Surviving the Crackdown in Xinjiang
As mass detentions and surveillance dominate the lives of China’s Uyghurs and Kazakhs, a woman struggles to free herself.
When Anar Sabit was in her twenties and living in Vancouver, she liked to tell her friends that people could control their own destinies. Her experience, she was sure, was proof enough.
She had come to Canada in 2014, a bright, confident immigrant from Kuytun, a small city west of the Gobi Desert, in a part of China that is tucked between Kazakhstan, Siberia, and Mongolia. “Kuytun” means “cold” in Mongolian; legend has it that Genghis Khan’s men, stationed there one frigid winter, shouted the word as they shivered. During Sabit’s childhood, the city was an underdeveloped colonial outpost in a contested region that locals called East Turkestan. The territory had been annexed by imperial China in the eighteenth century, but on two occasions it broke away, before Mao retook it, in the nineteen-forties. In Beijing, it was called New Frontier, or Xinjiang: an untamed borderland.
Growing up in this remote part of Asia, a child like Sabit, an ethnic Kazakh, could find the legacy of conquest all around her. Xinjiang is the size of Alaska, its borders spanning eight countries. Its population was originally dominated by Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other indigenous Turkic peoples. But, by the time Sabit was born, Kuytun, like other parts of Xinjiang’s north, had dramatically changed. For decades, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps—a state-run paramilitary development organization, known as the bingtuan—had helped usher in millions of Han Chinese migrants, many of them former revolutionary soldiers, to work on enormous farms. In southern Xinjiang, indigenous peoples were still prevalent, but in Kuytun they had become a vestigial presence.
As a child, Sabit imbibed Communist Party teachings and considered herself a committed Chinese citizen, even as the bingtuan maintained a colonialist attitude toward people like her. Han residents of Kuytun often called Kazakhs and Uyghurs “ethnic persons,” as if their specific culture made no difference. Sabit accepted this as normal. Her parents, a doctor and a chemistry professor, never spoke of their experiences of discrimination; they enrolled her in schools where classes were held in Mandarin, and they taught her to embrace what she learned there. When Sabit was in elementary school, she and her classmates picked tomatoes for the bingtuan. In middle school, she picked cotton, which she hated: you had to spend hours bent over, or else with your knees ground into the dirt. Her mother told her that the work built character.
Sabit excelled as a student, and after graduating from high school, in 2004, she moved to Shanghai, to study Russian, hoping that it would open up career opportunities in other parts of the world. She loved Shanghai, which thrummed with the promise of glamorous, fast-paced living. But she was still an “ethnic person.” If she told a new acquaintance where she was from, it usually derailed the conversation. Some people, believing that “barbarians” lived in Xinjiang, expressed surprise that she spoke Mandarin fluently. Just before she completed her degree, the tech company Huawei hosted a job fair, and Sabit and her friends applied. She was the only one not offered an interview—because of her origins, she was sure.
Sabit brushed off this kind of prejudice, and became adept at eliding her background; when circumstances allowed, she fibbed and said that she was from some other region. She found a well-paying job with an investment company. The work was exciting—involving travel to places like Russia, Laos, and Hong Kong—and she liked her boss and her colleagues.
While Sabit was in Shanghai, her parents immigrated to Kazakhstan. They urged her to move there, too, but she resisted their pleas, believing that China was a more powerful country, more forward-leaning. She had spent most of her life striving to be a model citizen, and was convinced that her future lay with China—even as the politics of her homeland grew more fraught.
In 2009, a fight broke out in a toy factory in the southern province of Guangdong. Amid the melee, two Uyghur employees were killed by a Han mob. The next month, hundreds of Uyghurs took to the streets of Xinjiang’s capital city, Ürümqi, waving Chinese flags and chanting “Uyghur”—a call to be seen by the country’s leadership. The police cracked down, and riots erupted. Hundreds of people were injured or killed, and hundreds were arrested. More than forty Uyghurs were presumed disappeared. Dozens were later sentenced to death.
A year after the riots, Sabit was travelling to Kyrgyzstan with a group of co-workers. While trying to catch a connecting flight in Ürümqi, she was pulled aside by the authorities and told that, because she was from Xinjiang, she needed special permission to proceed. As her colleagues went ahead, she had to spend a day at a bureau for ethnic and religious affairs, getting the papers that she needed.
Having absorbed the Party’s propaganda, she believed that such measures were necessary. Still, she began to feel a deep alienation. No matter where she went in China, she remained an outsider. One day, back in Shanghai, she looked up at the city’s towering apartment buildings and asked herself, “What do they have to do with me?”
Not long afterward, she talked with a friend who had moved to Vancouver. Sabit flew over for a visit and was drawn to the openness and opportunity that she found; whenever she told a Canadian that she was from Xinjiang, the response was warm curiosity. She enrolled in a business-diploma program, and that summer she returned and found an apartment and a roommate. She landed a job as a junior accountant in a Vancouver company. She fell in with a circle of friends. She had met a man whom she loved. Her life was on a course that she had set, and it was good.
In the spring of 2017, Sabit’s father died suddenly, of a heart attack. Her mother called, but, to spare Sabit a shock, said only that he was in the hospital and that she should come see him. Sabit, on vacation at the time, dumped her plans and flew to Kazakhstan. Just before the plane took off, she logged on to a family group chat on her phone. Someone had written, “May his spirit rest in Heaven,” in Kazakh. But the message was in Arabic script, and Sabit could make out only “Heaven.” She spent the flight in painful uncertainty. After she arrived, another relative, unaware of her mother’s deception, offered condolences for her loss. Realizing that her father was dead, she burst into tears.
“I love to come to the park and disrupt the fragile ecosystem.”
Cartoon by Lars Kenseth
Sabit found her mother devastated with grief, so she decided to stay to support her. She asked her boss for several months off, but he couldn’t hold her position vacant for that long, so she resigned. She called friends in Vancouver and told them to put her things in storage.
That summer, Sabit and her mother returned to Kuytun, to settle her father’s affairs. Friends had warned her not to go: rumors had been circulating of an escalating crackdown on the indigenous peoples of Xinjiang—of Kazakh traders being disappeared at the border. But Sabit had made an uneventful trip there less than a month earlier, and she wanted to be by her mother’s side. For two weeks, they met with family and visited ancestors’ graves. The trip, she later recalled, “was full of tears and sadness.”
On July 15th, Sabit and her mother drove to Ürümqi Diwopu International Airport, for a flight back to Kazakhstan. They arrived in the middle of the night, and the building was nearly empty. At customs, an officer inspected her mother’s passport and cleared her to go. But when Sabit handed over her documents he stopped, looked at her, and then took her passport into a back office.
“Don’t worry,” Sabit assured her mother, explaining that the delay was most likely another bureaucratic annoyance. Minutes later, the officer returned with an Uyghur official, who told Sabit to sit on a bench. “You cannot leave,” he said. “You can discuss between yourselves whether your mother will go or stay.”
In an emotional torrent, Sabit’s mother pleaded for an explanation. The officer replied, “We need to ask her a few questions.”
“You hurry and go,” Sabit told her mother. “If I don’t make the flight, I’ll come tomorrow.”
The two women had packed their clothes in the same bags. As they separated their things, her mother began to cry, and Sabit comforted her. Then she watched her mother, tears streaming down her cheeks, walk toward the gate. Once she was gone, the official turned to Sabit and coldly explained that she had been assigned a “border control”—a red flag, marking her for suspicion. “Your mother was here, so I didn’t mention it,” he said. “You should know what Xinjiang is like now. You’d best coöperate.”
II. “LIKE RATS”
As Sabit was deciding to move to Canada, in 2014, a dark future was being mapped out for Xinjiang in secret meetings in Beijing. Xi Jinping had become President the year before, and he was consolidating power. As he cleared away the obstacles to lifelong rule, he eventually subjected more than a million government officials to punishments that ranged from censure to execution. With China’s ethnic minorities, he was no less fixated on control.
Xinjiang’s turbulent history made it a particular object of concern. The region had never seemed fully within the Party’s grasp: it was a target for external meddling—the Russian tsar had once seized part of it—and a locus of nationalist sentiment, held over from its short-lived independence. Communist theoreticians long debated the role that nationalities should play in the march toward utopia—especially in peripheral societies that were not fully industrialized. The early Soviets took an accommodating approach and worked to build autonomous republics for ethnic groups. The Chinese pursued a more assimilationist policy.
In the fifties, Mao, recognizing that the Party’s hold on Xinjiang was weak, mobilized the bingtuan to set up its farms in the region’s north—a buffer against potential Soviet incursions. Revolutionaries flooded in, and within decades the population was forty per cent Han. Party officials, hoping to assimilate the indigenous residents, sought to strip away their traditions—their Muslim faith, their schools, even their native languages. The authorities came to regard Uyghur identity as “mistaken”: Uyghurs were Chinese.
In the late seventies, Deng Xiaoping took power, and rolled back the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. In Xinjiang, mosques were reopened and local languages were permitted, giving way to a cultural flourishing. But amid the new openness people began to express discontent with what remained a colonial relationship. Adhering to regional traditions, or even maintaining “Xinjiang time”—two hours behind Beijing—became a subtle act of dissent. Some locals staged protests, bearing placards that read “Chinese Out of Xinjiang.” A few radicals discussed an insurgency.
In April, 1990, near the city of Kashgar, a conflagration broke out between locals and the authorities—apparently started by an amateurish group of militants and then joined by demonstrators who did not fully grasp what was happening. Police and members of the bingtuan quickly quashed the violence. It had been only a year since the Tiananmen Square protests, and the country’s ruling élite had little tolerance for disunity. A year later, when the Soviet Union fell, the Chinese Communist Party—convinced that ethnic nationalism had helped tear the former superpower to pieces—became even more alarmed.
With near-paranoid intensity, the government pursued any perceived sign of “splitism.” The Party secretary of Kashgar, Zhu Hailun, was among the most aggressive. Abduweli Ayup, who worked for Zhu as a translator and an aide, recalled that, in March, 1998, cotton farmers protested a ruling that barred them from planting vegetable patches. Zhu railed at them for being separatists, adding, “You’re using your mosques as forts!” On another occasion, he derided the Quran, telling an Uyghur audience, “Your God is shit.” Zhu ordered Ayup to lead a door-to-door hunt for families harboring nationalist or religious books—telling him that he was not to go home until he succeeded. Ayup worked until dawn, rousing people. But, he said, “I couldn’t find any books at all.”
Xinjiang’s insurgents had proved unable to gather many adherents; locals favored the Sufi tradition of Islam, which emphasizes mysticism, not politics. At the time of the September 11th attacks, there was no terrorist violence to speak of in the region. But Osama bin Laden’s operation, planned across the border in Afghanistan, put a new and urgent frame around the old anxieties. Chinese authorities drew up a long list of incidents that they claimed were examples of jihad, and made their case to the U.S. State Department. Many of the incidents were impossible to verify, or to distinguish from nonpolitical violence. In China, mass attacks—with knives, axes, or even improvised explosives—are startlingly common, and often have nothing to do with ethnic unrest. Not long ago, a man walked into a school in Yunnan Province and sprayed fifty-four people with sodium hydroxide, to enact “revenge on society,” officials said. Similarly, a paraplegic assailant from eastern China detonated a bomb at one of Beijing’s international airports—apparently an act of retaliation for a police beating. The bombing was treated as a one-off incident. An Uyghur, frustrated that this would never be the case in Xinjiang, asked on Twitter, “Why is everything we do terrorism?”
As the 2008 Olympics approached, Chinese authorities became obsessed with the concept of weiwen, or “stability maintenance”—intensifying repression with a ferocity that the Chinese sociologist Sun Liping compared to North Korea’s. Sun, who had served on a committee that reviewed Xi Jinping’s doctoral dissertation, noted that the Party was a captive of its own delusions: by overestimating the chance of an imminent societal rupture, it had become blind to the root causes of discontent. Reflexive crackdowns designed to eliminate a “phantom of instability,” Sun warned, would lead to a downward spiral of repression and unrest, which could bring about the very collapse that had been feared all along.
Nowhere did this seem more apt than in Xinjiang, where China’s leaders continually appeared to mistake popular discontent for a growing insurgency. The 2009 protests in Ürümqi—following similar ones in Tibet—caused Party theorists to call for engineering a monocultural society, a single “state-race,” to help pave the way for “a new type of superpower.” One influential domestic-security official noted, “Stability is about liberating man, standardizing man, developing man.”
A new Party secretary in Ürümqi began to pursue such a policy: women were told not to wear veils, Uyghur books and Web sites were banned, historic buildings were demolished. Within a few years, the downward spiral that Sun Liping had warned of began to occur. In the autumn of 2013, an Uyghur man, accompanied by two family members, plowed an S.U.V. into a crowd of tourists in Tiananmen Square—possibly because his local mosque had been damaged during a raid. The S.U.V., filled with homemade incendiary devices, caught fire. The man and his family died, but not before killing two pedestrians and injuring thirty-eight others.
Several months later, in Yunnan Province, a small group of assailants dressed in black stormed a train station and, wielding knives, brutally killed twenty-nine bystanders and injured more than a hundred and forty others. Although no organization claimed responsibility for the incident, an insurgent group based overseas celebrated the attack. The authorities declared that the assailants were Uyghur separatists, and in Beijing the incident was called “China’s 9/11.” Xi was enraged. “We should unite the people to build a copper and iron wall against terrorism,” he told the Politburo. “Make terrorists like rats scurrying across the street, with everybody shouting, ‘Beat them!’ ”
In April, 2014, Xi travelled to Xinjiang. At a police station in Kashgar, he examined weapons on a wall. “The methods that our comrades have at hand are too primitive,” he said during the trip. “None of these weapons is any answer for their big machete blades, axe heads, and cold steel weapons.” He added, “We must be as harsh as them, and show absolutely no mercy.”
On the final day of his visit, two suicide bombers attacked a railway station in Ürümqi, injuring dozens of people and killing one. At a high-level meeting in Beijing, Xi railed against religious extremism. “It’s like taking a drug,” he said. “You lose your sense, go crazy, and will do anything.”
Soon afterward, the Party leadership in Xinjiang announced a “People’s War.” The focus was on separatism, terrorism, and extremism—the “Three Evil Forces.” The region’s top official took up the campaign, but Xi grew dissatisfied with him, and two years later appointed a replacement: Chen Quanguo, then the Party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region—a tough-minded apparatchik whose loyalty was beyond question.
Ambitious and regimented, Chen had served in the military and then risen quickly through the political ranks. When he arrived in Tibet, in 2011, monks were immolating themselves—an urgent response to a long-running crackdown, which the Dalai Lama called a “cultural genocide.” The crisis was generating international headlines.
In a place where oppression had become the norm, Chen did not stand out for his use of physical violence. Instead, he distinguished himself as a systematizer of authoritarian tactics, ready to target entire groups of people with methods that pervaded daily life.
The vast majority of self-immolations were occurring to the east of the autonomous region, so Chen tightened the borders of his jurisdiction, restricting entry for Tibetans from outside it. In Lhasa, he made it impossible to buy gas without an I.D. He built hundreds of urban police depots, called “convenience stations,” which were arranged in close formation—an overwhelming display of force. He dispatched more than twenty thousand Communist Party cadres into villages and rural monasteries, to propagandize and to surveil. Some locals reported that members of volunteer groups called the Red Armband Patrols upended homes to confiscate photos of the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese authorities blamed for the unrest. Detentions appeared to rise. In 2012, when a large number of Tibetans travelled to India to receive a blessing from the Dalai Lama, Chen had them consigned to makeshift reëducation facilities.
The self-immolations continued in neighboring territories, but Chen’s jurisdiction recorded only one in the next four years. “We have followed the law in striking out, and relentlessly pounding at illegal organizations and key figures,” he declared. He had a flair for cultivating his superiors. In March, 2016, just before his appointment to Xinjiang, delegates from his region arrived at the National People’s Congress, in Beijing, wearing pins with Xi’s image on them—“a spontaneous act to show gratitude,” state media noted. The Party deemed Chen’s tactics a success.
In Xinjiang, Chen wore his thin, jet-black hair in a precise coiffure, and travelled with a security detail brought with him from Tibet. Rather than move into the Party secretary’s residence, he set himself up in a hotel that was controlled by the government and secured by the People’s Liberation Army. The building was in close proximity to facilities that housed police organizations, and Chen had a high-speed data line run from his residence into the region’s digital-security infrastructure.
Xi had once compared reform to a meal, noting that after the meat is eaten what’s left is hard to chew. Chen made it clear that he came to “gnaw bones.” He titled one of his speeches “To Unswervingly Implement the Xinjiang Strategy of the Party Central Committee, with Comrade Xi Jinping at the Core.”
His predecessor had borrowed from his Tibet strategy, deploying two hundred thousand Party cadres in Xinjiang. Chen increased their numbers to a million, and urged them to go from house to house, and grow “close to the masses, emotionally.” Under a program called Becoming a Family, local Party officials introduced them to indigenous households, declaring, “These are your new relatives.” Cadres imposed themselves, stopping by for meals; sometimes they were required to stay overnight. Terrified residents forced smiles, politely served them, engaged their questions, and even offered them their beds.
Assisted by Zhu Hailun, who by then had become the deputy Party leader of Xinjiang, Chen recruited tens of thousands of “assistant police officers,” for a force that could implement mass arrests and also quell any unrest that they provoked. He began constructing thousands of “convenience stations,” seeking to impose an “iron grid” on urban life. He set out to divide the population into three categories—trusted, average, untrustworthy—and to detain anyone who could not be proved sufficiently loyal.
In early 2017, half a year after Chen arrived, he prepared his leadership for a long, complex, and “very fierce” campaign. “Take this crackdown as the top project,” he instructed them, noting that it was necessary “to preëmpt the enemy, to strike at the outset.” The mission, he said, was to rip out the separatist problem by its roots. He expressed zero tolerance for any “two-faced” officials who were unwilling to zealously carry out his plan.
In 2017, Xinjiang’s Party secretary staged a parade of ten thousand troops to announce a “smashing, obliterating offensive.”Illustration by Na Kim
Chen went to Beijing to meet with Xi. Then, days later, he held a grandiose rally in Ürümqi, with ten thousand helmeted troops in sharp rows, automatic weapons at the ready. As helicopters hovered overhead and a phalanx of armored vehicles paraded by, Chen announced a “smashing, obliterating offensive,” and vowed to “bury the corpses of terrorists and terror gangs in the vast sea of the People’s War.”
As a command tactic, he liked surprise inspections, sometimes calling police at random, in order to check their response time. “Round up everyone who should be rounded up,” he instructed, and by April, 2017, his forces were arresting people en masse. An official memorandum leaked to an Uyghur activist in the Netherlands indicates that in just one week, that of June 19th, the authorities in Xinjiang’s four southern prefectures seized more than sixteen thousand people; fifty-five hundred more were logged as “temporarily unable to be detained,” because investigators couldn’t track them down.
Even as the number of detentions surged, the authorities pushed for more. One police chief recalled a Party member explaining, “You can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops one by one—you need to spray chemicals to kill them all.” In June, Zhu drafted a communiqué. “Stick to rounding up everyone who should be rounded up,” it reminded. “If they’re there, round them up.”
At Ürümqi Diwopu International Airport, an official handed Anar Sabit a detention certificate, an administrative document noting orders for her apprehension. It was dated June 20th. Sabit was led to a small interrogation room. Her phone and documents were confiscated, and the airport official told her to prepare for a “video investigation.”
She was positioned before a computer; through a video link, another official began to question her in Uyghur, a language that she did not understand. (Many of the people Chen had recruited to administer the crackdown were from the ethnic groups that he was targeting.)
“Please,” Sabit said, “can you use Mandarin?” The official switched to clumsy Mandarin, asking about her immigration records and her passport. Why had she once renewed it at the Chinese consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan? Sabit replied that she was there on a family visit, and had run out of pages while travelling. After an hour, a soldier took her outside to wait. She expected to be let go; her answers had been honest, and they were easy to verify. Instead, she was called back into the room, and two soldiers were summoned to guard her.
When the Uyghur airport official who had first told her about the border control checked in on her, Sabit asked what she had done wrong. Irritated, he said, “You know what you have done. Now we have to wait for the people from the Public Security Bureau in Kuytun to take you away.” Sabit asked when that would be. He answered testily, “It depends on when they left.”
An announcement came over a loudspeaker that her flight had been delayed, and she imagined her mother on the plane, overwhelmed with worry. As she sat, her guards chatted with her. They were both women in their early twenties—enlisted from “inland,” as the rest of China is known in Xinjiang. They said that they could not grasp why anyone ever needed to leave China, especially for Kazakhstan. “What a backward country,” one said. Sabit decided that it would be unwise to disagree.
After about six hours, several young men from Kuytun’s Public Security Bureau arrived, dressed in black. As Sabit was transferred to their custody, the airport official told her that if there were no issues the bureau could expunge the border control, and then she could leave. Sabit nodded, thinking that perhaps he was a kindhearted man, and could see that she was innocent.
Outside, dawn was breaking. The Public Security Bureau team directed Sabit to the back seat of a car, where a guard sat on each side of her, with handcuffs at the ready. The men looked exhausted, having driven through the night, but they watched her vigilantly. An intelligence officer, in the passenger seat, questioned her as the driver sped with manic intensity toward Kuytun, pushing the car over a hundred and ten miles an hour.
At their headquarters, the men led Sabit into a basement containing several detention cells. Stopping at a narrow cell, they told her to enter. Suddenly, the enormity of her predicament hit her, and she began to cry. “Please, can you not put me in there?” she begged. “I am not a bad person. Please, let me wait in an office.”
“We travelled five hundred kilometres for you,” the intelligence officer said. “Don’t inconvenience us anymore!” She entered the cell, noting that the walls were covered with foam padding—to prevent suicides, she suspected. There were two padded benches, each below a wall-mounted pipe, which a label indicated was for handcuffs. Sabit was too frightened to sit.
An assistant police officer posted outside her cell told her, “You can have some rest.” Slowly, she lowered herself to a bench. The officer was Han, from a poor province neighboring Xinjiang which was a source of recruits. He told Sabit that investigators would arrive at nine that morning. Holding her file, he observed that it was very thin, and said that this was a good sign.
With her mind spinning, Sabit tried not to blame herself for ignoring the warnings about returning to China. “My anxiety ate away at me, like ants consuming their prey, bit by bit,” she later wrote, in an unpublished testimony. (This account draws on her written testimony, on primary documents, including texts that she saved, and on extensive interviews.) Each passing minute, she hoped, brought her closer to explaining herself to a higher-ranking officer, who would see that her detention was a mistake.
Hours later, two officers, a man and a woman, guided Sabit to an interrogation room containing a “tiger chair”—a metal contraption designed to shackle a seated person. Sabit recoiled. Seeing this, the male officer ordered a normal chair brought for her. “Here we respect human rights,” he said. “All you have to do is coöperate, and truthfully answer the questions. If there are no problems, we will let you go.”
Overwhelmed, Sabit felt a stab of pain in her stomach. The officer called for breakfast. Unable to eat, she asked if she could use a bathroom.
“Come,” the female officer said. Earlier, Sabit had been given access to a toilet near her cell—a squalid hole, with security cameras pointed at it. “Can we not go to that toilet with the surveillance cameras?” she asked. The officer led her to one on another floor. As they returned, Sabit was able to glimpse into an interrogation room across from her own. There she saw a young Uyghur man in an orange vest and black trousers, his wrists and ankles locked into a tiger chair. His face was dirty and unshaven. His eyes were unfocussed. His head was drooping. Officers dressed in black were screaming at him. Sabit was ushered past, back to her room for questioning.
In many detention facilities, “tiger chairs,” built to restrain prisoners at the ankles and wrists, are tools of intimidation.Illustration by Na Kim
Anyone who has experienced an interrogation knows that it involves repetition. Over and over, the interrogator asks the same questions, looking for small discrepancies that hint at unspoken truths.
Sabit’s interrogation lasted several hours, as officers recycled the same questions that she had been asked at the airport. While she spoke, she could hear smacks and electric shocks from the Uyghur man’s cell across the hall. With his screams filling the room, she found it hard to focus. The lead interrogator turned to his partner. “Tell them to cut it out,” he said. “It’s affecting our work.” The torture quieted, but only for a time.
When her interrogators left, she was brought lunch, but again she could not eat. An Uyghur officer, whom she politely called Older Brother, entered with hot water and medicine for her stomach.
Three hours later, the lead interrogator returned. “You’ve been to many sensitive countries,” he said. “We need to initiate a new interrogation.” When Sabit asked which countries were problematic, he named the United States, Thailand, Malaysia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
“Apart from the United States, I went to all those countries because of work!” she said. “My colleagues can confirm that.”
By the time the second interrogation was over, it was evening. Older Brother returned. Desperately, Sabit asked, “Can I leave?” He shook his head and told her, “Keep this cup for hot water, and be sure to eat.”
The intelligence officer who had brought her over from the airport arrived with her luggage.
“Am I going home?” Sabit asked.
“You will know,” he said. He began to walk her out of the facility. Another man came over and whispered something into his ear, but the intelligence officer shook his head. “Her name is on the list,” he said. “Nobody can save her.”
China’s government has placed hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras, with some equipped to recognize Uyghur faces.Illustration by Na Kim
III. SHARP EYES
In 2005, the Chinese government began placing surveillance cameras throughout the country, in a plan called Project Skynet. After Xi Jinping came to power, China rolled out an enhanced version, Sharp Eyes, envisioned as a system of half a billion cameras that were “omnipresent, fully networked, always on and fully controllable.” In Beijing, virtually no corner went unobserved. The cameras were eventually paired with facial-recognition software, giving the authorities a staggering level of intrusiveness. At toilets in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park, facial scans insured that users could take no more than seventy centimetres of toilet paper at a time.
In Xi’s effort to build a “wall” around Xinjiang, advanced technology would become central. Researchers with an organization called IPVM, which studies video surveillance, discovered evidence that in 2017 China’s Ministry of Public Security set a requirement: facial-recognition software used with surveillance cameras had to be trained to distinguish Uyghur faces. Several leading Chinese manufacturers quickly began to develop the technology—an “Uyghur alarm,” as one system was called in a Huawei test report. Although the race-based monitoring systems are of uncertain accuracy, they have been deployed in at least a dozen jurisdictions outside Xinjiang.
Xinjiang itself has become a laboratory for digital surveillance. By 2013, officials in Ürümqi had begun to affix QR codes to the exterior of homes, which security personnel could scan to obtain details about residents. On Chen Quanguo’s arrival, all cars were fitted with state-issued G.P.S. trackers. Every new cell-phone number had to be registered, and phones were routinely checked; authorities could harvest everything from photos to location data. Wi-Fi “sniffers” were installed to extract identifying data from computers and other devices. Chen also launched a program called Physicals for All, gathering biometric data—blood types, fingerprints, voiceprints, iris patterns—under the guise of medical care. Every Xinjiang resident between the ages of twelve and sixty-five was required to provide the state with a DNA sample.
To harness these disparate forms of surveillance, it was necessary to centralize them—a problem that had been foreseen at the outset of Xinjiang’s People’s War. In 2015, the Chinese state-security apparatus began building the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, or IJOP, where the streams of information could converge. “It’s very crucial to examine the cause after an act of terror, but what is more important is to predict the upcoming activities,” a senior engineer on the project noted. After the system was launched, Zhu Hailun affirmed that it would be used to root out unseen threats. “Problematic people and clues identified by the integrated platform are major risks to stability,” a memo that he circulated said. “Persons or clues that are difficult to check are risks within risks—hazards within hazards.”
Tens of thousands of security officers were given the IJOP app and prodded to upload information to it. A forensic analysis of the software, commissioned by Human Rights Watch, revealed thirty-six “person types” that could trigger a problematic assessment. They included people who did not use a mobile phone, who used the back door instead of the front, or who consumed an “unusual” amount of electricity. Even an “abnormal” beard might be cause for concern. Socializing too little was suspicious, and so was maintaining relationships that were deemed “complex.” The platform treated untrustworthiness like a contagion: if a person seemed insufficiently loyal, her family was also likely infected.
The system was designed to regard gaps in its own knowledge as signs of potential culpability. This was never more evident than when a resident travelled overseas, especially to a country that was deemed “sensitive.” In June, 2017, Zhu signed off on a bulletin underscoring that anyone from Xinjiang who had travelled abroad was to be presumed guilty: “If suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out, then a border control should be implemented to insure the person’s arrest.”
At the Public Security Bureau, Sabit was forced into a car with the intelligence officer who had picked her up from the airport. As she peered out the window, the Kuytun of her childhood seemed unrecognizable, the skyline looking brash and cold as it blurred by. They were travelling west, toward the neighborhood where she had grown up. “I had this hope, or illusion, that he was driving me to my old address,” she recalled. Instead, they arrived at a newly built police station on West Beijing Road. In the main hall, Sabit noticed an elderly man sitting in a chair, a neighbor who had taught at the same institute as her father, and whose daughter she had known since childhood. “Hello, Uncle,” she whispered in Kazakh. “Do you recognize me?” Silently, he motioned to her not to speak.
Sabit’s eyes welled up. “It was like seeing my own father, who had only just passed away,” she later recalled. “I felt immense horror and grief.”
Sabit was ordered to follow a pregnant officer, and as they walked the officer whispered in Kazakh, “Do whatever they ask. Under no circumstances resist, or else you’ll suffer.” In a private room, the officer ordered Sabit to disrobe; she searched her and confiscated her jewelry and shoelaces.
Back in the main hall, another officer took down her personal information. The man looked as if he might be Uyghur or Kazakh, so Sabit felt emboldened to ask, “Why do I have to stay here?”
“You were brought here by the people from the Integrated Joint Operations Platform,” he explained. “You’ve been to so many countries. The problem could be big.” He motioned to the old professor, still in his chair. “He’s been to Kazakhstan more than forty times,” he said. “We’ve had him here for ten days now. It looks like you’ll be staying, too.”
Sabit felt a chill. She took a seat beside the old man. “Child, how could I not recognize you?” he whispered, in Kazakh. “You grew up with my daughter, as if you were my child, too.” He added a blessing for her father: “May his spirit rest in Heaven.” Then he warned her to be careful—to refrain from criticizing the Communist Party, or praising anything that she had encountered while travelling. “You must be strong,” he said. “This will all pass. You don’t need to be afraid here. Old Uncle is keeping you company.”
Detainees normally slept in an interrogation room—men on one side, women on the other—but it was full. That night, the officers placed a military mattress in the hall and ordered Sabit and another young woman to share it. The woman was wearing a red dress. “She was extremely thin, and was calmly looking at me with a pair of innocent eyes,” Sabit recalled. “I could tell from her appearance that she was Uyghur.”
While they were squeezed together, the woman explained that she was a student who had been arrested for using a file-sharing program called Zapya to download music. Officials using IJOP were expected to log any “suspicious” apps—there were dozens, but many residents did not know what they were. The woman told Sabit that two Uyghur men locked up in the station, a classmate of hers and a butcher, had been detained because of Zapya, too.
It was July, and the heat and the mosquitoes were intense. Sabit spent a sleepless night trying to fend off bites. The lights in the hall stayed on all night, and the bleeps and static bursts of police walkie-talkies made a constant din, as the officers processed drug addicts, drunks, jaywalkers, and other petty criminals. The police treated people they brought in harshly. Once, an elderly man who was cuffed into a tiger chair began shouting, “Long live Mao Zedong! Long live the Chinese Communist Party!”
The next day, Sabit was shuttled to a hospital for a medical exam. Her blood was drawn, and a urine sample was taken; she was also given an electrocardiogram, an ultrasound, and a chest X-ray. Back at the station, officers took photographs and fingerprints, and sampled her DNA. She was given an iris scan, and compelled to speak into a microphone, so that her voiceprint could be taken: more data to be uploaded to IJOP.
That night, Sabit and the Uyghur woman slept in the interrogation room, which turned out to be worse than the main hall. The mosquitoes there were just as relentless, and the walkie-talkies were still audible, only now Sabit was crammed into a tiny iron cage with two other women. The room was hot and airless, and, even though she was drenched in sweat, she wrapped herself in a towel to ward off the mosquitoes. Her stomach churned in pain.
In another cage, the old professor was held captive with the two Uyghur men. At night, the professor slept on a mattress on the floor, and the younger men were handcuffed to the wall, so that they could not recline; in the coming days, Sabit noticed that the young men were unshackled only to eat and use the toilet, and that they never bathed.
As if being swept into a hurricane, Sabit was caught up in the immense program of detentions that Chen Quanguo had initiated. About twenty-five million people live in Xinjiang—less than two per cent of China’s population—but, according to an assessment based on government data, by the end of 2017 the region was responsible for a fifth of all arrests in the country.
At the police station, Sabit noticed that large numbers of Uyghurs were being brought in to have their information uploaded. Many had been stopped at checkpoints while entering Kuytun; others had been flagged by IJOP as untrustworthy. Most were elderly, or women, or children. The younger men, it seemed, had already been locked up.
During the day, Sabit was allowed to return to the station’s main hall, but, whenever one of her relatives came to visit, she was quickly ushered out of sight and into her cage. Sometimes other people she knew walked in, and the idea that they were seeing her in detention filled her with shame. Then she realized that they assumed she had merely come to solve a bureaucratic problem, as they had. On one occasion, an old acquaintance came in, seeking paperwork to visit her parents in Kazakhstan. The woman had heard that Sabit had been detained, and began to approach her, but the professor signalled her to stay away. Before leaving, the woman whispered that she would pass on news to Sabit’s mother. Gazing at her silently, Sabit fought to hold back tears.
Nineteen days after her arrest, Older Brother walked into the station. Remembering his kindness, Sabit felt a wave of hope. She called to him and asked if he knew when she could leave. He looked at her and at the others, and said, “You all need to be sent to school.” Sabit knew from station gossip that “school” meant a political-reëducation camp. Shocked, she asked, “For how long?” He said half a year.
The following evening, three harsh-looking men dressed in gray jackets arrived. From the deferential way they were treated, Sabit assumed that they were high-ranking officials. It turned out that one was the director of the Public Security Bureau’s domestic-security team, a man named Wang Ting. Sabit was called to meet with the group, as were the professor and one of the young Uyghur men. Wang questioned Sabit, focussing on her Kazakh visa. During the interview, one official lamented, “You cannot be controlled once you leave.” Nonetheless, the vice-director of the station told Sabit afterward that she would be released the next day.
Chen Quanguo portrayed his crackdown as a means of bringing order to Xinjiang, but, for people inside the system, the shifting rules and arbitrary enforcement created a condition close to anarchy. A police officer told Sabit that before she could leave she had to sign a document expressing regret and pledging not to repeat her offense. Sabit said that she didn’t know what her offense was.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“I was abroad,” she said.
“Then write that you’ll not make that mistake again,” he said. When she hesitated, he told her to just write down any mistake. Sabit found a Communist Party magazine in the station’s waiting area and copied down some of its propaganda.
The following morning, Sabit walked out of the station and called her mother, who burst into tears. Sabit wanted to fly to her immediately, but the police had retained her passport; before they could release it, they said, she had to gain approval from the bureau’s domestic-security team. At its offices, Sabit found Wang Ting and explained that she wanted to return to her mother. He told her that he needed to consult his superiors. When she returned, the following week, Wang explained that her border control would automatically expire after three months, and then her passport could be returned. Sabit was confused: the official who had stopped her at the airport had told her that active steps had to be taken to remove the border control. But, when she tried to explain, Wang waved her away.
Sabit waited until the three months had passed, plus an extra day, to be safe. Then she returned to Wang, and he instructed the police to release her passport. Buoyant with relief, she booked a flight to Kazakhstan. At the airport, though, the same official stopped her again. Her border control had not expired. “Didn’t I tell you?” he said.
Within hours, Sabit was again in front of Wang, who glared at her with annoyance. Her border control had expired, he insisted; perhaps the system just needed time to reflect the change. He told her to wait another week. Sabit begged him for a document indicating her innocence, and he had someone write one up. It noted that she had been investigated because she had renewed her passport at a consulate, but was cleared of any suspicion. “We did not find that she or her family engaged in activities that endanger national security,” it stated, adding that she was “eligible to leave the country.” The next day, with the document in hand, she risked another flight. Once again, she was stopped. Whether there was no way to follow the rules or no coherent rules to follow, she was a captive.
The Chinese have an expression, gui da qiang, that describes “ghost walls”—invisible labyrinths, erected by phantoms, that confuse and entrap travellers. In Sabit’s case, the phantom was the state, and she was determined to find her way through its obstacles.
From a colleague of Wang Ting’s, she learned that a request to remove her border control had been sent up the bureaucracy for approval. It would go to the prefecture’s seat, Ghulja, two hundred and fifty miles away, and then another hundred and fifty miles to Ürümqi. Desperate to insure that her paperwork was being processed, she decided to follow it and nudge the relevant officials. When she arrived at the train station, she found it awash in propaganda for the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party, which was soon to begin. It was a politically sensitive time.
In Ghulja, Sabit learned that she was too late: her application had already gone to Ürümqi. The next train was not scheduled to depart for hours, so she went to visit a sick aunt who lived there. While they were sipping tea, her phone rang. It was the vice-director of the police station in Kuytun. “Where are you?” he barked.
Sabit told him.
“You were in Kuytun a few days ago,” he said. “How did you suddenly go?” He asked her to text him a photograph of her train ticket, as proof that she was in Ghulja. Then he ordered her to return immediately, to sign documents. “You will take the train back tonight,” he said.
The vice-director seemed oddly intent on her case. On the train, she got a text from him, asking her to confirm that she was on her way. When she arrived in Kuytun, it was past midnight, and the parking lot was empty. In the lights outside the station, she saw a police car waiting for her, with two officers inside. One was Han, the other Kazakh. They drove in silence, until Sabit asked why she had to return so urgently. The Kazakh officer quietly explained that she was being sent to school.
The officer had spoken to her in Kazakh, and so Sabit felt that she could question him. Incredulous, she asked, “Didn’t the vice-director say I was meant to sign documents?” She told him not to tease her, but he shook his head and said, “I am not joking.” At the police station, Sabit’s things were confiscated, and she was returned to the cage. The following day, she was given another medical exam. It was clear that she was being processed for reëducation, but she could not accept it as reality—a common reaction, which the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl called the “delusion of reprieve.” Frankl knew the hold of this delusion well. During the Holocaust, he was taken to Auschwitz; even as his train was pulling in, he later wrote, he believed “to the last moment that it would not be so bad.”
Detainees endured “political reëducation” classes, in which they were forced to repeat propaganda and sing Party anthems.Illustration by Na Kim; Source photographs by Greg Baker / AFP / Getty (building); The Asahi Shimbun / Getty (Xi)
Chen Quanguo’s crackdown was aimed at a single goal: moving a large percentage of Xinjiang’s population into an archipelago of fortified camps for political reëducation. Shortly after he arrived, he had begun building hundreds of prison-like facilities—what an official later described as trusted destinations for the untrusted.
By treating the entire indigenous population as a target, Chen was realizing a years-old objective. In 2015, around the time the IJOP system was being developed, a senior official had argued that a third of the region’s Uyghurs were “polluted by religious extremist forces,” and needed to be “educated and reformed through concentrated force.”
Xi Jinping had compared separatism and radical Islam to a disease, and officials often invoked medicine when they sought to allay concerns about the camps. “Although a certain number of people who have been indoctrinated with extremist ideology have not committed any crimes, they are already infected,” one noted. “They must be admitted to a reëducation hospital in time to treat and cleanse the virus from their brain.”
As the mass arrests began, the Xinjiang Daily, a Communist Party organ, offered one of the first public acknowledgments of Chen’s plan. It described two men who had been assigned to a reëducation camp in Hotan Prefecture: a farmer and the owner of a village drugstore. Both described themselves as ideologically healed. “I was increasingly drifting away from ‘home,’ ” the drugstore owner explained. “With the government’s help and education, I’ve returned.”
Cartoon by Karl Stevens
The farmer noted that he had learned, to his surprise, that his thoughts were manifesting religious extremism. “I didn’t even know,” he said. Now, he added, “our lives are improving every day. No matter who you are, first and foremost you are a Chinese citizen.”
An official told the Daily that the camp had already processed two thousand people. “We have strict requirements for our students, but we have a gentle attitude, and put our hearts into treating them,” he said. “To come here is actually like staying at a boarding school.” The drugstore owner, he noted, was resistant at first to being reëducated. “Gradually, he became shocked by how ignorant he used to be.”
From the police station, Sabit and another detainee, a young Uyghur woman, were driven to a compound surrounded by a wall topped with concertina wire. A sign read “Kuytun City Vocational Skills Re-education Training Center Administrative Bureau.” Inside was a three-story building, a former police station that had been hastily repurposed. The women were ushered in and told to face a wall. Sabit tried to survey the place, but the light was dim. Standing beside her, the Uyghur woman began to cry.
“Don’t fidget!” an officer shouted. Sabit, noticing that the man’s Mandarin was imperfect, turned and saw that he was Kazakh; immediately, she felt disgust. The women were directed to the third floor, and, on the way, Sabit glimpsed several male detainees in gray uniforms. Their sullen figures made her fearful, and she looked away.
Sabit was led to a large room, where she was strip-searched. As she was getting dressed, she asked how long she would have to remain, and a guard said that no one would be let go before the Nineteenth National Congress, which was days away.
The detention cells were revamped offices, with walls, doors, and windows reinforced with iron latticework, giving them the appearance of cages. The doors were chained to their frames and could not be opened more than a foot; detainees had to shimmy through. In Sabit’s cell, five bunk beds were crammed into a twelve-by-fifteen-foot space, with three cameras and a microphone hanging from the ceiling.
A few women, their eyes red from crying, were already there, and more arrived later. They were all sure that they had been rounded up in a dragnet preceding the National Congress. Some had been brought in for using WhatsApp. One was on leave from college in America; she had been detained for using a V.P.N. to turn in her homework and to access her Gmail account. A seventeen-year-old had been arrested because her family once went to Turkey on a holiday.
The Uyghur woman who was processed with Sabit had been assigned to the cell, too. She was a Communist Party propagandist. Years earlier, she told Sabit, she had booked a flight to Kashgar, but a sandstorm prevented the plane from taking off, so the airline had placed everyone on the flight in a hotel. Later, police officers in Kuytun detained her, and told her that two of the other people in the hotel were deemed suspect. Even though she was working for the Party, the mere fact of being Uyghur and staying in a hotel where others were under suspicion was enough to raise alarms.
The reëducation camp was nothing like a hospital, nothing like a boarding school. Chen Quanguo had instructed that such facilities “be managed like the military and defended like a prison.” Sabit and the other women had to exchange their clothes for drab uniforms that were accented with fluorescent stripes and a photo-I.D. tag. Male guards patrolled the halls and the compound’s exterior—each officer working a twenty-four-hour shift—while female staff members served as disciplinarians, following the women wherever they went, including the bathroom. When the disciplinarians were not there, the surveillance cameras were; even when showering, the detainees could not escape them.
The only language permitted in the building was Mandarin. Some of the older women did not know a word of it, and were consigned to silence, except for a few phrases they had to memorize. Everyone was required to shout “Reporting!” when entering a room, but many of the women forgot, enraging their minders. One disciplinarian, a member of the bingtuan, routinely insulted and humiliated the women. Detainees who angered her were subjected to punishments, which included being locked in a tiny room and shackled to a tiger chair for the night. She often intoned, “If you don’t behave, you’ll stay here for the rest of your life.”
Sabit quickly learned that every moment was controlled. The women had to wake at precisely eight each morning, but, except for trips to the washroom and the toilet, they were locked in their cells twenty-four hours a day. They had three minutes to wash their faces and brush their teeth, a minute to urinate. Showers could not exceed five minutes. Some women left soapy because they had misjudged their time.
For meals, the women had to line up in their cells to await a food cart, with their backs facing the door. The cups and bowls issued to them were made from cheap plastic, and Sabit, watching the hot food and water soften them, feared that toxins were leeching into her diet. (Later, replacements were introduced.) Sabit’s cell had no table, but the women were assigned stools—painful to use, because they were only about a foot tall. The women squatted on them and put their bowls on the floor. If they ate too slowly, or not enough, they were reprimanded. The elderly women, and people with dental problems, struggled, but neither age nor ailments spared them insults.
The detainees were forbidden to sit on their beds during the day, though after lunch they were made to lie down, with eyes shut, for a compulsory nap. At 10 p.m., they were ordered to sleep, but the lights in their cells were never turned off, and they were not allowed to cover their eyes with a blanket or a towel. (The younger women volunteered to take the top bunks, to shield the older ones from the light.) If anyone spoke, everyone in the room would be punished with an ear-splitting reprimand from a blown-out loudspeaker. Any nighttime request to use the bathroom was treated with contempt, and eventually the women stopped asking. Dispirited, uncomfortable, often verbally abused, they masked their pain, because displays of sadness were also punished. “You are not allowed to cry here,” the guards had told them. School taught them how to turn from the cameras, hide their faces, and quietly cry themselves to sleep.
The women had been told that they were going to be reëducated, but for a long stretch there was only dull confinement. To pass the time, they sat on the stools and traded stories. The college student who was studying in America entertained the others by recounting the entire plot of “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Twelve days after Sabit arrived, the National Congress ended, and the women were summoned for interviews with officials from the Public Security Bureau. Sabit was led to an interrogation room, where an officer told her, “Your case is basically clear now.” She asked how she had ended up in the camp, given that the domestic-security team had provided her with a written declaration of her innocence. The officer said that he didn’t know. Later, a detainee told Sabit that she had heard it was because officials came to view her failed departures at the airport as an inconvenience.
After the interviews, the women waited hopefully, but no one was freed. Then, a month into Sabit’s detention, it was announced that everyone would study Mandarin six days a week—to master the “national language.” After learning of a detainee who was let go after three months, Sabit thought that perhaps she, too, could sail through the lessons and “graduate.”
The classroom, fortified with iron meshwork, was adjacent to her cell. There were rows of desks, and a lectern behind a fence at the front. A surveillance camera was mounted in each corner. During classes, two police officers stood guard.
The women’s instructor—Ms. Y.—had been yanked out of her job as an elementary-school teacher and compelled to live at the facility most of the week. Although she was stern, the women liked her. Ms. Y. spoke frequently about how she missed her young students, and she brought a grade-school teacher’s sensibility to the camp: she sought to teach the women Chinese opera and calligraphy, and pushed the administrators to allow plastic scissors, for making traditional Han crafts. (She also tried, unsuccessfully, to get the detainees time outside for exercise.) One day, she arrived visibly upset; the director had humiliated her for tardiness by forcing her to stand during a meeting.
At the outset, Ms. Y. had no Mandarin textbooks, or even worksheets, so she used first-grade instructional materials; later, she was provided with lesson plans, but they were riddled with errors. The detainees were told that they needed to master three thousand Chinese characters, even though several women, Sabit among them, already knew more than twice that many. No matter how fluent the women were, they were forced to perform the exercises, over and over, until the others caught up. Some of the elderly women who had never been schooled in Mandarin struggled with the lessons. To spare them punishment, Sabit and a few others covertly helped them.
The classes, of course, had nothing really to do with language. As a government document made clear, reëducation was intended to sever people from their native cultures: “Break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.”
Sabit and the other women had to learn Communist songs and sing them loudly before each meal. (If they did not show sufficient zeal, guards threatened to withhold food.) Every morning, they had to stand and proclaim their fealty to the state:
Ardently love the Chinese Communist Party!
Ardently love the great motherland!
Ardently love the Chinese people!
Ardently love socialism with Chinese characteristics!
They were compelled to watch videos like “The Hundred-Year Dream,” which celebrated China’s economic growth and power. The screenings were followed by discussion groups, in which detainees had to repeat propaganda and profess gratitude to the Party for saving them from criminality. On Saturdays, guest speakers gave presentations on terrorism law. The detainees were obliged to recite seventy-five “manifestations” of religious extremism.
It didn’t take great insight, Sabit thought, to recognize the absurdity of the curriculum as a counterterrorism tool. Most of the young women who were rounded up had secular life styles; they frequented bars on weekends and had barely any ties to religion, let alone religious extremism. The elderly women, though more traditional, clearly posed no threat, but their internment would stymie the transmission of cultural knowledge to younger generations.
All their work seemed geared toward pageants that were organized for visiting Party dignitaries, who would come to inspect the women’s progress and the camp’s efficacy. During these events—held at first in a room where the guards slept, with beds pushed to one side—the women had to recite maxims of Xi Jinping, sing patriotic anthems, dance, and make a show of Han cultural pride. “You need to have a smile on your face,” guards would say. “You need to show that you are happy.”
Sabit was often a featured performer; because of her fluency and her education, the camp could count on her to demonstrate that the program was a success. She would project excitement and positivity, in an exhausting pantomime. Many of the women felt ashamed by the hollow display, but still campaigned to perform. The preparations offered a respite from the language classes, and the pageants gave them a chance to prove their “transformation” and perhaps be set free.
At some point during every inspection, the visiting dignitaries would ask, “Do you recognize your mistakes?” In preparation, the detainees wrote out statements of repentance; the guards explained that anyone who did not do so would never leave. One detainee, a member of a Christian sect called Eastern Lightning, invoked a Chinese law that guaranteed freedom of religion, declaring, “I did nothing wrong!” She was taken away, to what the women assumed was a harsher facility—a pretrial detention center or a prison.
The logic of these forced admissions was clear: to gain their freedom, the detainees had to tear themselves down. Sabit strove to qualify her answers with words like “potentially,” and to characterize her life overseas as a “lack of patriotism” rather than as a manifestation of Islamic extremism. But, having lived in Shanghai, she found it hard not to seethe; she knew Han urbanites who had left the country for vacations in Malaysia, and who had used WhatsApp and V.P.N.s. Were they also infected?
Over and over, Sabit and the women confessed. Yet no one was released, and gradually Sabit’s optimistic delusions collapsed. In February, 2018, China’s annual Spring Festival arrived, and the women were preparing for a pageant, when a camp administrator woke them in the middle of the night and forced them into a classroom to write out their mistakes. When they were done, he gathered their papers, tore them up, and berated the women for being dishonest, then kept them writing until dawn. Sabit wondered if she was losing her grip on herself. Could she be wrong? she thought. Had she betrayed China?
Then, as the pageant neared, Sabit learned that after the performances any detainee who was a student would be let go. Because Sabit had been enrolled in school in Canada, she made the case that the policy applied to her. The camp administrators agreed, and she filled out forms for her release—discreetly, so that women who were not slated to leave would not grow agitated. The director told her to wait for an official departure date. She tried not to become hopeful, having been let down so often. But, she recalled, she regarded the news as “a ray of light.”
V. THE CONFESSION
Yarkand County is about eight hundred miles from Kuytun, in southwestern Xinjiang, on the rim of the Taklamakan Desert. When Marco Polo visited, in the late thirteenth century, he noted that Muslims and Christians lived alongside one another there, and that the region, with its temperate climate and rich soil, had been “amply stocked with the means of life.”
Yarkand has a large Uyghur population, and the crackdown there has been severe. In 2014, authorities restricted Ramadan celebrations, and, according to a report from the region, police gunned down a family during a house-to-house search for women wearing head scarves. Locals armed with knives took to the streets, and, in an escalating confrontation with police, dozens were killed. Later, the authorities called in a seasoned Party official, Wang Yongzhi, to manage the county.
Wang moved aggressively to enact Chen Quanguo’s policies, but he evidently had misgivings. As he later noted in a statement, “The policies and measures taken by higher levels were at gaping odds with the realities on the ground, and could not be implemented in full.” He took steps to soften the crackdown, much to the dissatisfaction of Chen’s operatives, who monitored how officials were carrying out the measures. “He refused to round up everyone who should be rounded up,” an official assessment of Wang, later leaked to the Times, noted. In fact, he had gone further than that. He had authorized the release of seven thousand interned people.
Wang was removed from his post and duly submitted a confession, in which he wrote, “I undercut, acted selectively, and made my own adjustments, believing that rounding up so many people would knowingly fan conflict and deepen resentment.” The Party savagely attacked him, accusing him of corruption and abuse of power. “Wang Yongzhi lost his ideals and convictions,” one government-run paper noted. “He is a typical ‘two-faced man,’ ” it added. “His problem is very serious.” He vanished from public life.
Wang’s confession was circulated across the Xinjiang bureaucracy as a warning, and it apparently reached Kuytun. Just as Sabit and the other students were to be released, her camp’s management revoked its decision—because, a guard told her, an official had been dismissed for freeing people without authorization. “Nobody is willing to sign off on your release now,” he explained. “Nobody wants that responsibility.”
A heavy silence fell over the building, as minders—the detainees’ conduits for news—became cautious about what they said. At first, Sabit was dismayed, but, just as she had modulated her joy at the prospect of leaving, she now dampened her disappointment. The one certainty she could count on was her patience. She had become good at waiting.
And yet the longer she was confined the more convoluted her path to freedom appeared. By then, her minders had instituted a point system: the detainees were told that they had each been assigned a score, and if it was high enough they could win privileges—such as family visits—and even release. Points could be gained by performing well on examinations, or by writing up “thought reports” that demonstrated an ability to regurgitate propaganda. The women could also win points by informing on others. One detainee, Sabit recalled, was “like another camera.”
The threat of losing points was constantly dangled over the women. For a minor infraction, the guards might announce that they were docking a point; for a large one, they might say that the penalty was ten points. Yet the women were never told their scores, so they were never sure if the points were real. One day, a woman got into a fight and was brought to a camp official, who furiously reprimanded her, then tore up a paper that, he claimed, recorded her score. “You now have zero points!” he declared. Back in the cell, Sabit and the others consoled her, but also gently pushed for details of what the official had said, hoping to glean some insight into how the system functioned. “We thought, Well, maybe they really are recording our points,” Sabit recalled. “Maybe there is something to it.”
In the winter of 2018, new arrivals began flooding into the camp. Word spread that the arrests were driven by quotas—a new kind of arbitrariness. As an official involved with IJOP later told Human Rights Watch, “We began to arrest people randomly: people who argue in the neighborhood, people who street-fight, drunkards, people who are lazy; we would arrest them and accuse them of being extremists.” An officer at the camp told Sabit that the arrests were intended to maintain stability before the Two Sessions, a major political conclave in Beijing.
The camp strained to manage the influx. Most of the new arrivals had been transferred from a detention center, which was also overflowing. There were elderly women, some illiterate, some hobbled. One woman, the owner of a grocery, was in custody because her horse-milk supplier had been deemed untrustworthy. Another was an adherent of Falun Gong; she was so terrified that she had attempted suicide by jumping out of a third-floor window.
For many of the new arrivals, the reëducation camp was an improvement. At the detention centers, there was not even a pretense of “transformation through education.” Uyghurs and Kazakhs were brought in hooded and shackled. The women spoke of beatings, inedible food, beds stained with urine, shit, and blood. Sabit met two women who had bruises on their wrists and ankles—marks, they told her, from shackles that were never removed.
With more women than beds at the camp, the authorities tossed mattresses on the floor, before shuffling the detainees around to find more space. New protocols were introduced. The women had to perform military drills inside their cells, and submit to haircuts. In Kazakh and Uyghur culture, long hair symbolizes good fortune; some of the women had grown their hair since childhood, until it was, as Sabit remembered, “jet black and dense, reaching their heels.” Later, evidence emerged to suggest that the internment system was turning hair into a commodity. (Last year, the United States interdicted a thirteen-ton shipment of hair, which White House officials feared had been partly harvested at the camps.) In Kuytun, the locks were cut with a few brutal chops, as some of the women begged the guards to leave just a little more. Sabit refused to beg, trying to hold on to some pride, but as her hair fell she felt a great shame—as if she had been transformed into a criminal.
At night, it was announced, the detainees would help police themselves, with the women serving two-hour shifts. For Sabit, the shifts offered rare moments of privacy. Sometimes, blanketed in solitude, she thought of her mother living alone. Over the months, she had convinced herself that she would be able to commemorate the anniversary of her father’s death with her family, in the Kazakh tradition. But a year had passed, and she was still stranded.
While on duty, Sabit often gazed through the small caged window and took in the nighttime view: a garden, a poplar tree, and then Kuytun’s urban panorama—the city’s glowing lights, the cars tracing lines on a highway, reminding her of her old life. Later, she captured these reveries in a poem, written in Mandarin, which ends:
I turn toward the darkness and
Its wanton torment
Of the feeble poplar.
As the months passed, the system took its toll on everyone. Guards who were once lenient became erratic and severe. A mild-mannered staff member lost it one evening, after being confronted with multiple requests for the bathroom; she yelled maniacally, then refused to let any woman out for the rest of the night.
The detainees, too, began to buckle. They joked that the state was merely keeping them alive. Some went gray prematurely. Many stopped menstruating—whether from compulsory injections that the camp administered or from stress, Sabit was unsure. Because they could shower only infrequently and were never provided clean underwear, the women often developed gynecological problems. From the poor food, many suffered bad digestion. One elderly woman could not use the bathroom without expelling portions of her large intestine, which she had to stuff back into herself. The woman was sent to a hospital, but an operation could not be performed, it was explained, because she had high blood pressure. She was returned, and spent most of the time moaning in bed.
In class one day, a detainee who had lost most of her family to the camps suddenly fell to the floor, unconscious. Her sister, who was also in the class, ran to her, then looked up at the others with alarm. The women tearfully rushed to her aid but were stopped by the guards, who ordered them not to cry. “They started hitting the iron fence with their batons, frightening us,” Sabit recalled. “We had to hold back our sobbing.”
Signs of psychological trauma were easy to find. An Uyghur woman, barely educated, had been laboring to memorize Mandarin texts and characters. One evening, she started screaming, yanked off her clothing, and hid under her bed, insisting that no one touch her. Guards rushed in with a doctor and took her away. The camp administrators, however, returned her to the cell, arguing that she had been feigning illness. Afterward, the woman occasionally had convulsions and was sent to the hospital. But she was not released.
“I get it. You have a podcast.”
Cartoon by Brendan Loper
Sabit, too, felt increasingly frail. She was losing weight. She couldn’t hold down anything, not even a sip of water, and had to be given medicine to manage non-stop vomiting. Like the other women, her emotions were raw. Once, she was chatting with a Han guard, who mentioned that the camp’s deputy director had told him, “Anar being here is purely a waste of time.” Sabit smiled, worried that if she showed distress he would no longer share news with her. But, as soon as he left, she ran to her bed, turned her back to the cameras, and wept.
By the summer of 2018, Chen Quanguo’s reëducation campaign had been operating for more than a year. Beijing strove to hide its existence, but accounts leaked out, and it slowly became clear that something on a monstrous scale was taking place.
Reporters with Radio Free Asia called up local Chinese officials, who, accustomed to speaking with Party propagandists, were strikingly candid. When one camp director was asked the name of his facility, he confessed that he didn’t know, because it had been changed so often, but gamely ran outside to read the latest version off a sign. A police officer admitted that his department was instructed to detain forty per cent of the people in its jurisdiction. In January, 2018, an official in Kashgar told the news service that a hundred and twenty thousand Uyghurs had been detained in his prefecture alone.
The growing camp infrastructure attracted notice, too. Shawn Zhang, a student in Canada, began using satellite data to map the facilities. By the summer, it appeared that roughly ten per cent of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population was under confinement. Adrian Zenz, an independent academic who has unearthed troves of government documents on Chen’s crackdown, estimated that there were as many as a million people in the camps—a statistic echoed by the United Nations and others. Not since the Holocaust had a country’s minority population been so systematically detained.
As the crackdown evolved, hastily assembled facilities, like Sabit’s in Kuytun, gave way to titanic new compounds in remote locations. When forced to acknowledge them publicly, the government described them as benign or indispensable—noting, “Xinjiang has been salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil.”
That summer, amid these changes, the director of Sabit’s camp permitted the detainees time in a walled-in yard; there were snipers keeping watch, and the women were restricted to structured activities, like emergency drills, but he nonetheless insisted that they should be grateful. Eventually, the women were also allowed to air out blankets in a vineyard that the staff maintained. “We would hide grapes inside the bedding,” Sabit recalled. “Then we would bring them back to our cell and secretly eat them.”
When camp officials announced in July that Sabit and the other women were going to be moved to a new facility, the news seemed ominous. Not knowing where they were going, they feared that their situation would get worse. One night, guards roused the women and told them to pack: a bus was waiting to take them away. On the road, a caravan of police cars escorted them, and officers manned intersections. “A lot of people were crying,” Sabit recalled. “I asked the girl next to me, ‘Why are you crying?’ And she said, ‘I saw a street that I used to walk on, and I started thinking of my previous life.’ ”
In the darkness, they approached a massive, isolated complex. One of the buildings was shaped like a gigantic “L,” and surrounded by a wall. As the bus drove alongside one of its wings, the women counted the windows, to estimate how many cells it contained. Sabit was struck by the lifelessness of the structure. Its unlit chambers seemed hollow. Inside, she and the others learned that the building was indeed empty: they were its first occupants. It was summer, but inside the thick concrete walls it felt cold, like a tomb.
In the new building, the detainees were divided by ethnicity. With few exceptions, Uyghurs were subjected to harsher measures; some were sentenced, implying that they would be transferred to prison. In contrast, the women in Sabit’s cohort were gradually released. That September, as they rehearsed to perform for visiting dignitaries, a camp official asked Sabit if she had street clothes. The next day—the day of the performance—one of his colleagues told her, “Tomorrow, you’ll be able to leave.” Later, it occurred to her that, because of her fluency in Mandarin, she had been held longer just to be in the pageant.
The following day, during class, whispers of her impending release spread through the room. Some of the women begged her for her Mandarin notebook. “I was, like, Why?” she recalled. “They were, like, We know you are leaving! And I was, like, It’s not certain!” A guard winked at her and said that soon her name would be called on a loudspeaker, and she would be free. When the speaker blared, Sabit stood and waited for the door to be unlocked, as the other women wished her well. Then she returned to her room for her clothing. “I finally took off the disgusting uniform,” she recalled.
Sabit was brought to the camp’s Party secretary, who was waiting for her in a room with a chair, a small table, and a bed. She sat on the bed, and he lectured her, telling her that she needed to be more patriotic: “Your life style was too individualistic—completely fighting for yourself!” Sabit was silently outraged. With the prospect of release before her, the doubts instilled by the camp’s propaganda dissipated. She thought, Can only dying for China make me good enough for you? But she nodded and said, “Yes, yes. You’re right.”
The secretary told her that a local Party official and his aide were waiting to take her to her uncle’s home. As she walked from the camp toward their car, she thought about something that the other women had told her: “Don’t look back. It’s a bad sign.” She decided to heed their advice. But, glancing to the side, she saw a looming façade across the road: a detention center. Breaking into a run, she raced to the waiting car.
In the year that Sabit had been confined, Chen Quanguo was transforming Xinjiang. Cherished symbols of Muslim heritage—shrines, mosques, cemeteries—were systematically targeted for destruction. Experts estimate that, since 2017, some sixteen thousand mosques have been razed or damaged, with minarets pulled down and decorative features scrubbed away or painted over. An official in Kashgar told Radio Free Asia, “We demolished nearly seventy per cent of the mosques in the city, because there were more than enough.” In some cases, officials pursued an odd tactic: miniaturization. In 2018, the grand gatehouse of a mosque in the town of Kargilik was covered with a banner proclaiming, “Love the Party, love the country.” Then the structure was dismantled and rebuilt as an ersatz version of itself, at a quarter the size.
The Uyghur and Kazakh languages were increasingly scarce in public, and so were their speakers. Within the first two years of Chen’s crackdown, nearly four hundred thousand children were transferred into state-run boarding schools, designed to block the “thinking and ideas” that they might encounter at home. New infrastructure had to be quickly built to house the children, many of whom had “double-detained” parents. One orphanage worker told Radio Free Asia, “Because there are so many children, they are locked up like farm animals.” Sabit recalled that mothers held in her facility were very pliant: “In order to see their children, they were willing to do everything.”
These children may mark a demographic milestone. Even as regulations on family planning had been eased across China, they were enforced ferociously in Xinjiang, with violations often punished by detention. Adrian Zenz, the academic, uncovered government records from 2018 which indicate that eighty per cent of China’s increase in IUD use occurred in Xinjiang. Amid the myriad stresses imposed by the crackdown, the region’s birth rate fell by a third that year. In areas where Uyghurs represent a larger share of the population, the declines were even sharper. “You see this incredible crash,” Rian Thum, a historian at the University of Manchester who has studied the issue, said. The government doesn’t dispute these figures, but it argues that they are a consequence of gender emancipation. This January, the Chinese Embassy in Washington went on Twitter to celebrate that Uyghur women were “no longer baby-making machines.”
Kuytun, like all Chinese cities, is divided into neighborhood units, each overseen by a Party organization called a residential committee. Although Sabit had not lived there in more than a decade, she was still registered with the committee that oversaw her old home. The Party official who had come to the camp to pick her up was the committee’s secretary, Zhang Hongchao. He was middle-aged but boyish, with the affect of an ambitious petty bureaucrat, skilled in pleasing people above him and bullying people below. He often wore Army-issue camouflage, and he kept the neighborhood under close watch.
To assure Zhang that she had been reëducated, Sabit spoke of her gratitude to the Party—words that poured out automatically, after countless repetitions. He seemed pleased. “We see you don’t have so many problems,” he said. “You’ve been abroad, that’s your problem.” Then he advised her, “Just stay and do something for your country. Don’t think of going abroad for the next ten years.”
Sabit understood that this was not a suggestion. With little more than a nod, Zhang could return her to the camp. She reassessed her future. O.K., she thought, I won’t die if I can never leave. “Can I go to Shanghai?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “After a time.”
At her uncle’s home, Zhang and his aide stayed for tea, along with “relatives”—members of a cadre. Sabit’s uncle later told her that, during her internment, he and his family had been designated “focus personnel.” Every week, they had to attend reëducation classes and a flag-raising ceremony at their residential-committee center. Cadre members also visited, staying for meals and urging the family to serve drinks—an indication that they did not obey Muslim strictures on alcohol. Initially, they spent the night, until they realized that they could photograph themselves in different clothes and fake an overnight stay.
As the officials sat on floor cushions and sipped tea, Zhang and the head of the cadre explained that Sabit was confined to Kuytun. “We’ll monitor you for some time to see how you’ve transformed,” one of the officials said. Sabit asked if she could shop or see friends, and was told, “You need to be cautious about whom you contact, but you’re allowed to have friends.”
The sun set, and the officials stayed for dinner. After they left, Sabit’s aunt recorded a voice message for Sabit’s mother and texted it to her in Kazakhstan; a direct call seemed too risky. Then Sabit settled into a guest room decorated in a traditional Central Asian way, with a carpet on the wall and flat cushions for sitting or sleeping. Turning out the lights, she felt the warmth of family, the security of reclaimed comforts. For more than a year, she had never been alone, never slept with the lights off. The darkness and solitude felt both welcoming and strange. She wanted to rush to her sleeping relatives to explain, but decided that she was getting carried away. To calm herself, she used a trick that she had developed in the camp. She imagined herself listening compassionately to her inner monologue, as a parent would listen to a child. Soon, she was fast asleep.
Kuytun had become an open-air prison. The city was ringed with checkpoints, where Uyghurs and Kazakhs were forced through scanners, even as Han residents passed freely. “We will implement comprehensive, round-the-clock, three-dimensional prevention and control,” Chen Quanguo had proclaimed while Sabit was in captivity. “We will resolutely achieve no blind spots, no gaps, no blank spots.” The technology was deployed to create a digital-age apartheid.
In Xinjiang, the Sharp Eyes surveillance program had been wired into a large computing center, but sifting through the vast amount of image data had been time-consuming and, according to state media, “required a lot of manual work.” As capabilities increased, so did the need for processing: at first, the surveillance systems could track only the movement of crowds, according to a former Chinese official; later, the technology could assess a person’s gait, even her facial expressions. In the summer of 2017, the authorities unveiled the Ürümqi Cloud Computing Center, a supercomputer that ranked among the fastest in the world. With the new machine, they announced, image data that once took a month to process could be evaluated in less than a second. Its thousands of servers would integrate many forms of personal data. State media called the new machine “the most powerful brain.”
Lower-level Party officials struggled to keep up with the technological advances. Sabit asked Zhang Hongchao if she could walk around unimpeded. Unsure, he suggested that she and a Party official test her I.D. at a hospital. The next morning, when they swiped her card, it triggered an ear-piercing alarm. Police swarmed Sabit within minutes.
After the experiment, she went to a mall to buy clothes. Almost immediately, police surrounded her again. An officer explained that facial-recognition software had identified her as a “focus person.” Learning that she had already been reëducated, the officers let her go. But it soon became clear that there was nowhere Sabit could walk without being detained. Eventually, police began to recognize her, and, annoyed by the repeated encounters, urged her to stop going out at all. Instead, Sabit laboriously identified convenience stations that she might pass and gave the police notice, so that they could ignore the IJOP alerts.
A few times a week, Sabit had to report to the residential-committee center, for a flag-raising ceremony and additional reëducation classes. She hated these visits, but they were her only escape from solitude. Except for her uncle’s family, just about everyone she knew—neighbors, friends, relatives—stayed away from her, fearing that any association would land them in the camps, too.
The only people she could safely mix with were other former detainees, who were similarly isolated. The Party propagandist in Sabit’s cell had been fired from her job. The woman who had run a grocery store could no longer operate her business, so she turned to menial labor; she also discovered that the man she wanted to marry had found another woman. Shunned and vulnerable, they found safety in one another.
Two weeks after Sabit’s release, several officers from her internment camp turned up on her uncle’s doorstep and explained that they had used her file to find her. It was not an official visit. They emphasized that they, in their own way, were also prisoners: resigning from the camp was impossible. Two of the officers were Kazakh, and they said that they lived in fear that any misstep would send them to the camps as detainees. One of them confessed that he had been drinking to ease his guilt and his nightmares.
Because the men had been kind, Sabit and the other women decided to take them out to dinner, as thanks. The group started meeting regularly, and the officers soon began insisting that the women join them for drinks and give them loans. Sabit usually handed over the money, not expecting it back. But the officers became more demanding. One asked her to buy him a car, and, when she gently declined, his kindness gave way to threats. He called Sabit and, using the IJOP data, itemized where she had been the previous day. She decided that isolation was better than such company.
Members of Sabit’s residential committee constantly interfered with her life—trying to mold her into the state’s idea of a good citizen. They urged her to take a Han husband. There was money in it for her, they said; in an attempt to alter the ethnic balance of Xinjiang, the state had launched an aggressive campaign to encourage indigenous women to marry Han men. (Darren Byler, an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University who studies repression in Xinjiang, recently uncovered evidence that some Han “relatives” in Uyghur homes had coerced women into such marriages.) When Sabit demurred, the officials told her that Muslim men were chauvinists—adding, with a laugh, “Han husbands dote on their wives!”
The residential committee urged her to work, and then made it impossible. Sabit found a job teaching English, but on her first day the committee called her in for an unscheduled meeting with officials from her camp. She could not tell the school why she had to leave, fearing that she would be fired if her employer knew that she was a “focus person.” At the meeting, she asked if she could speak first, so that she could return to her job. One of the officials responded with a threat: “I can send you back to the camp with one phrase. Stay!” She lost the job, and decided that it wasn’t worth looking for a new one.
By January, 2019, Sabit understood that this kind of attention was causing her uncle’s community anxiety. Fearing that she was endangering her relatives, she moved into a hotel. One night, she returned to her family’s home for a meal, and posed with them for a photo. She shared it on social media. Immediately, Zhang texted her about an embroidered portrait that was on the wall. “Who’s in the picture?” he wrote.
The portrait showed a bearded man in traditional dress: the Kazakh poet Abai Qunanbaiuly. “I was afraid that this would bring me and my uncle’s family doom,” Sabit recalled. She deleted the photo and sent Zhang a Chinese encyclopedia entry on Qunanbaiuly.
“You were quick to delete,” he wrote.
“You scared me,” she said.
“Just asking,” he said. “Don’t be nervous.”
She told him that she was no longer living in her uncle’s home, and planned to move again. She had found an inexpensive rental apartment, owned by an elderly Kazakh woman, in an adjoining community.
The Spring Festival was again approaching, and Sabit and the other former detainees were compelled to rehearse for a performance at the residential-committee center. As the festival neared, Zhang told Sabit and the other women to hang chunlian—holiday greetings on red paper—outside their homes, a Han tradition that Sabit had never practiced before. Returning to her apartment, she hung the scrolls beside her front door. Fearful of being disobedient, she photographed them and texted Zhang the evidence. “I have put up the chunlian,” she wrote. “I wish you good luck and happiness.”
“Same to you,” he wrote.
That night, two men pounded on her door—a police officer and the secretary of the local residential committee. “When did you move?” one asked. “Why didn’t you tell us?” Stunned, Sabit told them that she had informed Zhang. But the men said that this didn’t matter, that she had to leave their community—“tonight.”
The men ushered her to a nearby police station, for further questioning. There, Sabit ran into her Kazakh landlady and her husband. As officers escorted them into an armored vehicle, the landlady glared at her with terror and contempt, and screamed, “Just look! Because of you, we’re going to school!”
Racked with guilt, Sabit asked an officer if they were really being sent to a camp. He told her that they were only being taken to another police station for questioning. Still, Sabit was aghast that she could provoke such fear, just by existing. “I cried a lot that day,” she recalled. “I was like a virus.”
Not knowing where to go, she called Zhang, who told her that his residential-committee center had a dormitory. She moved into it that night with a few of her possessions, and texted him, “Lucky to have you today.”
“You can live here,” he told her.
She shared a room with two other Kazakh women. Later, one of them told Sabit that Zhang had instructed them to monitor her: he wanted to know what she did, what she said, whom she met—“basically all the details.”
Former detainees faced constant monitoring. Police tracked them; the Party oversaw their work and their personal lives.Illustration by Na Kim; Source photograph by Bernice Chan / South China Morning Post / Getty
At the time that Sabit was released from the camp, leaving China seemed unthinkable. Then she learned of a Kazakh detainee who had contracted TB, and in the hospital had bemoaned his inability to see his family in Kazakhstan. Eventually, he was permitted to go. Stories like this gave her the idea that leaving might be possible.
A month after her release, Sabit returned to the police station to obtain her passport, and was told that there was a new procedure: she had to be interviewed, and then a transcript would be sent for approval to a legal commission in Kuytun.
Cartoon by Liana Finck
Sabit sat for the interview, but months went by with no news. She was still anxiously waiting when she moved into Zhang’s dormitory. One day, a senior Party official who had stopped by the center told her that he had heard she was approved to travel. When Sabit ran into Zhang, he said, “I heard you can go. If you get your passport, when do you plan to leave?”
“Right now!” Sabit said, excitedly.
He frowned. “It looks like your education was incomplete,” he said. “Do you want to be sent to study again?” Alarmed, she told him, “No!”
Not long afterward, a member of the legal commission called Sabit to say that he had seen her file and thought that she could help a local import-export company. The firm, he said, had business with Uzbekistan, and needed someone with language skills. “Can you work there?” he asked.
Sabit struggled to make sense of the call. Did it mean that she wasn’t cleared to leave? And, if the whole reason she had to go to the camps was that work had taken her to countries like Uzbekistan, then why was the state introducing her to this job? She suspected that she couldn’t turn it down. Later, she reached out to the Public Security Bureau, and was told, “Go do it.”
Sabit took the job. Every time she had to call an overseas client, or write an e-mail to one, she contacted the bureau. “Can I?” she asked. Each time, the question had to go to superiors. The officials told her to stop calling.
After a few weeks, Sabit learned that her passport was ready. She rushed to the police station, where she signed a pile of papers, including an agreement that she would never publicly discuss her time in the camp, and then she retrieved her passport. Fearful of the airport, Sabit bought a ticket for an overnight train to the Kazakhstan frontier. She said goodbye to her uncle and left.
Just past daybreak, she arrived at a town in the far west, where she had to catch a shuttle bus to cross the border. Entering the bus station, she swiped her I.D., and silently urged the scanner, “Don’t go off. Please.”
No alarms sounded, and she went in. The bus ride to the border took ten minutes. As Sabit gazed out the window, her phone rang. It was Wang Ting, the Public Security Bureau official. “If you see anyone with religious or separatist ideas, you need to report it,” he said. She had no interest in spying, but, knowing that he could block her departure, she murmured, “O.K.”
At the border, Sabit could see the Kazakh steppe: wind-strewn grass among patches of snow. Behind it was a mountain range, wild and pristine. Everyone disembarked into a Chinese border station, where each passenger was called for an interview, until Sabit was waiting alone. Finally, in a windowless chamber, three officials, one with a camera mounted on his shoulder, interrogated her for forty minutes. Then they told her that she, too, could go. Crossing into Kazakh territory, she felt a wave of relief. She thought of the border guards as family. People were speaking Kazakh freely. With barely any possessions, she sailed through customs. A cousin was there to pick her up and return her to her mother. A strong wind blew as she walked to his car, and she took in the crisp air. After a year and eight months as a captive, she was free.
This year marks an important anniversary in the history of human-rights law. A hundred years ago, a Polish attorney named Raphael Lemkin began following the trial of a man who had gunned down the Ottoman Empire’s former Interior Minister—an official who had overseen the near-complete eradication of the Empire’s Armenian population. The assassin, an Armenian whose mother had died in the massacres, stopped the former minister outside his home in Berlin and shot him dead. During the trial, he proclaimed his conscience clear, saying, “I have killed a man, but I am not a murderer.”
As Lemkin read about the case, he was struck by a conundrum: the gunman was on trial, but his victim, who had orchestrated the slaughter of more than a million people, had faced no legal reckoning. How could that be? “I felt that a law against this type of murder must be accepted by the world,” he later wrote. In 1944, as Lemkin, a Jew, witnessed the horrors of Nazism, it occurred to him that the vocabulary of modern law was missing a word, so he coined one: “genocide.”
Over the years, the term has taken on a specific legal definition, but Lemkin had a broad understanding of it. “Genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings,” he noted. “It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups.” Such a plan is unfolding now in Xinjiang. As in the cases that inspired Lemkin, it is happening under a shield of state sovereignty.
In December, the International Criminal Court declined to rule on the People’s War in Xinjiang, because the actions taken there appear to have been committed “solely by nationals of China within the territory of China,” and China is not a party to the court. For years, most of the world’s nations officially ignored what was happening. Only recently did the United States declare that China is committing genocide. Last year, Washington imposed sanctions on Chen Quanguo, Zhu Hailun, and the bingtuan, and barred imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang. The European Union, the U.K., and Canada took similar measures a few weeks ago.
Given the scope of China’s global power, it seems likely that only a severe and coördinated international response would have significant impact. Swiftness also matters. The longer a genocidal policy is in place, the more it provides its own rationale; as the Ottoman minister explained to an American diplomat who implored him to stop, “We have got to finish them. If we don’t, they will plan their revenge.” It is easy to imagine that China, after years of systematically punishing Xinjiang’s Turkic minorities, will adopt a similar attitude. Changes on the ground, including newly built infrastructure, suggest a commitment to a long-term process.
In December, 2019, the chairman of Xinjiang’s regional government announced, “The education trainees have all graduated.” Even as he said it, estimates of the number of detainees were at their peak. Although some people were indeed released, many others have remained incommunicado. Evidence suggests that a large fraction of the people in the camps have been formally imprisoned, or pressed into labor. Last year, an Uyghur woman in Europe told me about her brother, who was released from a camp and then vanished—she suspected into forced labor. Some of his last posts on TikTok showed photos of him moving piles of boxes. “To be honest,” she told me, “I am scared for my family.”
Fear permeates the émigré community. As a recent Freedom House report notes, “China conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world.” Its tactics have ranged from digital intimidation and threats of lawsuits to unlawful deportation. Recently, Xi Jinping’s government took an unprecedented step: sanctioning Western academics whose work on Xinjiang it found objectionable. “They will have to pay a price for their ignorance and arrogance,” the Foreign Ministry declared. A number of émigrés who have spoken out about the crackdown describe relatives in Xinjiang who have been targeted for retribution and forced to denounce them.
Ilshat Kokbore, an Uyghur activist who immigrated to America in 2006, told me that some men recently drove up to his home, in suburban Virginia, and overtly began to photograph it; they tried to go through his mail, until they noticed a neighbor watching them. On another occasion, he was attending a protest at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, when a woman he did not know approached him and began speaking in Mandarin. “She said, ‘If you get poisoned, do you know how to treat yourself?’ ” he told me. “I said, ‘Why should I know that?’ And she said, ‘You know, the Chinese government is very powerful. You could die in a car accident, or get poisoned.’ ”
For years, Kokbore has been separated from his family: two sisters, a brother-in-law, and a niece are in the camps, and the rest are incommunicado. The last family member he was able to contact was his mother, in 2016. “Don’t call again,” she told him. “And may God bless you.” Her fate remains unknown.
Sabit, as it happens, was confined with Kokbore’s sisters. She thought that the women seemed thoroughly broken. One day, the deputy director of the camp turned to them in her presence and said, “Your problem is your older brother. Unless your older brother dies, your problem cannot be resolved.”
Sabit told me that, for many months, she feared coming forward, but that Chinese propaganda about the camps had caused her to set aside her fear. “I was thinking, You have done this. I should talk about what happened to me.”
In October, 2019, half a year after gaining her freedom, she began putting her recollections into writing. She found that it helped her overcome her trauma. Seeing a therapist helped, too. But she still feels severed from the confident and purposeful woman she once was. Nightmares trouble her sleep. “I have one where I’m in the camp, in different forms,” she told me. Sometimes she is in a cell. Once, she was confined in a chicken coop. Another time, she was in a massage parlor, getting a massage; she looked over and saw people imprisoned, then was with them. “For almost a year, I had this dream every night,” she told me. “Many times, I would wake up crying, feeling very scared. That was torture, I would say, because even if you are in a safe place you are reliving the experience.”
With therapy, the nightmares subsided for a time, but recently they returned, in a different form. Sabit now dreams that she is in Xinjiang. “When I try to leave, the police tell me I can’t,” she told me. “I’m at the border, I’m at the airport, they stop me, and I start asking myself, ‘Why did I come? How am I in China?’ ” ♦