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Tell the World: The Silent Plight of China’s Uighurs

How mass detention camps and heavy surveillance in Xinjiang are affecting Uighurs not just in China but also abroad.

Editor’s Note: This film is no longer available to view online.

Filmmaker: Sophie McNeill

Most members of the Australian Uighur community are missing someone.

They all say they have a family member detained, imprisoned or trapped in what the Chinese call the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwest China.

Many have remained silent, out of fear for those still there. But now, in a state of desperation, they are starting to come forward and make their stories known.

“My older brother, younger brothers and two younger sisters, five siblings were all taken by the Chinese government,” says Nurmuhammad Majid. “Masked police, heavily armed Special Force police, raided their home and taken them by covering their face and shackling them in front of the kids.”

Some Australian Uighurs like Hayrullah Mai – who was detained for three weeks in 2017 – have been held while visiting relatives in Xinjiang. Others, like Sadam Abdusalamu and Almas Nazamidin, have been separated from their wives and children, unable to return to their families or to bring them to safety in Australia.

The most sort of shocking or problematic aspect of this whole scheme in Xinjiang is that it's planned in such detail and enforced with such urgency

by Adrian Zenz, researcher

Xinjiang is an area inhabited by a large Uighur population – as well as other ethnic minorities – and in recent years they have been systematically rounded up, their passports confiscated and forced to provide biometric data for racial and religious profiling. It is estimated that as many as one million Uighur Chinese citizens are directly affected.

In August 2018, a United Nations committee said it had received reports suggesting that new Chinese government policies were transforming the region into “a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy”.

The Chinese government refers to the camps as “Re-education Centres” and has released glossy videos claiming the Uighurs are happy there.

But footage filmed by human rights activists at one of the camps shows cells fitted with double iron doors, keypad locks, cameras; and so-called classrooms where railings and wire separate the students from their teacher.

Researchers have now identified nearly 100 suspected facilities like these across Xinjiang.

“It’s basically clear that a huge percentage of the middle-age range, especially Uighurs aged between 18 and 45 years, a very large percentage of them are in some form of internment or prison,” says Adrian Zenz who has researched aspects of China’s operation against its ethnic minorities.

There are also concerns for the children of the detained Uighurs, who often seem to be removed from their communities and placed in orphanages or boarding schools where they are enrolled in programmes promoting Chinese assimilation.

“They want to eliminate the basic institutions, the basic elements of Uighur culture, Uighur society,” says anthropologist Darren Byler. “They’re trying to transform the entire society.”

At the same time, artificial intelligence is being used and developed to profile Uighurs, and evidence from satellite maps shows that mosques, other key sites of Uighur culture and even residential areas have been demolished.

“The most sort of shocking or problematic aspect of this whole scheme in Xinjiang is that it’s planned in such detail and enforced with such urgency,” Zenz says.

Through personal testimonies, research into satellite imagery, and information found in Chinese government documents online, this film examines the government’s policy of cultural and religious repression of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang – and shines a light on what some analysts believe may be the largest imprisonment of a group of people on the basis of ethnicity since the second world war.

Editor’s note: The Australian producers of ‘Tell the World’ invited the Chinese ambassador to Australia to be interviewed for this programme, but he declined. After ABC in Australia first aired the film in July 2019, the Chinese embassy in Canberra posted this statement on its website, referring to its government’s policies in Xinjiang as “a series of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures”.