“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


Obstacles to investigating the human rights situation in Xinjiang

The government of China has taken extraordinary measures to prevent accurate information about the situation in Xinjiang from being documented. Chinese citizens living in China – particularly former internment camp detainees – have been effectively prevented from speaking or otherwise sharing information about the situation in Xinjiang. There is only the remote possibility communicating from Xinjiang over a secure form of communication, and the consequences of being identified are severe. All members of predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang are under heavy surveillance (see Chapter 2). Anyone living in Xinjiang who speaks out about the internment camps, is perceived to have spoken out, is accused of speaking out, or is affiliated with anyone who has spoken out, risks detention, arrest, imprisonment, torture, and enforced disappearance, not only for themselves but also for their family members.

The risks are particularly severe for ex-detainees and their families, who face heightened levels of suspicion and surveillance. For at least several months after being released from a camp, all ex-detainees are under near constant electronic and in-person surveillance. Before being released, every former internment camp detainee who spoke with Amnesty was made to sign a document that forbade them from speaking with anybody – especially journalists and foreign nationals – about what they experienced in the camp. Former detainees were informed that they would be interned again if they violated this prohibition, as would members of their families.

As a result of the serious risks facing people in Xinjiang, it is impossible to safely do independent research and gather documentation in Xinjiang that involves speaking with people. Moreover, journalists, human rights investigators, and diplomats have all been denied unfettered access to the region. [[[See John Sudworth, BBC News, “China’s pressure and propaganda – the reality of reporting Xinjiang,” 15 January 2021 ; Andrew McCormick, Columbia Journalism Review, “How extensive restrictions have shaped the story in Xinjiang, China,” 16 October 2018 ; Matt Schiavenza, Asia Society, “Why It’s So Difficult for Journalist To Report from Xinjiang,” 23 May 2019 ; Human Rights Watch, “China’s Weak Excuse to Block Investigations in Xinjiang: Ambassador Claims ‘Unreasonable, Unnecessary Obstacles’ Prevent UN Visit,” 25 March 2020 ]]] A few journalists have entered disguised as tourists but have found it nearly impossible to speak safely with people about the internment camp. [[[See Robin Barnwell and Gesbeen Mohammad, PBS Frontline, “China Undercover,”7 April 2020 ; Isobel Yeung, Vice News, “China’s Vanishing Muslims: Undercover in the Most Dystopian Place in the World,” ]]] Journalists who have travelled to the region officially have encountered a coordinated effort by government officials to block them from speaking with local inhabitants, especially former detainees, and from accessing internment camps, except in situations where the authorities try to exercise complete control over where they visit, what they see, who they speak with, and what is said to them. [[[Amnesty International interviews with several journalists; see also: France 24, “Fake tourists and car crashes: How China blocks reporters in Xinjiang,” 27 June 2019 ; Human Rights Watch, “China’s Xinjiang Tour Should Have Fooled No One: Stage-Managed Trip Shows Need for Independent Assessments,” 7 January 2019 ; James Griffiths, CNN, “From cover-up to propaganda blitz: China’s attempts to control the narrative on Xinjiang,” 17 April 2021 ; CBC Radio, “’They followed me everywhere’: reporter tailed, deterred while investigating Uighur detention in Xinjiang’ – Nathan VanderKlippe says he’s been ‘surrounded by people’ who reached into his car, grabbed his camera,” ]]] Foreign journalists based in China who attempt to report on the situation in China are often expelled or unable to renew their visas. [[[See Samuel Wade, China Digital Times, “China announces sweeping expulsion of American journalists,” 17 March 2020 ; James Griffiths, CNN, “Buzzfeed’s China reporter says she was forced to leave the country,” 23 August 2018 ; Cate Cadell, Tony Munroe, Reuters, “BBC journalist leaves China citing threats, obstruction,” 31 March 2021 ]]]

In rare cases when journalists are able to interview people on the ground in Xinjiang, interviewees have subsequently been forced by authorities to retract their stories. In connection with a recent case Amnesty had documented for another report about Uyghurs abroad trying to reunite with their children still in Xinjiang, CNN tracked down and visited one of these children who expressed a desire to reunite with her family. [[[Amnesty International, “Hearts and Lives Broken: The Nightmare of Uyghur Families Separated by Repression”, 19 March 2021 ]]] Chinese state media paid a visit to the child and her grandparents, who shortly afterward appeared in a video in which they refuted any wish to reunite abroad. [[[China Global Television Network, “Xinjiang Human Rights: Uyghur family disturbed by CNN reporters asks son to come home,” 23 March 2021 ]]]

Chinese government officials have also made a concerted effort to disseminate inaccurate and deliberately misleading information, both to foreign nationals and to the local population, about the human rights situation in Xinjiang. Former internment camp detainees told Amnesty International that they were forced to give false statements to their families or to the media, both while interned and after they had been released. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Former detainees told Amnesty that while they were detained they had been coached about what to say to foreign journalists or Chinese government delegations that visited their camps. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] Ibrahim told Amnesty how he was trained to speak with journalists who were expected to come to the camp he was in:

One day they told us journalists were coming. And that when you see them to smile. And to say what you were told or you will be taken to an underground room [where people are tortured]… [During the days before the journalists were scheduled to arrive] our Chinese language classes stopped. And we practised answering questions for journalists for more than 10 days… We practised saying that the food is good and the Chinese Communist Party is great. I don’t know if the journalists ever came because we were not allowed to go out. I heard they came, but I didn’t see them. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Bakyt, who spent more than a year in multiple internment camps, told Amnesty they were part of a group that was coached for 20 days about what to say to visiting journalists. “[We were coached] to say that we are studying well, deepening our knowledge, and we are thankful to the state, are getting a salary, that our family is taken care of, that we are here for the daytime only, and here voluntarily,” she said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] None of this was true, they added.

In 2019, leaked Chinese government documents were published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), The New York Times, and other media outlets and scholars. These leaks appear to have triggered attempts to put even tighter controls on information coming out of Xinjiang, including through the physical destruction of documents related to the internment camp system. Amnesty International received several accounts of Chinese government cadres being made to burn files related to the internment camp system in the aftermath of the leaks. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] One former detainee – a former government cadre – told Amnesty that he participated in burning files. “I attended the burning. It was in… 2019, after I was released… I was helping to carry the files… It was not only the [detainees’] files. It is any re-education–related materials. For example, all notes from meetings… It took five or six days to burn everything [in the office],” he said. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

The authorities’ attempts to silence the affected population and destroy evidence echo a directive from one of the leaked government documents – known as the “Telegram” – obtained by the ICIJ, which emphasizes the importance of maintaining “strict secrecy” with respect to everything that happens inside camps. [[[The Telegram (previously) cited, para. 25.]]] While the leaked portion of the directive lacks significant details about how secrecy will be maintained beyond the statement that “[i]t is necessary to strengthen the [internment camps’] staff’s awareness of staying secret, and strictly enforce [the Party’s] political discipline and secrecy discipline,” the experiences of former detainees and witnesses documented in this report and elsewhere illustrate the immense resources that have been devoted to this cover-up effort, as well as the often harsh and repressive methods used to ensure population’s silence.

As a result of risks facing people in Xinjiang and obstacles facing journalists and investigators, with few exceptions the vast majority of credible testimonial evidence about the situation has been gathered from former detainees and other people who have left Xinjiang and have spoken from abroad. Yet speaking from abroad is also difficult and comes with serious risks, especially for the person’s family members who remain in China. [[[For more on the risks facing people who speak out about the situation from abroad See Amnesty International, “Nowhere Feels Safe: Uyghurs Tell of China-led Intimidation Campaign Abroad”, 21 February 2020 ]]] Since at least 2017, obtaining permission to travel abroad – and, in many cases, domestically – has been nearly impossible for Uyghurs and extraordinarily difficult for members of other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Those who have obtained permission to travel abroad since 2017 appear to require a connection to a foreign country (usually citizenship or immediate family) and one or more “guarantors” in Xinjiang who agree, in writing, that they will be sent to a camp if the person they are guaranteeing speaks or shares information about the internment camps or does not return to China on time. As documented in this report and elsewhere, these are not empty threats: family members of people who speak about the issue from abroad have been sent to internment camps.

Reporting about the situation from abroad also carries significant risks. In several instances, journalists with family members in Xinjiang who reported on or spoke about the situation in Xinjiang from abroad have had their family members back in Xinjiang arrested, sent to a camp or prison, or forcibly disappeared. [[[See Committee to Project Journalists, “China detains family members of Radio Free Asia Uyghur editor Eset Sulaiman,” 8 March 2021 ; Amnesty International, “Urgent Action: 20 Relatives of Uighur Journalist Detained,” 1 March 2018 ; David Martin, Deutsche Welle, “Chinese authorities detain relatives of Radio Free Asia’s Uighur reports: Relatives of five reports for Radio Free Asia’s Uighur service have been detained in China’s Xinjiang Region. RFA said families were targeted in retaliation for its coverage of Beijing’s crackdown of ethnic Uighurs,” 2 February 2018 ]]] Family members of human rights activists have also been targeted. [[[Amnesty International , “Urgent Action Update: Uyghur Activist’s 30 Relatives Still Detained,” 15 July 2019 ]]] Family members of human rights activists have died in detention. [[[Shohret Hoshur, Radio Free Asia, “Niece of Prominent Uyghur Scholar Confirmed to Have Died in Xinjiang Internment Camp: Mihray Erkin was forced to return to the region in 2019 and died in detention the following year,” 25 May 2021, www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/niece-05252021132121.html]]]