“Like We Were Enemies in a War": China's Mass Internment, Torture, and Persecution of Muslims in XinjiangJune 11, 2021
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 section 2.3). 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. A few journalists have entered disguised as tourists but have found it nearly impossible to speak safely with people about the internment camp. 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. Foreign journalists based in China who attempt to report on the situation in China are often expelled or unable to renew their visas.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. None of this was true, they added.