Big Brother Is (Still) Watching You: The Xinjiang Crack-Down

Xinjiang is China’s westernmost province, inhabited predominantly by Muslim ethnic minorities, the largest of these the Uighurs. For several years, this province has been the target of a wave of Chinese government repression that is apparently motivated by fears of terrorism and separatism. This repression has turned Xinjiang into something approaching a giant prison.

The relationship between Xinjiang’s Muslim population of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz and the Han Chinese who make up the country’s majority ethnic group has been occasionally marked by violent conflict. A new round of conflict began in July 2009 when a Uighur protest against discriminatory treatment, held in Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi, led to rioting and bloodshed that killed almost 200 Han. The following years saw other violent attacks by Uighurs, including terrorism against civilians.[1] The authorities accordingly decided to crack down hard.

Chen Quanguo, who had previously overseen Tibet, another restive region dominated by an ethnic minority, became Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary for Xinjiang in August 2016.[2] The following March, Xinjiang’s regional government issued a “de-extremification ordinance,” which can be taken as inaugurating the current repression campaign.[3] The repression has taken three significant forms:

Widespread surveillance. Chinese authorities restrict travel by Xinjiang’s residents, often withholding or confiscating passports. Within the province, security patrols, checkpoints, and other types of police presence are common.[4] Facial recognition technology is widely used to track people: when Xinjiang residents visit places such as markets or the central bus terminal in the capital city of Urumqi, they reportedly are required to submit to facial scans. This practice alerts authorities if targeted people travel outside designated areas.[5] Also, Xinjiang residents have been required to download software onto their cell phones that tracks suspicious files and alerts authorities if such content appears on phones.[6] As one resident put it, “1984 was child’s play compared to the technological capabilities of real 2019.”

The government also has used the low-tech surveillance method of having CCP members go to Xinjiang and live with Muslim households, generally for periods of multiple days, so as to monitor them and promote the CCP ideology. As Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch observed, “Muslim families across Xinjiang are now literally eating and sleeping under the watchful eye of the state in their own homes.”[7]

Cultural suppression. Schools are now prohibited from teaching in the Uighur language. Various behaviors identified with Muslim religious practice or Uighur culture are classified as “extremist” and viewed with suspicion. These include regular prayer, long beards or veils, the Arabic greeting Asalaam Alaikum (“Peace be with you”), or the star and crescent symbol, as well as more general “suspicious” activities such as travel abroad or having questionable books or cell phone content.[8]

Mass imprisonment. Enormous numbers of Xinjiang residents are being incarcerated in one way or another. In 2018, two nongovernmental organizations, Chinese Human Rights Defenders and the Equal Rights Initiative, provided estimates, based on official government figures, of criminal arrests and indictments in Xinjiang in recent years. Over 200,000 people were arrested and indicated in Xinjiang in 2017. Since the vast majority of indictments lead to convictions in China, this implies a comparable number of Xinjiang residents have been imprisoned. These Xinjiang arrests and indictments account for over one-fifth of all arrests and almost 13 percent of all indictments in China as a whole in 2017—despite Xinjiang accounting for less than 2 percent of the country’s population.[9] Moreover, these estimated numbers are dramatically higher than reported arrest and indictment figures for 2016 and previous year, indicating that imprisonment has skyrocketed in Xinjiang since the start of the “de-extremification” campaign.[10]

Even these figures might be only the tip of the iceberg, however. Untold numbers of Uighurs and others may also be imprisoned in a network of “re-education” centers, which exist outside the formal criminal justice system. Some prisoners have been released from these centers and re-located to neighboring Kazakhstan, where they have spoken openly about their experiences. Kayrat Samarkand describes being forced, while in a re-education center, to study CCP ideology and policies and to praise Chinese President Xi Jinping. Samarkand’s “crime” was apparently previously traveling to Kazakhstan.[11]

Omir Bekali, an ethnic Kazakh, was detained by police while a trip to see his parents in another part of Xinjiang. His detention ended up lasting almost eight months, including 20 days in a reeducation center. While in the center, he and other detainees had to learn Communist songs and slogans, including a denunciation of “separatism, extremism and terrorism.”[12] As Bekali recalled “There were so many things to recite, and if you couldn’t recite them, they wouldn’t allow you to eat, sleep or sit…They brainwash you; you must become like a robot. Listen to whatever the party says, listen to the party’s words, follow the party.”[13] Another detainee remembers having to sing pro-CCP songs for hours, a refrain being “The Communist Party is good. The Communist Party is good.”[14]

Food in the re-education centers was poor and some detainees would be forced to eat pork or drink alcohol, in violation of Islamic practice. Samarkand says that detainees who did not follow rules or acted out would be punished by being put in handcuffs and ankle cuffs for 12 hours. Worse punishments were possible: Samarkand was tied to a metal device meant to inflict pain known as the “tiger chair.”[15] Another former detainee, Orynbek Koxebek, says he was waterboarded while in a re-education center.[16]

Despite such testimonies, details about the re-education centers are murky, as Chinese authorities have been reluctant to acknowledge them. In a February 2018 interview, Zhang Wei, China’s consul general in Kazakhstan, denied the centers existed, saying “we do not have such an idea in China.”[17] Later that year, Zhang denounced those who were “inventing unfounded accusations with the evil intent of staining Xinjiang’s image, grossly interfering in China’s internal affairs and baselessly criticizing the Chinese government.”[18] Some Chinese officials have responded to criticism by saying that the government is providing vocational training as part of measures to counter extremism.[19]

Notwithstanding such official statements, some evidence, in addition to exiles’ testimony, supports the camp’s existence. In China, regional and local governments tend to post bids for construction or equipment procurement on public or private websites. Adrian Zenz of the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Germany, studied such government bids, looking for phrases associated with re-education centers, such as “transformation through education.” He found 78 such bids, which surged starting around March 2017, at the start of Chen’s “de-extremification campaign.” [20] Almost all these bids were for regions with notable Uighur or other Muslim populations. Some were facilities over 10,000 square feet in size, indicating they were intended for large numbers of people. Most significant, many bids called for adding security features: “surrounding walls, security fences, wire mesh, barbed wire, reinforced security doors and windows, surveillance systems, secure access systems, watchtowers, guard rooms, police stations or facilities for armed police forces.”[21]

How many people may be detained in these re-education centers is a matter of guess-work. An Istanbul-based Uighur exile group released information supposedly leaked from within Xinjiang public security agencies that placed the number of detainees at approximately 892,000 as of spring 2018.[22] These numbers are impossible to verify, although the CCP newspaper People’s Daily made the rather ominous announcement that 461,000 Xinjiang residents had been relocated in early 2018, ostensibly as part of an anti-poverty program.[23] If this announcement is taken as merely a cover story for imprisoning or otherwise relocating people as part of the security crackdown, then that at least suggests that hundreds of thousands of people in Xinjiang are being affected by repressive measures.

Doubtless Chinese authorities could justify such draconian methods according to a realpolitik logic. Suppressing any kind of violent, or even nonviolent, rebelliousness in Xinjiang might be seen as necessary for controlling a region that holds one-fifth of China’s oil and its largest natural gas reserves and is crucial to China’s economic ambitions.[24] Moreover, as a province at China’s western edge, dominating Xinjiang could be understood as part of securing the nation’s borders.  

Whatever its realpolitik benefits, however, the crackdown’s human costs are inescapable. A Financial Times reporter who visited Urumqi described seeing deserted neighborhoods, with stores and houses sealed or otherwise abandoned. A Uighur businessman living in Turkey says he received word two of his brothers were detained for traveling within China (“We do not know the exact charges”) and he has not been able to reach them since then. Dilnur Ana, a Uighur who went to Turkey to study, found herself unable to contact her family, including her two children—possibly because they are afraid to communicate with someone outside China. Of her situation, she said, “You cannot know the pain that I feel as a mother at not being able to see my children. I have not heard their voices in more than a year.”[25]

A resident summed up Xinjiang’s silent suffering: “The west doesn’t understand…They figure if someone is oppressing you, you will scream [or] yell, but we can’t. It will get us killed. And everyone ignores this place, because we are not screaming.”        

A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.


[1] James Millward, “ ‘Reeducating’ Xinjiang’s Muslims,” New York Review of Books, February 7, 2019,; Edward Wong, “Riots in Western China Amid Ethnic Tension,” New York Times, July 5, 2009,; Edward Wong, “China Moves to Calm Restive Xinjiang Region,” New York Times, May 30, 2014,

[2] Simon Denyer, “Former Inmates of China’s Muslim ‘Reeducation’ Camps Tell of Brainwashing, Torture,” Washington Post, May 17, 2018,

[3] Adrian Zenz, “New Evidence for China’s Political Re-Education Campaign in Xinjiang,” China Brief 18, no. 10 (2018),

[4] Millward, “ ‘Reeducating’ Xinjiang’s Muslims.”

[5] “China May Be Holding 1 Million Uighurs in Camps, UN Experts Say,” Bloomberg, August 10, 2018,

[6] Emily Feng, “Crackdown in Xinjiang: Where Have All the People Gone?,” Financial Times, August 5, 2018,

[7] Denyer, “Former Inmates of China’s Muslim ‘Reeducation’ Camps Tell of Brainwashing, Torture.”

[8] Millward, “ ‘Reeducating’ Xinjiang’s Muslims.”

[9] “Criminal Arrests in Xinjiang Account for 21% of China’s Total in 2017,” Chinese Human Rights Defenders, July 25, 2018,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Denyer, “Former Inmates of China’s Muslim ‘Reeducation’ Camps Tell of Brainwashing, Torture.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Emily Rauhala, “New Evidence Emerges of China Forcing Muslims into ‘Reeducation’ Camps,” Washington Post, August 10, 2018,

[15] Denyer, “Former Inmates of China’s Muslim ‘Reeducation’ Camps Tell of Brainwashing, Torture.”

[16] Rauhala, “New Evidence Emerges of China Forcing Muslims into ‘Reeducation’ Camps.”

[17] Zenz, “New Evidence for China’s Political Re-Education Campaign in Xinjiang.”

[18] Rauhala, “New Evidence Emerges of China Forcing Muslims into ‘Reeducation’ Camps.”

[19] Millward, “ ‘Reeducating’ Xinjiang’s Muslims.”

[20] Adrian Zenz, ” ‘Thoroughly Reforming Them Towards a Healthy Heart Attitude’—China’s Political Re-Education Campaign in Xinjiang,” September 6, 2018,

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Feng, “Crackdown in Xinjiang: Where Have All the People Gone?”

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.​

© 2019 John Whitehead. All rights reserved. 

One thought on “Big Brother Is (Still) Watching You: The Xinjiang Crack-Down

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s