Last updated: January 17, 2021
The following is a compendium of various scholarly and journalistic accounts of Xinjiang from visits within the previous five years. This includes sources that deny or downplay the idea of mass repression in the regions. This ongoing lists also has sources that deny or downplay the idea of mass repression in the region.
Dr. Byler is an outspoken scholar on Uyghur culture. Byler spent seven years at the University of Washington earning his Ph.D., which was granted in 2018. He has deep experience in Xinjiang, speaking both Uyghur and Mandarin, having lived there for extended periods of time for his research. He is very familiar with the region, and researched it even before his Ph.D.; his Master's thesis from Columbia similarly focused on Xinjiang. Some of his selected works:
◾ "Spirit Breaking: Capitalism and Terror in Northwest China", Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, July 2019. This exensively-sourced and well written paper summarizes some of the major themes of Byler's 300-page dissertation (available here). Byler situates the recent history of Xinjiang (which he refers to as Chinese Central Asia) in the context of counterterrorist rhetoric adopted in China via the Bush administration in the Global War on Terror following 9/11 as well as wider discussions of colonialism, noting the prominence of resource extraction in Xinjiang and the parallels to North American indigenous boarding schools designed to "cure" native peoples of their "savagery". The piece, like Byler's dissertation, grounds the theoretical applications with anecdotes from his friends and contacts made in the region, noting the collective trauma imposed upon Uyghurs, for whom "detention and harassment [are] a process of 'breaking their spirit'".
◾ "I researched Uighur society in China for 8 years and watched how technology opened new opportunities – then became a trap", The Conversation, September 2019. This more colloquial piece gives further background on Byler's work and his two years living in Xinjiang doing his Ph.D. research. The focus in particular is on state surveillance and the widespread adaptation of technology for the purposes of control and monitoring, another theme in his dissertation.
◾ "'Uyghurs are so bad': Chinese dinner table politics in Xinjiang", Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, July 2020. Beginning with an account of the dynamic between a Han family assigned to monitor a Uyghur family and the racist overtones inherent to this dynamic, Byler explores the racial divide in Xinjiang and the pervasive Islamophobia engendered by government campaigns against Turkic Muslims.
Jerry Grey is a retired London cop and British-born Australian who later moved to China and married a Chinese woman. He has biked in Xinjiang twice in the last decade, in 2014 and 2019, though as pointed out by others, the 2014 trip never ventured into the south of XInjiang, where most Uyghurs lived and where repression is accordigly the harshet. He maintains that descriptions of repression, genocide, and/or marginalization in the region are unfounded, based on his experiences there—or he did after he began writing for Chinese state media.
◾ "Why do we keep reading false reports about Xinjiang?" CGTN, November 2020. This piece, published by a state media outlet, recounts Grey's various trips to Xinjiang and the Uyghurs he met there, who he maintains were all perfectly fine. He states, without elaboration, that alleged "'Concentration camps' turned out to be schools or shopping centers" and emphasizes the threat of terrorism in the region. Jerry defends security checkpoints and the like, though he leaves out details from previous descriptions of his trips. Grey's account leaves out several details that he had previously written about in personal logs; see the highlighted text below:
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Grey admits to the existence of security checkpoints and the like, but maintains they are well within reasonable bounds.
- "We saw Uygur writing almost everywhere we looked and, one morning, I watched as thousands of kids walked into school through a security checkpoint designed to keep the kids safe."
- In 2019: "During the two weeks of riding, we saw security. We stopped and were checked through points outside towns or cities. But the check wasn't to stop us, it was to ensure we were lawful travelers and safe. Local people took 10 seconds to go through, we foreigners took a little longer as our passports won't swipe the automatic gates. But each time, the police were friendly, courteous and inquisitive about our journey."
Grey emphasizes that he saw nothing amiss during his trips in the region.
- "My wife and I had a week in Urumqi, looking at such tourist sites as the Grand Mosque and Bazaar at Erdaoqiao. We ate in Uygur restaurants and enjoyed observing Uygur culture, we spoke with many Uygurs and saw many Muslims at their mosques."
- "In 2014, I entered Xinjiang by bike. It was easy, the 35 days of an extended bike ride with a Western friend across China and into the heavily Muslim northwestern regions of Ningxia and Gansu. Before reaching Xinjiang's border, we had passed literally hundreds of mosques and a few Christian churches, all of which told us that religion, including Islam, is alive and flourishing."
- Grey maintains that given his background in law enforcement, "If anyone would know what a camp or a prison looks like, I would. ... But we camped overnight in the desert several times, traveled on both major and minor roads. We didn't see anything looking like a camp or a prison. What we did see was high-level security, some gas exploration works, some new constructions that were definitely not prisons. We met lots of police officers doing their jobs firmly."
Reading Grey's blog for his 2014 trip, it becomes clear he has left out major details in the CGTN article and his more recent accounts of Xinjiang. The omissions of the following text include:
- March 21, 2014: After being denied stays at several hotels (and "a farce with the local police"), Grey gives his opinion on securitization in Shanshan town (Piqan in Uyghur): "Shanshan is a tense town and we didn't feel comfortable there at all, there are many police officers walking in groups of thee and four as well as many police cars in the road and we saw at least three police stations, I have never seen an area with such an excessive number of police so we googled and found there were some riots here in June last year. (added later: We found out after getting access to a VPN, 2 police officers and 11 citizens died because the local government wanted the Muslims to shave their beards) We don't know much about the cause or reasons but the local government are definitely making sure it won't happen again."
- March 24, 2014: Grey describes needing to register with local police upon entering a town (leaving without telling them first): When "we arrived and tried to check in, the girl took our passports and made a call to the police office. No problem with checking in but we need to go to the police office first. Down the road to the police station where they were expecting us but it was a strange reception, the guy on the desk had an AK47 across his chest, I thought hat was overkill for the front desk of a police station. He then told me we had to take our passports to the copy shop and get them copied [...] Then, after telling us it was ok to go back to the hotel, he gave us a very stern warning to come back to the station tomorrow before we left to go to Urumqi. Apparently we have to register our departure too from Dabancheng!" Grey and his biking partner left the next morning; the station was closed.
- On March 26, 2014, Grey and his biking partner were resting in Urumqi. Their wives, both Chinese, had out flown out to meet them. They went without their husbands to "a village that foreigners can't go to".
- Despite his claims that security checkpoints were never an issue for him for CGTN, his blog suggests serious hassle on March 27, 2014: "There were some issues about being allowed to enter the border region and there is a very strict crossing point about 30k from the border where we were indeed stopped and if it had not been for our driver's connections that would have been the end of our ride. ... [The Khorgas police chief] told us not to worry about the travel permit he would arrange our entry and escort us but we could not ride to the border. So, we packed the bikes into the cars and drove the 80k to a point where we were stopped by regular army officers at the entry to Khorgas town. They were expecting us, knew the registration number of the cars we were in and waved us on with a smile and a salute. About 5k later we were stopped by some SWAT police officers because they saw foreigners in the car. They were not interested in the Chinese people but they checked our passports and visas and welcomed us to China very politely, it's easy to be polite when you're holding an AK47. Sorry but no pictures of all this, the area is too sensitive."
- Compare the above with Grey's account of his 2019 bikeride, where security officials were exceedingly polite and "suggested possible alternative routes for us but never, at any stage told us we couldn’t go along a specific path or road."
◾ The remainder of Grey's "work" is on a Medium account or in various podcasts, which seem to reiterate the same basic points outlined above. He also is highly critical of Adrian Zenz, as shown in this piece.
Rajagopalan is a journalist with Buzzfeed News. While working as Buzzfeed's Beijing bureau chief, Rajagopalan published several groundbreaking stories on mass incarceration and reeducation in the region. She was forced to leave China in 2018 after the government refused to renew her visa without explanation (having done similarly in retaliation for French reporter Ursula Gauthier after she criticized the Chinese government's attempts to link the 2015 Paris Attacks to Uyghurs in Xinjiang).
◾ "This Is What A 21st-Century Police State Really Looks Like", Buzzfeed, October 2017. Rajagopalan went to Kashgar in 2017. "Over the past two months, I interviewed more than two dozen Uighurs, including recent exiles and those who are still in Xinjiang, about what it’s like to live there. The majority declined to be named because they were afraid that police would detain or arrest their families if their names appeared in the press." Additionally, Rajagapolan references research by Adrian Zenz as well as Chinese officials and laws. Includes short quotes from Uyghur Human Rights Project.
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Rajagopalan documents extensive surveillance measures deployed against Uyghurs to police and prevent religious expression considered undesirable.
- "In some parts of the region, Uighurs have been made to download an app ... called Jingwang [净网], or 'web cleansing,' [which] works to monitor 'illegal religious' content and 'harmful information,' according to news reports." The news report linked was from Hong Kong Free Press.
- Rajagopalan states that at a checkpoint near Kashgar, "a police officer stood near the entrance to check commuters’ cell phones for banned apps and messages (as a foreigner I was sent to a separate line and not asked for my phone)."
- "Petrol stations have a similar setup. At a station I visited in Kashgar in September, visitors were stepping out of their cars to have their faces scanned and matched with identity cards before filling up."
- Rajagopalan accurately notes that the extensive surveillance apparatus is not exclusive to Xinjiang; while there it "may be particularly harsh," it is also true "that the government is expanding the use of the technology in the rest of the country, too."
Case of D., a "young Uighur woman in Turkey"
- D. could no longer communicate with her grandmother in a small village in Xinjiang. Phone calls with her would result in police visiting her grandmother's home.
- D.'s relatives were worried of eavesdropping on calls with her, and were not granted their passports to visit her for her wedding in 2018.
Case of R., "a Uighur student just out of undergrad"
- "In March, R. told me, he found out that his mother had disappeared into a political education center. His father was running the farm alone, and no one in the family could reach her. R. felt desperate. Two months later, he finally heard from his mother. In a clipped phone call, she told him how grateful she was to the Chinese Communist Party, and how good she felt about the government. ... Since that call, his parents’ phones have been turned off. He hasn’t heard from them since May."
Case of T., a writer from Urumqi who now lives with his wife and daughter in the US
- T.'s account lines up with the outside scholarly understanding of the deployment of mass internment: "For years, an official representing the neighborhood’s Communist Party committee would visit [T.'s] home every week and ask a set of questions that soon became mundane: Who had come to visit? Was anyone pregnant? Had anyone changed jobs? She would then report the information to the local police department, he said. Then in April, the questions changed. The official began to ask whether the family was Muslim, and how they practiced. T. had never been very religious. But he says he respected Islam because it’s a big part of Uighur culture. The family kept a small collection of religious texts on their bookshelves, as well as four prayer rugs. But the questions made him nervous. He told the official he was not a believer. A month later, the disappearances started. Friends would vanish in the middle of the night, spirited away by police to political education centers. His neighbors began to disappear, he said, one after the other. T. was terrified."
- "The first people in T.’s apartment building to disappear, he said, were those who had traveled abroad and returned, particularly to Muslim countries, from Malaysia to Egypt. Then, in June, he says the police began to conduct random checks of pedestrians’ mobile phones at street corners, bus stops, and petrol stations, sometimes downloading their contents to handheld devices."
Case of Abduweli Ayup, imprisoned for 15 months for illegal fundraising "in 2013 after he worked to set up kindergartens and other schools teaching children in the Uighur language"
- After his release, Ayup continued to live in Xinjiang. In 2015, checkpoint officers saw an essay he had written about topics ranging from "views on taboo subjects from Uighur culture to dictatorships as a system of government."
- Thus, "Abduweli was detained immediately, strip searched, and interrogated for hours about his writing by a group of six officers, he said. One of the officers told him if he was caught with essays like that on his laptop again, he would be sent back to prison."
- He decided to flee after the incident in 2015.
- Abduweli was rendered stateless in December 2017 after the PRC cancelled his passport.
Rajagopalan located the Kashgar Professional Skills Education and Training Center.
- After taking a picture of it, she says "a police officer ran out of the small station by the gate and demanded I delete it." The Center was previously a school.
- Here is another image Rajagopalan was able to keep. The red text in the centr reads: "Cherish ethnic unity as you cherish your own eyes." Below it are listed the 12 Core Socialist Values, and above it "Equality • Unity • Mutual Aid • Harmony".
◾ In a podcast interview with the National Review in 2019, Rajagopalan talks about how she backpacked in Xinjiang as a student, noting the stark difference years later as she returned working for Buzzfeed. Speaking of her experiences in Kashgar: "Kashgar is very multicultural, and there are lots of colorful things: night markets, vendors selling pomegranate juice, street life, music … When I visited in 2017, all of that was gone. Storefronts had bars on them. When you walk through the historic part of the city, people are literally not speaking. You can feel how tense they are."
◾ (Not first-hand, but worth noting) A four-part Buzzfeed series on mass internment and accompanying labor in Xinjiang (Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ), based variously on satellite imagery, maps data, and interviews with several dozen former detainees. Co-written with Allison Killing, a British architect, and Christo Buschek. This series details the extensive scale of internment camps, abuses alleged to take place therein, and evidence of forced labor tied to the camps. 428 camp-like locations were found, of which 315 the team believed to be in current use as part of the program of mass internment.
Expand for additional notes on the series
- This series was funded at least partially by three grant organizations: two independent non-profits, the Pulitzer Center and the Eyebeam Center, and a US government-funded non-profit, the Open Technology Fund. The latter has funded various projects in support of privacy and Internet access. As a government proxy, it could be a potential source of bias.
- A notable feature in the series is the initial method of identifying camps. China places several restrictions on geospatial data, including the occasional blanking of sensitive areas on Baidu Maps, which Killing detailed in a follow-up piece. This enabled Buzzfeed to greatly narrow down the range of potential camp locations.
- The blanking has largely since disappeared (Anecdotally, I personally recall encountering such blanking in my own work in late 2019/early 2020). Killing states Baidu did not respond to requests for comment; it appears the company eliminated the blanking in reaction.
Gerry Shih is a journalist for the Washington Post. Previously, he worked for the Associated Press in China, where he oversaw significant reporting done by the agency there (for the following accounts, AP notes its researched involved in-person visits to the region; I attribute these to Shih, though I do not know if he himself or others went).
◾ "In western China, thought police instill fear", AP News, December 2017. Reporting based off of "rare interviews with Uighurs who recently left China, a review of government procurement contracts and unreported documents, and a trip through southern Xinjiang". AP interviewed "more than a dozen Uighurs", most of whom on the condition of anonymity.
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Prominent throughout the piece are descriptions of intensely policed spaces and intrusive security presences.
- "In Hotan, police depots with flashing lights and foot patrols are set up every 500 meters. ... Police checkpoints on every other block stop cars to check identification and smartphones for religious content. ... Shoppers entering the Hotan bazaar must pass through metal detectors and place their national identification cards on a reader while having their faces scanned."
Details are drawn from testimony provide further allegations of intense, pervasive surveillance that endangers Uyghurs within Xinjiang. Not all are named.
- "When Salih Hudayar, an American Uighur graduate student, last called his 70-something grandfather this summer, the elderly man told him kindly not to call again. He later heard his grandfather had been sent to an indoctrination camp."
- "A Uighur businessman from Kashgar who fled China said his four brothers and his father were in prison because of his escape and that families tasked with spying on one another in his community had also been punished."
- "A Uighur student who moved to Washington following the crackdown this summer [in 2017] said that after his move, his wife, a government worker still in Urumqi, messaged to say the police would show up at her home in 20 minutes. She had to say goodbye: after that she would delete him permanently from her contacts list."
Citing a document reviewed by AP reporters (but not made available), AP says there is a 100-point grading system by police presences in neighborhoods towards an overall 'risk score' of sorts. "Those of Uighur ethnicity are automatically docked 10 points. Being aged between 15 and 55, praying daily, or having a religious education, all result in 10 point deductions. A neighborhood police official in Urumqi surnamed Tao confirmed that every community committee in the city needed to conduct similar assessments."
The campaign in Xinjiang is explicitly carried out through a starkly consequentialist counterterrorist framework: "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’s mass indoctrination camps evoke Cultural Revolution", AP News, May 2018. Based primarily on interviews of five individuals: four prisoners and one former instructor. The testimony as a whole describes a repressive environment that denigrates major aspects of Uyghur culture, causing great distress to detainees, who are not given due process. Violence/torture as a form of punishment was not uncommon, though not completely indiscriminate: "Violence was not regularly dispensed, but every internee AP spoke to saw at least one incident of rough treatment or beatings."
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Bulk of the coverage focuses of Omir Bekali, a Kazakh Muslim who was detained beginning in March 2017, first in a prison and then an interment camp. Bekali claims that detainees were forced to "disavow* their Islamic beliefs, criticize themselves and their loved ones and give thanks to the ruling Communist Party." When he refused, Bekali claimed he was subject to torture.
- * disavow: There is not widespread evidence that detainees are systematically required to commit apostasy outright. Detainees are, however, required to renounce any aspects of their beliefs identified as problematic by the Chinese government, which for many Muslims might be functionally equivalent. (As the 2017 Regulations show, what is considered problematic is extremely broad and includes perfectly normal behavior.) Indeed, there is substantial testimony (see for instance this 2018 New York Times piece) that coercive pressure to change religious beliefs are high in the camps.
- Veracity: AP cited "two Kazakh diplomats [who] confirmed he [Bekali] was held for seven months and then sent to re-education." The diplomats were not named.
- Bekali claims he was released after a stint in solitary confinement ending on November 24. He says a policeman told him the camp had treated him too harshly. He also claims bathing was restricted, as it could resemble Islamic ritual ablution (wudu). Bekali was given a 14-day visa; he left China on December 4, 2017.
- "Bekali did not want the AP to publish his account for fear that his sister and mother in China would be detained and sent to re-education. But on March 10, back in China, the police took his sister, Adila Bekali. A week later, on March 19, they took his mother, Amina Sadik. And on April 24, his father, Ebrayem."
Shih writes: "In a June 2017 paper published by a state-run journal, a researcher from Xinjiang’s Communist Party School reported that most of 588 surveyed participants did not know what they had done wrong when they were sent to re-education. But by the time they were released, nearly all — 98.8 percent— had learned their mistakes, the paper said." (This is a reference to Qiu 2017, which I partially translated here.)
AP also states it interviewed "three other former internees and a former instructor in other centers who corroborated Bekali’s depiction. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their families in China."
- One unnamed woman from Hotan said she was held in the city in 2016. She claimed prisoners were "forced to apologize for wearing long clothes in Muslim style, praying, teaching the Quran to their children and asking imams to name their children."
- A former instructor and Xinjiang TV anchor whose name was given as Eldost was forcibly recruited "to teach Chinese history and culture in an indoctrination camp because he spoke excellent Mandarin." AP stated he escaped China through bribery in August 2017.
- Eldost said there were three groupings/classification levels of detainees: the first, of least threat, "typically consisted of illiterate minority farmers who didn’t commit any ostensible crimes other than not speaking Chinese." The second was "people who were caught at home or on their smartphones with religious content or so-called separatist materials, such as lectures by the Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti."
- Finally, a group "made up of those who had studied religion abroad and came back, or were seen to be affiliated with foreign elements. In the latter cases, internees were often were sentenced to prison terms of 10 to 15 years, Eldost said."
- Another unnamed former detainee from Hotan said he was held in a small, newly built facility in 2015. "There, a government instructor claimed said [sic] that Uighur women historically did not wear underwear, braided their hair to signal their sexual availability, and had dozens of sexual partners." AP did not state how long he was held.
- Kayrat Samarkan is a Chinese Kazakh detained in December 2017 and interned at Karamagay. He attempted to commit suicide three months later, but was unsuccessful. Samarkan described multiple forms of torture imposed: "Those who didn’t obey, were late to class or got into fights were put for 12 hours in a loose body-suit that was made of iron and limited their movement ... Those who still disobeyed would be locked in a tiger chair for 24 hours. As one form of punishment, he said, instructors would press an internee’s head in a tub of ice and water."
Dr. Sarah Tynen is an American researcher at the University of Colorado—Boulder. She has lived in China for a total of five years, two of which were in Xinjiang, where she conducted research there for her 2019 Ph.D. thesis, which included interviews with 66 Han Chinese and 98 Uyghurs. She speaks both Uyghur and Mandarin. Tynen succinctly lays our the philosophy behind her work on her website—she asks: "What happens when a group of people don’t fit in to the vision of the people in power? The people in power make room for the people who do fit into their program by incarcerating those who do not. Stereotypes about dangerous places matter because such ideas cause isolation, erasure, and incarceration. I believe a more just and inclusive world is possible if we connect with so-called dangerous people and places rather than avoid them, and listen rather than silence. The story is not so different in our own country."
◾ "I was in China doing research when I saw my Uighur friends disappear," The Conversation, March 2020. In this article, Tynen details some of the more disturbing trends and events she witnessed while living in Xinjiang, while also linking to other scholars' published academic research that situates what she was seeing on the ground. She was there for most of 2017, the year when the current campaign of mass internment is commonly considered to have begun.
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- "I saw the early years of the surveillance in Urumqi and by February 2017 some of my Uighur neighbors started to disappear."
- Tynen says through her research, she discovered residential permit rules varied throughout Urumqi: "City resident permit applications in Uighur-majority districts in Urumqi were under stricter regulations than those in Han-majority districts in Urumqi." She published this research in the journal Territory, Politics, Governance 8.1 in 2018. These disparate requirements were particularly hard on poorer Uyghurs.
- "Regular home inspections"—which Tynen also refers to as "raids"—"were carried out by the neighborhood committees, primarily to ensure migrant Uighurs complied with registration requirements. They had been occurring on a regular basis since 2014." Tynen said she experienced one such raid while visiting a friend.
- "As the year 2017 progressed, Uighur migrant friends began to tell me, in whispers or coded text messages, that they had to go back home and they could no longer contact me. I never heard from many of them again. For those that stayed in the city, I frequently heard stories about friends’ relatives being taken in the middle of the night."
- "Religious practices started to change. For example, during my fieldwork from 2014 to 2016, I witnessed people who prayed, fasted and wore headscarves openly. Beginning in early 2017, however, the authorities began detaining Uighurs for any sign of religious activity in Urumqi."
- "Uighurs censored their speech. By spring 2017, I stopped hearing people openly give thanks to Allah, the Arabic word for God, after meals. Even saying the words 'Ramadan fasting' became taboo."
- "From February to October 2017, the government changed the rules that affected Uigher people’s social lives. For example, in a culture where asking guests to stay overnight was once common, police first began requiring overnight guests to register their stay. Then they said only daytime visitors were allowed to visit Uighur homes."
- "I’m not in contact with any of my Uighur friends because contacting a foreigner would be grounds for detainment. I don’t know how many of them are in detention camps."