularly asked to get off public buses to be searched, but not Han Chinese. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] “At malls and hospitals [everyone has to swipe their ID]… but in the street only Muslims have to do this, Han people didn’t have to swipe. And if a Han person forgets their card they can still be let in,” Dariga said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Several witnesses reported that at train stations and airports there were separate lines for Han Chinese and ethnic minorities. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] “In 2019, I went to Urumqi… Before [I got on the train], I had to go through a very strict checkpoint, and when I got off the train they directed Han Chinese in one direction and Muslims in another… [Muslims] had to go through another checkpoint again [Han Chinese did not],” Saken said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Yin, a Han Chinese man who visited Xinjiang, told Amnesty about the discrimination he witnessed while travelling:

The surveillance cameras are literally everywhere… The discrimination is so blatant. When I boarded a train, they didn’t check anything, but the Uyghurs sitting right across from me, they check their tickets and their phones… When I was in the station, there were two lines [for security checks], one for Uyghurs and one for Han without facial recognition, just through a metal detector. The line for Uyghurs was very long… Under a tunnel in [a major city] I just walked by, but Uyghurs had to have a full body check with metal detectors, including old men. They were checked at both sides of the tunnel. I was carrying luggage, and no one even checked my bag. I went through the [security] door, but no one checked with a wand… Because I am Han, I was not checked… I spoke with a [government official] who said, ‘Uyghurs have to be treated differently because there are no Han terrorists’. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Members of ethnic minorities told Amnesty they had difficulties booking hotel rooms and renting apartments when they travelled outside their hometowns. [[[Amnesty International interviews]]] “In Beijing, the hotel we booked online refused to check us in… They said it was because our documents were from Xinjiang… I think they rejected us because they were afraid the police would come… I felt like a third-class citizen,” Aidar said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] “We were always rejected by hotels. Every time, people from the front desk would tell us that they can’t accept us or that they don’t have a room… Sometimes we would be de-registered if we had booked online. And if they did accept us, the police would always come [to the room],” Zeynepgul said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]