The white Volkswagen was waiting with its lights off, nose pointed to the street, idling outside the Ibis hotel in Urumqi. It looked out of place, but after an unexpected stay in forced quarantine, it’s hard to say what is normal. I ignored it – until it reappeared in front of me, turning into heavy traffic after I flagged a taxi.
For the next few hours, it stalked my movements. When I walked, its occupants – a short man with a nervous air and a taller man in a trench coat – followed on foot, tailing me into shops, peering into restaurants and watching as I photographed darkened mosques.
Satellite images analyzed by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute show that two-thirds of the Xinjiang region’s mosques have been damaged or demolished. But I was here to see what is not visible from the sky: the mosque in Hotan that has vanished into a parking lot; the ones still standing in Urumqi whose gates have been locked, the buildings empty at an hour that, in most of the Islamic world, would bring large crowds of the faithful for Friday evening prayers. Here, Muslims are invisible worshippers in one of world’s most closely watched places.
Xinjiang has become a model surveillance state, tracking people with pervasive cameras, scanners that identify passing phones and steel gate systems that require swiping a national identification card before entering residential compounds or mosques.
Now, the coronavirus has given new cause to monitor people and restrict their movements.
When China began its effort to incarcerate Muslims for political indoctrination, part of what was called a campaign against religious extremism, local officials turned to the language of public health. “We have to take out the ‘scalpel’ and dig out the focus of infection … [and] never let these ideological viruses endanger our physical and mental health,” said Ablet Ezizi, a Communist Party official at the People’s Hospital of Xinjiang, in 2017. “The facts show that the religious extremism and terrorism are twin viruses,” state media reported in 2018.
Amid the spread of a real virus, the two worlds have coalesced.
Less than 24 hours before landing in Urumqi, I was tested for COVID-19 in Beijing. It came back negative. Xinjiang authorities, however, blocked my entry. They pointed to a line of computer-generated text on my phone in an app that tracks travel and indicated, in red letters, that I had been to a part of Inner Mongolia where new COVID-19 cases have emerged. I had visited the region two weeks prior, and my time there had not posed problems when I returned to Beijing or even when I went to Wuhan. Not so in Xinjiang, where the red text became an arbiter of freedom. An ambulance took me from the tarmac to a quarantine hotel, where I was told to wait for the red text to disappear.
Like other parts of China, Xinjiang has seen several new outbreaks, prompting understandable caution.
But landing here in the midst of a pandemic offered a way to understand how the freedoms promised by the Chinese constitution can be dispatched by powerful local authorities and an unbending reliance on technology.
The region has been a pioneer in the use of digital tools to manage the population. Networked systems and artificial intelligence have been used to create a nascent “predictive policing program” whose algorithms, Human Rights Watch has shown, dispatch officers to investigate and arrest people based on indicators considered dangerous – such as stockpiling food. In Xinjiang, it has become natural to rely on a computerized system to authorize detention. And the priorities of the state take unquestioned precedence.
My own quarantine was comfortable. I was ensconced in a hotel where meals were hot, tasty and delivered by a cheery woman in a full-body hazmat suit.
But it was hard not to think of the way quarantine has been used to incarcerate others, including Merdan Ghappar, a Uyghur model who shared videos of himself handcuffed to a steel-frame bed.
Within 12 hours, the red text was gone and I left quarantine – after submitting to another COVID-19 test. Xinjiang has made liberal use of medical testing that includes the widespread collection of DNA from Uyghurs, which officials have characterized as the provision of free health services.
I walked out of the hotel – with the white Volkswagen close behind.
From that moment, I’m not aware of a time when I was not watched outside the confines of a hotel room. At the airport in Urumqi, a police officer stopped me and another Western journalist with whom I had travelled. The officer asked what we were doing, then entered identification information into a cellphone app. Upon landing in Hotan, two officers intercepted us and did the same.
As we drove out from Hotan airport, unmarked cars fell in behind.
The constancy of intrusive surveillance has changed journalism in Xinjiang. People living there can be questioned, and far worse, for interacting with a foreign reporter. Many correspondents in China have concluded that the risks to sources are so great that it is no longer ethical to interview people on the ground in Xinjiang.
It is an hour drive from Hotan airport to the Lop County Hair Product Industrial Park, a place held up by the United States as a key example of the region’s use of forced labour. The rapid development of labour-intensive factories, and the use of Uyghurs as their workforce, is the latest chapter in a series of Xinjiang policies that authorities call a fight against poverty and extremism, while others, Canadian parliamentarians among them, condemn as ethnic cleansing and genocide.
We had only one day to see for ourselves. No hotel in Hotan will accept foreigners at the moment, citing pandemic restrictions that have proven helpful in expanding other controls. In the city of Kashgar, any public space – pedestrian underpasses included – is currently accessible only to people who can scan phone codes that register their entry and exit. In Hotan, workers took a throat swab for a mandatory COVID-19 test before we could leave the airport.
Government officials have said Xinjiang is open and that visitors are welcome.
But in Lop County, they appeared committed to hemming us in. Men on the road blocked our taxi from a main access point to the industrial park. So we circled around, to the rear of a development area that has quickly taken root on a sweep of wind-blown desert. We found a sandy construction road and began to walk. Almost immediately, two men ran up, demanding we delete photos. They did not identify themselves, by name or affiliation. But they stood in front of us until we could show them the pictures were gone.
For two hours, the men remained glued to us, one walking a step behind, eyes locked on my phone to ensure I did not use it to capture images of what we passed: factories, residential buildings, a prison-like facility, educational institutions and a large police compound – the constituents of a place human-rights researchers and foreign governments believe is built to profit from forced labour.
Chinese authorities deny this, saying the workers there are paid and sign employment contracts. A representative of one factory later said, by telephone, that anyone suggesting the existence of forced labour is a “big fat liar.”
As we neared the centre of the park, the effort to obstruct our reporting intensified. At the entrance to the Lop County park, a hostile crowd gathered, grabbing at a phone and once again demanding that we delete photos. None wore uniforms, but they physically blocked our way until they were sure there was no way to undelete the images. A few steps later, as we approached an intersection on Peaceful Safe Road, they insisted we go no further. We were pushed and grabbed by men in civilian clothes who provided no identification. “You have no right to go on ahead,” they yelled. “This is not a public road.”
None of this is particularly notable in modern China. In September, an officer in Inner Mongolia grabbed a Los Angeles Times reporter by the throat and threw her into a cell. In Xinjiang, authorities have created a playbook for frustrating journalists, who have reported staged traffic accidents and construction work and safety excuses that strain credulity. In one case, a TV crew was told it could not proceed because sunshine had rendered the freeway asphalt too soft.
In Lop County, however, somehow those obstacles failed to materialize. What emerged instead was a slightly clearer image of what authorities have tried to keep hidden. At the Peaceful Safe Road intersection, we succeeded in pushing past the men and, a few strides later, caught sight of a high-security facility with two-storey grey walls and round corner watchtowers that resembled the turrets of a fortress. It looked like a prison, just 1,500 metres from the factory district.
I slipped out my phone and snapped a picture.
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