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Moment that mattered: China defends Uighur detention camps at the United Nations

The Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center, believed to be a re-education camp for Uighurs, 2nd June 2019. Photo: Greg Baker / AFP / Getty Images

This article was published in Delayed Gratification in September 2019

China has been accused of detaining over a million people without trial in camps in Xinjiang province. Yet on 25th June the vice-governor of the province told the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, that the state-run camps were in fact vocational training centres where people were deradicalised while acquiring useful new skills. Erkin Tuniyaz, himself a member of the Uighur Muslim minority who make up the vast majority of the detainees, claimed that the camps will “prevent people becoming victims of terrorism and extremism”.

Vice News correspondent Isobel Yeung sees things differently. “This is the greatest human rights atrocity in the world right now,” she replies when asked why she took on the riskiest of assignments: going undercover in Xinjiang province in northwest China to search for evidence of what she describes as a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

There’s been no mass detention of any race or religion like this since the Holocaust”

“Up to one-and-a-half million Uighur people have been detained in camps across the region. There’s been no mass detention of any race or religion like this since the Holocaust,” she says.

Tuniyaz’s defence of the camps came ten months after the UN first urged China to release the “upwards of a million” Muslims it said were being detained in camps, the existence of which China initially denied. Researchers and journalists using satellite imagery have found evidence of a vast network of camps in Xinjiang, where about half the population of 25 million are Muslim Uighurs, who have a distinctive culture, identity and Turkic language. The satellite images have also shown the demolition of mosques and Uighur shrines.

A few journalists have been on highly choreographed official tours on which, under the watchful eyes of state officials, Uighur “students” explained how they voluntarily attended “thought transformation” courses. Yeung’s film, in which she used hidden cameras and posed as a Lonely Planet-clutching tourist to gain entry, is perhaps the first report to offer a sense of what living in Xinjiang is really like for those who have not been sent to the camps.

“I was in Xinjiang 12 years ago and it was an exciting place to be,” says Yeung, who has Chinese heritage and speaks Mandarin. “People were really open and friendly. Now nobody will talk to you. At one point an old woman was crossing the road and she slipped on the ice and fell. I rushed to help her and someone shouted “Don’t, don’t!” at me because it’s so dangerous to be seen having a foreigner approach you. ”

In Hotan and Kashgar, Yeung and her team filmed eerily empty residential streets. “People there, both Uighurs and Han Chinese (the ethnic group that makes up over 90 percent of the Chinese population), acknowledged that many people had been taken away,” says Yeung. “Everyone has family members in the camps.”

Beijing says that only extremists are sent to the camps and in recent years it has blamed a number of terror attacks on Uighur separatists. From conversations Yeung has had with members of the Uighur diaspora, the reason for arrest and detention “can be anything from wearing a headscarf to having a beard, reading the Quran or contacting a relative abroad”. She spoke to one person who said they had been taken to the camps for having gone on holiday to France 15 years earlier.

There are security cameras everywhere, face and voice recognition… Even if you’re outside the camps you’re in a virtual prison”

The subtitle of Yeung’s film is ‘Undercover in the Most Dystopian Place in the World’, and her film offers a glimpse of the intense surveillance those not in the camps live with on a daily basis: she saw endless rows of cameras, heavily armed police on every corner and airport-style security at regular checkpoints. She was stopped and questioned by the police on several occasions, and throughout her trip she was followed by plainclothes officers, one of whom tailed her at all times, wherever she went.

Yeung frequently uses the term ‘Orwellian’ to describe her Xinjiang experience. “There are security cameras everywhere, face and voice recognition; phones have malware downloaded on them so they know if you’ve been on a foreign website or had contact with people abroad,” she says. “Even if you’re outside the camps you’re in a virtual prison.”

It’s not merely that the state is using the latest in population-control technology; it is also getting into Uighurs’ homes. In November 2018 the Associated Press reported that over one million government workers have been “deployed to ethnic minorities’ living rooms, dining areas and Muslim prayer spaces” in Xinjiang in what Beijing describes as something akin to a cultural-exchange programme. “It’s terrifying,” says Yeung, “that the goal of cleansing an entire ethnicity and culture is colliding with the development of the most sophisticated surveillance technology [in the world] – huge amounts of money have gone into its development. Uighurs have had their DNA taken and their irises scanned. The fear is so effective.”

Beijing has made it extremely hard for journalists to get accurate information out of the camps in Xinjiang – Yeung always knew she had no chance of sneaking in to one of them – but this tech-driven climate of extreme fear appears to have eliminated the possibility of anyone in the region daring to speak out. “I was hoping to find an underground resistance movement working against the Communist party,” says Yeung. “But there isn’t one because it hasn’t been given an inch of space to exist”.

What’s so terrifying is not knowing the risk, not knowing who to trust, not knowing if you’re being listened to”

The degree of dissent from Han Chinese people is difficult to gauge because people are nervous about speaking freely. Yeung says she’s spoken to some who have discreetly expressed sympathy for Uighurs. “The propaganda in China is really effective,” she adds. “Every Chinese person is aware of the attacks and riots [that were blamed on Uighur separatists] and many see the [detention centres] as a necessary policy to stabilise the region and the country. Tourism has gone up massively in Xinjiang because many Han Chinese people now think it’s safe to travel there.”

There are several scary moments in Yeung’s film, including one covertly recorded scene in which a group of eight Uighur men is seen being silently marched to a police station in Kashgar. Yet perhaps the most sinister scene comes towards the end, when Yeung goes looking for some of the vast numbers of “kindergartens” that have reportedly opened in Xinjiang to house the many thousands of children whose parents have been sent to camps. A group of small children in a playground is filmed being asked a series of questions over loudspeakers: “Are you Chinese? Do you love China? Do you want China to be strong?”

“Targeting kids at a young age is an effective tool,” says Yeung. “It’s a way to break loyalties with family, as well as identity and culture, and ensure that their main loyalty is to the Chinese Communist party.”

Despite the UN’s condemnation last year, the international community’s response has been muted. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo called China’s treatment of the Uighurs the human rights “stain of the century” and in July UN ambassadors from 22 countries co-signed a letter to condemn China, but countries appear to be nervous of upsetting Beijing. “China has an incredible global impact and countries are scared,” says Yeung. “They’ve warned countries not to interfere in their internal politics.”

On 30th July, Erkin Tuniyaz told reporters that 90 percent of Muslims had been released from the camps. “I call bullshit on this because we’ve seen absolutely no evidence of mass releases,” says Yeung. The US state department was “unable to verify” Tuniyaz’s claims.

In recent years Yeung has travelled to Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Philippines to report on bloody conflicts, but she says her Xinjiang film was “the hardest, most harrowing story” she’s ever worked on. “It’s because of the psychological impact,” she says. “In conflict zones you know where the danger is coming from, you know the risks. What’s so terrifying is not knowing the risk, not knowing who to trust, not knowing if you’re being listened to.”

Due to her work on the film, which has been viewed over two million times on YouTube, Yeung can no longer risk visiting China. “It’s a bummer,” she says. “I’ve got family there and I love the country. It makes me genuinely sad not to be able to go back.”

Watch Isobel Yeung’s film, China’s Vanishing Muslims, here.


We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #35 of Delayed Gratification

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