Why Don’t We Know What Exactly Is Happening In Xinjiang?

Photograph of a new “re-education camp” opening in Korla, Xinjiang.

Photograph of a new “re-education camp” opening in Korla, Xinjiang.

Recently, stories have begun to pop up across the media about Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province (known to Uyghurs as East Turkestan) thanks to the courageous work of a few dedicated reporters. But as of right now, we don’t know exactly how many Uyghurs are in China’s prisons, “re-education camps,” and black sites. Why not?

Investigative journalists in Xinjiang are few and far between. Individuals who report on brutality, abuse, and human rights violations are viewed as threats to the regime because they encourage criticism from the West. The most recent information estimates that around 1 million Uyghur Muslims are being held indefinitely, without trial in ‘re-education camps,’ where they are brainwashed by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities and prodded to denounce their Islamic beliefs. Multiple reports have attested to the horrible conditions in these camps, stating that detainees are hungry, dirty, and sometimes denied access to medical care. Physical and emotional abuse is an everyday reality.

As Chinese authorities continue to violate Uyghurs’ basic rights to conscience, speech, and assembly, they simultaneously attempt to suppress outsiders’ ability to understand the reality of the abuses the state is committing—and they’ve gotten very good at it.

Earlier this month, VOC published an open letter signed by 33 nongovernmental organizations decrying the authoritarian surveillance state in Xinjiang, citing the government’s ability to use modern facial and voice recognition technology to track where people are and what they are doing at all times. This same technology is being used to keep strict tabs on any foreign journalists visiting Xinjiang, such as two Wall Street Journal reporters who recently traveled there. Stopped “randomly” by police cruisers twice on their trip, followed by an unmarked car to the airport, and filmed by two airport employees, the reporters were under constant surveillance to ensure they didn’t stumble upon anything which would give them insight into the human rights abuses in Xinjiang. On multiple occasions the reporters were ordered to leave some areas or were led away from certain roads, ensuring that they did not find anything authorities did not want to be found.

Additionally, the few who are lucky enough to obtain the visa required to work as a foreign reporter in China must tread lightly when writing about topics which paint the government in a negative light. Ursula Gauthier was a French correspondent in Beijing whose visa was not renewed after she published a piece critical of the government’s policies towards Uyghurs. After suggesting that the CCP’s policies may be responsible “for the rising exasperation of its minorities,” Gauthier received hateful backlash from the Chinese media and even some death threats. She was forced to leave in 2015 when her visa expired. Gauthier continues to advocate for a freer press in China and encourages reporters to uncover abuses while also recognizing that this work puts them at great risk. Other reporters who have been expelled from China include Melissa Chan and Megha Rajagopalan, and there are various accounts of visas being denied for fear that the journalists would undermine the work of the state.

For foreign journalists with family in Xinjiang, the stakes are even higher. Reporters from the group Radio Free Asia (RFA), whose coverage of the Uyghur oppression has been thorough and constant, have had family members detained as retaliation for their publications which give a voice to the million Uyghurs suffering in that area. RFA has published stories that call out the illegal detainments, family separations, and confiscation of property for what they are and hope that by uncovering these heartbreaking stories they will convince foreign citizens and governments to take action.

Unfortunately, even if a reporter is willing and able to get past the many hurdles to expose these abuses in Xinjiang, very few Uyghurs are willing to speak about it. RFA recently debuted a short video documenting the personal experiences of Uyghurs who were put in the re-education camps and have fled the region for fear of being persecuted further. Only three of all the individuals they contacted were brave enough to step forward. The complete control that the Chinese government exerts on these individuals in Xinjiang haunts them long after, and they too fear for the lives of friends and family members who they were forced to leave behind.

So if you’re wondering why nobody can get a firm count of how many people are being detained in the re-education camps, why nobody is able to confirm at which locations these people are being held, or why so few Uyghurs in China are able to stand up to these abuses, it’s because the people involved fears for their own lives and for the lives of their families.

And in the eyes of the CCP, if you say anything, you’ve said too much.