Inside China’s Police State Tactics Against Muslims

A new report from The Intercept provides a raw glimpse into the persecution and sweeping internment of Muslims in northwest China’s Xinjiang region.

Abduweli Ayup, center, at his home in Bergen, Norway on January 21, 2021. Photo Illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images (2), Melanie Burford for The Intercept

A massive police database obtained by The Intercept provides groundbreaking insight into the pervasive surveillance state operated by the Chinese government to repress Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. This week on Intercepted: A new report from The Intercept provides a raw glimpse into the persecution and sweeping internment of Muslims in the city of Ürümqi, the largest city in northwest China’s Xinjiang region.

The report also confirms many of the anti-democratic systems already in place: child separation and carceral re-education, installation of surveillance cameras inside private homes and mosques, immense detention centers, frequent police stops, widespread collection of electronic and biometric data, demolition of Uyghur cemeteries, and the forced abortion and sterilization of women.

Although the United States has surveilled, abused, rendered, and imprisoned Muslims for decades, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that China is committing “ongoing” genocide. His successor, Antony Blinken, agreed with that characterization during his confirmation hearing in January.

The Intercept’s Ryan Tate, technology reporter Yael Grauer, and anthropologist Darren Byler analyze the unprecedented scale and sophistication of the surveillance campaign detailed in the database. We also hear Uyghur linguist and poet Abduweli Ayup tell the story of his 15-month detainment for operating a Uyghur-language kindergarten in Xinjiang.


Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. 

Ryan Tate: Really, I feel like we were able to bring some context around the many, many small ways that repression happens in China. 

[Musical interlude]

I’m Ryan Tate. I’m the technology editor at The Intercept. We obtained a large cache of government documents from a region of China, Xinjiang, where the Muslim minorities, including Uyghurs, have been systematically imprisoned and repressed. What this trove shows that we think hasn’t been reported before out of Xinjiang is the day-to-day impact on the lives of ordinary citizens — what it’s like living day-to-day with government minders stopping you in the streets routinely at checkpoints three or four times a day, visiting your house, policing you at the mosque, searching you on the way into a mosque, watching how you pray, what style you pray in. 

You know, I think we were also able to really show the way digital tools are stitched together in a way that’s sort of hauntingly innovative. That they’re able to police these people and put them under a microscope by using technology that’s widely available around the world and that they West has just started to use for surveillance in a day-to-day way but could happen here. 

Even as someone who’s been really alarmed at what’s happened in the United States, and seeing some of the parallels, I still felt like it wasn’t something that I could even really wrap my head around, even having been horrified at a lot of the things I’ve seen my own country do in the last 20 years. It was just really hard to imagine what it would be like having that multiplied by 10 or 100. 

[Musical interlude]

Yael Grauer: The order came through a police automation system in Ürümqi, the largest city in China’s northwest Xinjiang region. The system had distributed a report — an “intelligence information judgment” — that the female relative of a purported extremist had been offered free travel to Yunnan, a picturesque province to the south. The woman found the offer on the smartphone app WeChat, in a group known simply as “Travelers.” Authorities homed in on the group because of ethnic and family ties; its members included Muslim minorities like Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, who speak languages beside China’s predominant one, Mandarin. 

“This group has over 200 ethnic-language people,” the order stated, referring to such persons. “Many of them are relatives of incarcerated people. This situation needs major attention. Please investigate immediately. Find out the backgrounds of the people who organize ‘free travel,’ their motivation, and the inner details of their activities.”

One person rounded up as a result of the order, a Uyghur, had no previous criminal record, had never heard of the WeChat group, nor even traveled within China as a tourist. Still, his phone was confiscated and sent to a police “internet safety unit,” and the community was to “control and monitor” him. A record about him was entered into the police automation system. 

Police appear to have investigated the man and assigned the cadre members to “control and monitor” him entirely because of religious activities of his eldest sister five months earlier. She and her husband invited another Uyghur couple in Ürümqi to join a religious discussion group on the messaging app Tencent QQ, according to police records. The husband stopped smoking and drinking, and the wife began wearing longer clothes. They began listening to “religious extremism information” on their laptop, the report said. Between the two couples, police recovered 168 religious audio files deemed illegal, likely because they were connected to an Islamic movement, Tablighi Jamaat, that advocates practicing Islam as it was practiced when the Prophet Muhammad was alive. The fate of the eldest sister and her husband is unknown. The other couple was sent to a re-education camp.

My name is Yael Grauer and I’m an investigative tech reporter. It’s just one of the stories that we found in this database that has a ton of information on the extensive policing and surveillance of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. It’s about 52 gigabytes and there’s 250 million rows of data. But a lot of it is about just like repression and persecution and large scale internment of Muslims in the area. There’s been other reports of cameras being installed in people’s homes. There’s cameras outside of mosques. There’s these massive detention camps. There’s been reports of children forcibly separated from their families and put in pre-school camps. Destruction of Uyghur cemeteries, forced abortion and sterilization of Uyghurs.

You have to have your phone on in case the police call you. Every chat app you use is monitored. You know, you’re getting your face scanned, your voice signature analyzed, your DNA taken, you’re scanning your phone over and over again, like, you’re just being so heavily surveilled that it’s like you can’t be free, like you can never feel private, even for a moment. It’s pretty crazy.

[Musical interlude]

Darren Byler: This database is really unprecedented in terms of its scale and its detail. I’m Darren Byler, anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I study surveillance systems, policing. You know, we have tens of thousands of unique police files from the city of Ürümqi between 2017 up into 2019. And so its really a first look at a granular level of how policing works in this city. 

To enter your housing area, you need to have your face scanned and match your ID. It’s sort of like a keyless entry, but in this case the keyless entry is controlled by the police. They’re also at many of the checkpoints checking people’s phones, so you have to carry your smartphone with you and that’s an additional way that they’re tracking your movement. 

The “counterterrorism sword” or “anti-terrorism sword” is a device that’s something you can plug into your phone and then it will scan through the files that are on your phone or computer. It will look for things that you’ve deleted in the past or thought you deleted. In some cases it will access your social media as well, looking for around 50,000 different markers of Islamic activity or political activity. So it’s a way of scanning someone’s digital history really quickly. And there’s always a traumatic experience because you never know what this device is going to find. 

So, the database is really sort of corresponding with a dramatic increase in a larger campaign called the People’s War on Terror, or sometimes it’s called the “hard strike against Islamic terrorism.” That was also the same time there was this massive build-out of internment camps for people that they deemed to be untrustworthy or extremist. And so what the data set is showing is dramatic increase in detentions, of people being cleared out of entire sections of the city, and really the stopping of religious practice.

[Musical interlude]

So the government at first denied that these camps even existed. They said that it’s just being made up, but they said that they were vocational training schools, a kind of reform school for people that had these sort of pre-terrorist or pre-criminal tendencies. There they’re really picking up on U.S. and European discourse around countering violent extremism. And so what the Chinese government was saying is that these are reform schools and this is actually a benefit for the Uyghurs, it’s sort of saving them from themselves. 

What you find, though, is that these are actually, you know, medium security prisons that have surveillance systems throughout them. The guards carry non-lethal weapons everywhere. People are locked in cells. The cells are often overcrowded. Most people said that the education aspects of the camps were really secondary. It was mostly a carceral space, and a space where they learned to really fear the government and to submit. 

[TV anchor]: People are said to be staying off the streets this morning. The government now saying more than 1,400 people have been arrested as police quelled the violence over the last couple of days. The latest death toll: 156 dead. More than 800 injured. State television has aired plenty of footage of bodies, bloodied people, smoke billowing from overturned cars and what you’re seeing right here, this is footage from CCTV, which is the state media …

DB: So, to be clear, there have been violent incidents that have been carried out by Uyghurs. And the people that were actually involved with them probably number in the hundreds, maybe 1,000 or more — not 12 million people, which is the Uyghur population. The response to those violent incidents is really disproportionate to the crime and that begs the question, why are they doing this? 

I think, to understand that, we need to go farther back in time and understand that the Uyghur area is very large. It’s the size of Alaska. And it has around 20 percent of Chinese oil, 20 percent of Chinese natural gas reserves and around 84 percent of Chinese cotton, around a quarter of the world’s tomatoes come from this region. So it’s economically strategic that the government — Chinese government — is able to control and access those resources.

At the end of the day, what we’re looking at is a settler colonial project of Han settlers moving into the Uyghur region, taking the resources and then beginning, eventually, a process of eliminating and replacing Uyghur identity — trying to sort of assimilate them into the body politic of China. This settler colonialism in this case is, at least so far, less violent, in some ways, than American settler colonialism, you know, which produced a genocide. We haven’t seen a genocide in terms of mass killing of Uyghurs yet, but it is a similar dynamic that’s going on at this time. The technology, I think, is helping that project by sort of extending the scale and the intensity of the project to make it happen more quickly. It’s a marriage of global war on terror and settler colonialism brought together to produce this new kind of contemporary colonization.

Abduweli Ayup: I’m Abduweli. I’m a Uyghur who faced genocide now in northwest part of China and I got my Masters degree in linguistics. I got married in 2005 and I have a baby, and then I decided to move back to my hometown, Uyghur region. 

I think about where should I send my daughter to go to kindergarten, and I found out that there’s no Uyghur kindergarten in Ürümqi. Like, all of them are Chinese kindergarten. It’s shocking for me because capital of Uyghur autonomous region — so-called autonomy — but we don’t have Uyghur kindergarten. And then I found out that in Ürümqi, like, a Uyghur is being eliminated and the Uyghur is in danger.

[Musical interlude]

I feel that Uyghur is me. Uyghur language is me. It means that I’m in danger. So it gives me strong feeling that, “What am I doing here? What should I do?” And then I decided to do something to protect language, to protect Uyghur alive. So I thought that I should have a Uyghur kindergarten, mother language kindergarten in Ürümqi. Someone should do it, even if it’s dangerous! 

The first we recruited 15 students, 15 kids. The next semester it increased to 57. The local authority began to bother me. Like three guys came and two asked questions and the one record, “What are you doing? And why are you doing? Like who are you talking with? We are watching you and you should be careful.” But at the time they didn’t say to stop. I was very happy.

2013 August 19th, at that day I was at my kindergarten. The police came about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. So I go directly and told them, “So let’s talk in your car.” Get in the car and then two police put black hood on my face and they paste my mouth with the bandage, put the handcuff on my hand and they drove me to a detention center. They put me in the office. Inside the office there’s a cage and inside the cage there’s a chair. In Chinese it’s a laohu, like a tiger chair. In Chinese, if you call something “tiger” it’s horrible. Like “tiger chair” it means horrible chair. They bind my feet, arms and the neck with special equipment. You cannot even move. I felt nervous and afraid. 

They started interrogation. They accused me of separatism. I have nothing to do with separatism. I was abused — sexually, physically — and tortured and got electric stick. But I told them that, “You can kill me. It’s ok, but I will never tell something I have never done.” They released me because during this 15 months I have never compromised, I have never admitted anything I have never done. And then I feel there is no way to protect my language and there’s no way to protect even myself. So I have to leave. And then I left in 2015. 

I feel that somebody’s watching, something will happen in next hour and my every action and my every word recorded, the camera all the time looking at me and every moment the camera just take picture of me. And that feeling is horrible. And because of that people cannot even speak what they want to speak. They cannot be as a normal human being.

My niece, her father arrested in 2017 and she went back to China because she wants to see her father. Last year, 2020 December 20th, I received a message that she died. I know she got arrested after she went and I know she was in the camp. She died. I don’t know what happened to her and I cannot even call her. And I don’t know the reason. And I know she was living in Japan and she said she missed her father very much and she wants to see. I said that, “You cannot see your father. Believe me, it’s impossible to see your father. You father is in concentration camp. It’s not possible.” And she went back and she died. She even didn’t get married, she’s just 30 years old, just 30. Yeah. I, like, I wrote poetry for her. Let me read it in Uyghur first and then translate into English.

I wish I would be your country. 

I wish I would be your safe place. 

[reading Uyghur]

I know you would not be disappeared if I was …

You can smell, you can smell inside me. 

And if I, if I’m your father, you’ll not go back. You will not leave me. You would stay with me. 

If I’m your country, if I’m your free land, if I’m your promised dream, you will never leave. 

You will never disappear — as a star, as a drop of rain, as a kite without thread. 

If I’m a wind in your hot, stifled summer. 

If I’m a water in your endless desert, you will not wither. You will not die as a flower. 

If I was a garden for you. 

If I was her father.  

Thank you. We have an endless desert without a drop of rain, without water, it’s just a flower there. She disappeared because there is no water. There is no rain. It’s too sad. She is the most successful one in our family. She got the scholarship from the Tokyo University and she left message to her friend that she’s going to have a school in Kashgar and she’s going to teach science. She’s going to teach love. She’s going to teach about the world to the kids. Like, somehow I think that she was following my dream to have a school, to have kids, to hold their future. Like, I sacrificed 15 months. It’s enough for me. But my niece sacrificed her life for my dream. So I feel very mad, very sad about that. 

What’s happening is horrible to Uyghur and horrible to me and to my family, but it’s the future of other people. And if we allow this atrocity continuously happening, it will happen to millions of people. So we should stand up and we should say “no” and we should stop this. Even one interview — we should keep doing this until we stop this genocide and we stop this atrocity. Thank you for giving me this chance.

JS: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill. 


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