Nobody knows what happened to the Uighur student after he returned to China from Egypt and was taken away by police.
Not his village neighbors in China’s far west, who haven’t seen him in months. Not his former classmates, who fear Chinese authorities beat him to death.
Not his mother, who lives in a two-story house at the far end of a country road, alone behind walls bleached by the desert sun. She opened the door one afternoon for an unexpected visit by Associated Press reporters, who showed her a picture of a handsome young man posing in a park, one arm in the wind.
“Yes, that’s him,” she said as tears began streaming down her face. “This is the first time I’ve heard anything of him in seven months. What happened?”
“Is he dead or alive?”
The student’s friends think he joined the thousands — possibly tens of thousands — of people, rights groups and academics estimate, who have been spirited without trial into secretive detention camps for alleged political crimes that range from having extremist thoughts to merely traveling or studying abroad. The mass disappearances, beginning the past year, are part of a sweeping effort by Chinese authorities to use detentions and data-driven surveillance to impose a digital police state in the region of Xinjiang and over its Uighurs, a 10-million strong, Turkic-speaking Muslim minority that China says has been influenced by Islamic extremism.
Along with the detention camps, unprecedented levels of police blanket Xinjiang’s streets. Cutting-edge digital surveillance systems track where Uighurs go, what they read, who they talk to and what they say. And under an opaque system that treats practically all Uighurs as potential terror suspects, Uighurs who contact family abroad risk questioning or detention.
The campaign has been led by Chen Quanguo, a Chinese Communist Party official, who was promoted in 2016 to head Xinjiang after subduing another restive region — Tibet. Chen vowed to hunt down Uighur separatists blamed for attacks that have left hundreds dead, saying authorities would “bury terrorists in the ocean of the people’s war and make them tremble.”
Through rare interviews with Uighurs who recently left China, a review of government procurement contracts and unreported documents, and a trip through southern Xinjiang, the AP pieced together a picture of Chen’s war that’s ostensibly rooting out terror — but instead instilling fear.
Most of the more than a dozen Uighurs interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity for fear that Chinese authorities would punish them or their family members. The AP is withholding the student’s name and other personal information to protect people who fear government retribution.
Chen and the Xinjiang regional government did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But China’s government describes its Xinjiang security policy as a “strike hard” campaign that’s necessary following a series of attacks in 2013 and 2014, including a mass knifing in a train station that killed 33. A Hotan city propaganda official, Bao Changhui, told the AP: “If we don’t do this, it will be like several years ago — hundreds will die.”
China also says the crackdown is only half the picture. It points to decades of heavy economic investment and cultural assimilation programs and measures like preferential college admissions for Uighurs.
Officials say the security is needed now more than ever because Uighur militants have been fighting alongside Islamic extremists in Syria. But Uighur activists and international human rights groups argue that repressive measures are playing into the hands of the likes of al-Qaida, which has put out Uighur-language recruiting videos condemning Chinese oppression.
“So much hate and desire for revenge are building up,” said Rukiye Turdush, a Uighur activist in Canada. “How does terrorism spread? When people have nowhere to run.”
The government has referred to its detention program as “vocational training,” but its main purpose appears to be indoctrination. A memo published online by the Xinjiang human resources office described cities, including Korla, beginning “free, completely closed-off, militarized” training sessions in March that last anywhere from 3 months to 2 years.
Uighurs study “Mandarin, law, ethnic unity, de-radicalization, patriotism” and abide by the “five togethers” — live, do drills, study, eat and sleep together.