It is probably the most difficult place to report from in China. In the far-western province of Xinjiang, the Chinese campaign to smash Islamic extremism and independence sentiments has been taken to new extreme level.
The Chinese deny it’s going on, and don’t like foreign reporters going there to investigate.
I travelled to the Uighur heartland, the city of Kashgar, for the Foreign Correspondent program. To give you an idea of the geography, Kashgar is much closer to Tehran or Baghdad than to Beijing.
Xinjiang is home to about 11 million Uighurs — a Turkic ethnic minority who practise the Islamic faith. The United States and now the United Nations say what’s happening there is the biggest crackdown on any ethnic group happening in the world today.
Human rights activists say widescale abuses and mass detentions are taking place, with a million Uighurs being held in “re-education camps”.
After travelling all day to get there, I fell into a deep sleep at about midnight in my hotel room. Soon after the phone rang, and suddenly I jolted upright.
My Chinese colleague was at the other end of the line, saying “they’re here, they want to see us downstairs now”.
We had expected the call, as that’s how security officers deal with Western reporters in the province of Xinjiang. We had managed to evade them for two hours by pretending to be tourists as we filmed the Id Kah Mosque, and that felt like a war zone rather than a place of worship. Riot troops patrolled the area and a Chinese flag claimed the dome of the mosque.
Now, five security personnel were waiting downstairs in the hotel lounge for us.
Two of them — Max and Mike, as they called themselves — said in perfect English: “Welcome to Kashgar”.
I did point out to them it was midnight and it wasn’t a very nice welcome. Max replied: “We’re just doing our job, we want to show how peaceful and harmonious Kashgar really is”.
And that was quickly followed up with a threat: “If you film any police or security presence, any surveillance technology, then your journalist visas might be cancelled”.
We had come to film how the Chinese were using technology as their new tool of repression. Needless to say, it was going to be a difficult assignment.
Minders watched us every step of the way
Interestingly, Mike and Max were Uighurs themselves. Some would label them collaborators, part of the Chinese attempt to turn the Uighurs against themselves — to get half the population to inform and spy on the other half.
Over the course of the next four days we’d learn there was actually a much bigger cordon, more than 20 security officials watching us 24 hours a day.
Everywhere we’d go, they’d be there already. But they would dress up and change roles, try to be in disguise as shop assistants, construction workers, drivers or tourists taking photos.
It was almost farcical, as some would play several different roles in space of several hours, so you got to know faces and recognise the shopkeeper who suddenly became the maintenance man.
And the three ladies from the propaganda department who never left our side would ensure locations were “cleaned” before we turned up, so everything appeared to look peaceful and harmonious.
Our minders controlled our movements and demanded that we delete scenes we had filmed. To please them, we did, but we came prepared and had several back up recordings which they did not detect — you can see them on Tuesday’s Foreign Correspondent program.
It was almost impossible to speak with any local Uighurs, and when we did it was all set up so they would talk about the wonderful development China was providing the Uighurs.
Eventually we spoke with an old shopkeeper in the Grand Bazaar — but he had been coached for 15 minutes by our minders before the chat.
“Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, life is getting better all the time. We now have good roads and good buildings, even trains and aeroplanes. Life just gets better and better,” the shopkeeper said.
I didn’t push him, because that was not a risk worth taking. If a local was to speak honestly about the crackdown underway, it would land them in detention.
Are you trustworthy, questionable or untrustworthy?
But it was pretty difficult to hide what was going on. The Chinese had spent a whopping $12 billion on security to fund their latest campaign.
The vastly expanded network of security agencies and personnel were everywhere. But technology is the new weapon, so lines of CCTV cameras — all with artificial intelligence — were all over the streets and buildings, much more than in Beijing.
The authorities had set up a grid system for total control, and about every 100 metres, there was a new police station. Locals were restricted from public areas by checkpoints which used facial recognition.
So going to a shopping centre — that’s if you were allowed in — is like getting into a prison. Filling up a car with petrol is a major security operation, where every purchase is tagged and recorded to each individual. Authorities want to make sure the Uighurs do not self-immolate or make a bomb.
The Uighurs are tracked 24 hours a day, and everything they do, say and even think is watched. Their iPhones are routinely and regularly searched for “Islamic content”, and then “scrubbed”.
Authorities put the local population into three categories: trustworthy, questionable and untrustworthy.
If you are Han Chinese, you are deemed trustworthy and are free to move, but if you are a Uighur, you are immediately under suspicion and put into the questionable category, simply because of your ethnicity and religion.
Uighurs are quickly upgraded to untrustworthy and subjected to detention if they are a male of fighting age, pray often or have had religious training, or visited one of 26 proscribed Muslim countries like Pakistan or Malaysia.
The United Nations says it now has credible evidence that about a million Uighurs — about 10 per cent of the population — are now being held in detention without trial, in what are being called “re-education camps”.
China denies this, and says only convicted terrorists are detained, and only “vocational training” is conducted.
Re-education camps or concentration camps?
Testimonies of former inmates are starting to emerge, revealing details from inside the camps. They say they were forced to denounce their religion and culture, and embrace Communist party ideology and Chinese nationalism.
If they don’t, they claim they were tortured and put into solitary confinement. Locals call them concentration camps.
Outside of China, Foreign Correspondent spoke with Tahir Hamut, a Uighur filmmaker and poet in America. He fled last year with his family, after he said he witnessed “advanced technology which we’d never seen, never experienced and never heard of” starting to appear.
Authorities in Urumqi instructed him and his wife to give a blood sample for DNA analysis, voice samples, and comprehensive facial scans for facial recognition software.
Mr Hamut says when Uighurs started to disappear into the re-education camps, he knew he had to get out.
But when Chinese authorities learnt that Mr Hamut had sought political asylum in America, his brother and two brothers-in-law disappeared.
It’s now impossible to communicate with them. They’re in the “concentration camps”. Even contacting their families, their wives, isn’t possible now.
We could try to contact them — sure, we could call — but if we do, the police will know immediately and then the others would be taken to the camps as well.
Look beyond the tourist haven
Kashgar is meant to be the spiritual heartland of the Uighurs, but much of the old city has been destroyed. The Chinese have rebuilt one section of the city and turned it into a kind of Uighur theme park, mainly for Chinese tourists, where you can try local cuisine, buy some trinkets and see a show.
It was the one place the three ladies from the propaganda department were happy for us to film. They wanted us to see for ourselves that the Chinese had provided the Uighurs with big houses, with heating and proper toilets.
But a few streets back from the tourist area, many of the houses were empty, as the Uighurs who lived there have been put into the camps.
‘The crowning glory for the propaganda ladies was a visit to the museum that documented the rebuilding. The message was blunt — on the first floor there were exhibits devoted to how uncivilised and unclean the Uighurs were, and the top floor was a celebration of what the Chinese had given the locals.
But the problem is that most of the Uighurs have been locked out of the new developments in Kashgar and Xinjiang. Much of it is directed at the Han Chinese, who have flooded in to take the jobs and economic opportunities.
One got the impression that the Chinese in Xinjiang were very much trying to smash Uighur culture and rebuild and reshape it into their own. The Chinese call it “transformation though re-education” and it was at its ugliest during the Cultural Revolution.
Now many China-watchers are saying what is happening in Xinjiang is proving to be worse.
Just before we left, there was one more cameo. When we boarded the plane and sat down in our seats to return to Beijing, a tall older gentleman approached us dressed as a flight attendant.
He stood in front of me, with a camera attached to his chest and recorded me for a few seconds, then quickly left. A parting message.